Aug 9, 2011

Technological Reliquary

Paul Thek - "Untitled" - 1966-67, from the series Technological Reliquaries.
Credit: Watermill Center Collection

“Afflict the comfortable; comfort the afflicted” ~ Paul Thek

The Brooklyn artist Paul Thek (1933-1988) was a sculptor, painter, and one of the first artists to create environments or installations. As he frequently used perishable materials, Thek accepted the ephemeral nature of his art, and was aware, as writer Gary Indiana has noted, of “a sense of our own transience and that of everything around us.”

 Paul Thek - "Meat" - 1964 - from the 1966-67 series Technological Reliquaries.

In the mid-1960s, Paul Thek began a group of artworks that presented meat in vitrines. He followed these sculptures with ones utilizing casts of his body parts. Both sets of works he called Technological Reliquaries.
“The mold castings, also those of his own body parts, wax replicas of human tissue, hair, teeth, and bones in Plexiglas cases, which he produced between 1964 and 1967 as Technological Reliquaries, in their mixture of desire and repulsion, decay and pathos, held up the truth of the body to the world of commodities and the transfiguration of the everyday, as well as the idealization and dramatization of corporative minimal art.”
    ~ From the exhibition catalogue for Paul Thek in the Context of Today’s Contemporary Art
        Sammlung Falckenberg (May 31 - September 14, 2008)

These works were a direct critic of the commercialism and the cool detachment of Minimalist and Pop Art, movements that removed the visible hand of the artist. Thek was also protesting the U.S. involvement in Vietnam.
"I was amused at the idea of meat under Plexiglas because I thought it made fun of the scene--where the name of the game seemed to be 'how cool you can be' and 'how refined.' Nobody ever mentioned anything that seemed real. The world was falling apart, anyone could see it." ~ Paul Thek, 1981 

Enshrining his work in reliquaries, objects designed to hold and make precious, sacred objects, Thek used both the literal entropy of meat and the suggested decay of the body to ask viewers to contemplate the fragility of life that is our shared human experience.
He began to do these glass and steel vitrines but they were filled with corrosive flesh, which he was sculpting out of something called dental moulage, which is a very quick setting wax, and putting these horrifying lumps of flesh or in some cases beautifully crafted arms and legs that were sheathed in things like butterfly wings. So, it was either these limbs of heroes from this impossible mythological past or this raw flesh. It was really his response to an art world that he thought was completely incapable of responding to the urgency of the culture in which it existed. ~ Richard Flood via Walker Art Center

The piece he was to be most infamous for was his 1967 sculpture The Tomb (later refered to as Death of a Hippie by critics), a life-sized effigy of the artist laid to rest in a pink ziggurat. A full-size cast of his body lies entombed dressed in a suit jacket and jeans, painted a pale pink, and adorned with jewelry made of human hair and gold.

Fred W. McDarrah
Paul Thek Sitting Shiva for Dead Hippie (Effigy), September 16, 1967
The Tomb was destroyed after languishing in storage. Thek had grown tired of the work, saying, “I really don’t want to have to do that piece AGAIN! Oh God no! Not THAT one. Imagine having to bury yourself over and over.”

In 1979, Thek wrote to a priest, "I am OK, still trying to be 'an artist' in the secular world . . . as you know, the world is the world, very 'worldly,' etc., etc."

Paul Thek: Diver, a retrospective which opened at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York in October 2010, was on view at the Hammer Museum, Los Angeles until September 4, 2011.

Hujar's images of Paul Thek's The Tomb are featured in the exhibition Influential Friends by Peter Hujar November 1 – December 10, 2011 at John Mc Whinnie @ GBH Gallery in NYC.

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