When Context becomes Experience – Process and Materiality in the Aesthetic Effect of the Work of Hunter Cross

by Till Richter


In the usual, superficial, mode of perception the context of an artwork is often neglected even by the “professional” viewer or, worse still, becomes a fetish rendering the actual artwork a mere by-product of an intellectual observation. The risk of falling into the “context trap” is particularly high when we are confronted with so-called conceptual art, where the process and material seem to be more important than the aesthetic effect. To the defense of people who have fallen into this trap it must be said that frequently the artworks themselves invite a mode of perception that is either entirely aesthetic, discarding deeper considerations of context, or entirely contextual, dumping any aesthetic experience into the undignified domain of pretty.

This is impossible to do with the art of Hunter Cross. One of the most outstanding qualities of his works is that they find just the right equilibrium between intellectual pondering of the conceptual side and sensual pleasure on the aesthetic side. They do this by making the context an essential part of the work. The context becomes part of the aesthetic experience, or rather, the work functions as a catalyst that makes the context experiential. We can see this process at work in Salvaged Clipboards, 2007 where Cross found boxes of clipboards under the seats of the Salvage Vanguard Theater, a former warehouse in Austin. The clipboards are vestiges of the building’s former warehouse function but they are also symbols of taking an accounting record of things with a sharp pencil. So just like an accountant would take a record of the warehouse’s stock, of which the clipboards were a part, Cross records and notes the fact that this theater was formerly a warehouse. He salvages the spiritus loci by salvaging clipboards from a place that was salvaged to become a theater. Finally, the form of the work might conjure up images of an undulating curtainwaves of applause or turning pages in the script of a play. So the materials and process result in an aesthetic effect that is directly related to and grounded in the context of the work.

The artist does not only make the work’s context the basis for the work and makes it experiential but very often he also changes the context of the work significantly though with minimal intervention, as is the case with Blinded by the Light from 2006. At this point, in the interest of full disclosure, I note that this work is still installed at my house and that I have worked with the artist as a curator and writer on several occasions.  I asked him to install a site-specific work at my house for the annual Eklektikos event, which is best described as a “curated party” where I commission or show works of emerging artists to a larger public. Cross had free reign in the house, with the only limitation that he could not damage the structure of the dwelling or the other works in the collection and that I could only cover material cost up to $100. I knew from earlier works that he was interested in working with what he finds on site and adding only minimal outside materials for maximumeffect. In Blinded by the Light he twisted and warped the existing window blinds into shapes that are more reminiscent of Santiago Calatrava’s gravity defying architecture then of a pre-fabricated building in an underprivileged Austin suburb. The function of the blinds, namely providing shade, is almost entirely negated or even turned into the opposite. I cannot close the blinds anymore and the work actually only achieves its full potential at night, when the integrated lights are turned on and the reflection can be seen in the windows. What should shelter from the light and provide privacy, now lets light in and exposes. This has factually changed my daily behavior because there are things I cannot do anymore out of fear of being seen. I take this as a small and necessary sacrifice I have to make in order to live with a magnificent work that changes the way my guests and I perceive the house. Maybe I am blinded by the light.

As we can see in Blinded by the Light and Salvaged Clipboards, the title of his works is often a symbolic play on words. In Remote Networks, 2006 Cross constructs objects that work on a great number of levels through the multitude of associations they trigger. What are these strange structures of remote control buttons and staples in a backlit acrylic case? Are they left over electronic components, circuit boards gone wild, nuclear models, a weird species endowed with typographical intelligence in the showcase of a natural history museum in a future we don’t want to encounter too soon? Or are they post-modern quipus, mnemonic devices to remind us what life is really about? The title Remote Networks includes all these interpretations and more. At the same times it links the object back to its material origin: the buttons of remote controls. Hence the context of this particular work is not site-specific but portable and is included in the material the work is made of.

Remote Networks and Salvaged Clipboards also have another feature in common that is even more readily apparent in Reminder, 2005 and Stack, 2006. The aesthetic effect in the work of Hunter Cross frequently relies on the use of a composite structure made of multiple modular units. The whole is made up from similar partsput into form and order by the artist. Cross does not or hardly modify the original appearance of the material. To keep the context it is necessary to leave the original material largely unaltered. In Stack, organizational stickers in the shape of arrows in pink and turquoise are arranged into twirling garlands that seem to become serpentine sea creatures frozen between a laboratory’s giant microscope plates. The material here stays the same, it is the process that alters its aesthetic perception from something utilitarian that is never given a second glance to something that fascinates the viewer with its beauty. In Reminder, the Post-It® notes are denoted as the paper leaves of a tree by what’s missing from them, namely the cut-out shape of a leaf. The tree itself only exists as the artist’s drawing of the tree on the Platonic cave wall as it were. Each Post-It® note on its own looks just like any other yellow self-adhesive reminder paper but by giving those modular units a common denominator in the form of a tree, each Post-It® note becomes a unique and numbered leaf with a potential meaning of its own and a definite meaning and function within the context of the tree.

Where many other artists take a found object and insert it into a completely new context in the Duchampian method, Cross leaves the context intact and uses it to reveal the deeper meaning behind the work. His objects are not so much found objects as they are researched objects. It is this artistic research that connects the identity of the object, the artist and the viewer to create a new context that is both unique and can be experienced through the aesthetic form of the artwork.