Paul Ramirez Jonas’ The Commons, at Alexander Gray Associates, takes a form of art that has become banal and makes it quite weird. The artist has made an equestrian statue without a rider, functioning as a corkboard for public discourse, and placed it in a gallery. The result is fun, but very odd.
What’s fun is that it’s a bulletin board, where visitors can read notes left by others and post his own. This is an amusing, interactive activity. It takes place entirely on the plinth, though, leaving the horse as a prop. It itself is best described as a corkboard in the shape of a statue, since very little effort is made to hide the artifice or bring it to the standards of a good public sculpture. The sculptural form that the corkboard takes is a signifier and not an end in itself.
What’s striking is that this archetypal equestrian statue is riderless, a revision of its meaning, since what parts remain of the artwork are those that are normally used as a predicate to indicate the greatness of the mounted subject. The leader is gone, leaving us with a description of nothing, or with the description itself as referent. The artist intends this as a celebration of the common folk who are the vehicle that propels the leader. That would make this a statue of the multitude, which at once symbolizes their power and also enables it to be exerted as they post their notes on it. Yet it doesn’t really work that way, since what the horse has become is only a sign of absence. The emperor is not atop the horse, but neither is the multitude.
The Commons’ location is also jarring. The commons are physical places that host the public sphere, in the street, in print or online. Alexander Gray Associates is not public; it is a private space opened to the public. The Commons takes a sculpture out of a plaza, where the masses must pass by it, and places it in an interior space that people only go to in order to see the piece. This displacement changes far more than that of the rider. On the one hand, it removes the politics almost completely; it is ineffective as a locus of public discourse and all notes on it will only go between members of a homogenous group of gallery browsers. In this context the missing leader is the artist himself, who has simply provided a blank wall on which the viewers create their own show.