Not everyone is at home in the company of post-modern art, as evidenced by barely-audible murmurs of “I don’t get it” at any given art museum. Such has been the case ever since Picasso started fragmenting faces in the early 1900s. Art has become even more abstract throughout time, but there are always alternatives for anyone who feels frustrated by the haze of obscure ideas.
Michael Aurbach offers a particularly biting alternative for Wilmington’s art scene in a month-long exhibition at UNCW’s Cultural Arts Gallery. His large steel sculptures embrace specificity and convey messages about society and institutionalized power structures through clever details and careful metalwork. There are no lengthy explanations to be found. Aurbach believes art has an innate ability to communicate ideas.
“I tend to go into a teaching mode and demystify things,” he explains. “I believe in objects, their power, and artistic processes. I don’t think I’m doing anything new. I rely heavily on artistic historical precedents, but I put my own personal twist on it.”
After spending three decades teaching art at Vanderbilt University, winning numerous awards, and participating in more than 80 solo exhibitions, as well as countless group shows, Aurbach is just as well-versed in art theory as he is in metal-working. He inserts old-world architectural motifs—classical arches and gothic spires—into post-industrial imagery. The results are immersive installations that are oppressive, while seemingly vacant simultaneously. But there’s more to Aurbach’s work than art history tropes. His immense Roman archways resonate the sublime but lead to the absurd.
His piece “Administrative Spectacle” demonstrates the dichotomy by leading viewers through an archway into a room filled with black urinals where seats should be. All of them face an empty space, corded off by steel railings, overseen by megaphones and surveillance cameras. Aurbach’s Orwellian vision is less speculative fantasy than it is commentary on how art and education are manipulated by boardroom politics.
“I didn’t want to be a pest,” he reveals. “But I was very frustrated, and I’d speak up about it. I was always at war with the administration at Vanderbilt because nobody could define what the expectations were of me as an artist. I was the fourth sculptor hired in five years. Nobody was surviving that job. When no one defines what the professional expectations are, how are you supposed to start? What kind of shows do you do? Where should you show? How much work do you produce? Nobody was giving me answers to those questions.”
Aurbach’s struggles with academia are evidenced in a smaller piece, “Cassandra.” Two steel structures face-off against one another, with a faux-brick tower lurching over a composite figure, with a megaphone body and a whistle head. The checkered floor evokes a chessboard. Is it a stalemate or a decisive step away from victory? Aurbach considers it something of a self-portrait, likening his battles to the prophet Cassandra from classical Greek mythology.
“She foretold the fall of Troy,” he elaborates. “Cassandra was mortal and had the power of prophecy. She could foretell the future. The god Apollo had the hots for her and put the moves on her. She rejects him, so he puts the whammy on her. [As punishment] she retains the power of prophecy, but nobody will believe her. That’s how I felt all the time.”
However, Aurbach’s work isn’t entirely about fighting authority. Recent pieces focus on contemporary viewpoints that push aside both art and artists themselves in favor of dealing with seemingly unrelated topics. He takes special umbrage with critical theory, which initially used literature to make points about society and culture. Aurbach sees it as an intrusion into the world of visual arts that elevates ideas over artwork itself.
“I’ve got four pieces about critical theory, which to me is the biggest scam ever pulled on the visual arts,” he exclaims. “When the critical theorist doesn’t acknowledge that the object or process mean anything, or they say what the artist has to say means nothing . . . [i]t makes no sense to me!”
Maintaining his interest in art history, Aurbach creates small plexiglass objects intended to house the secrets of critical theorists. They range from a pair of medieval reliquaries, a two-volume tome, entitled “C’est Nothing, Deux Nothing,” and a safe with functioning padlock. Enclosed within each transparent object is precisely nothing; they’re all empty.
“People forget theory is what you have when you lack facts,” he laughs. “They use the object as a springboard into politics, gender and things of that nature. It becomes an avenue to talk about something else. So, in that way, they don’t have to be dealing with the visual issues. It’s protecting something that doesn’t really exist.”
The largest of these pieces, “Critical Theorist,” also garnered Aurbach the most grief from exhibiting galleries. Much like his other work, viewers need to pay attention to fully get Aurbach’s message. A long metal table houses an array of pipes, faucets, pots, and funnels, all resembling a Rube Goldberg machine. At the end of it all is a conveyor belt with a lone book. Anyone who opens the book sees the final product of all the commotion—a vibrator.
“It’s a problematic piece,” he reflects. “The first time I showed it, it was a public facility called the Explorium [in Mobile, Alabama]. Initially when you open the book, there was a vibrator in there because it’s all about self-pleasure with critical theory. Well, someone stole the vibrator in that show! If I filed an insurance claim on a vibrator, the publicity might be pretty interesting.”
In following exhibitions, Aurbach faced censorship over the same work. While participating in a showcase of Southern modern art in Hunstville, Alabama, he was told to obscure the offending item from view. Not wanting to offend the public, the museum gave Aurbach an ultimatum that potentially negated his entire concept.
“The museum director said, ‘I can’t show this piece unless you screw the cover of the book down,’” he recalls. “He felt the community was too conservative to deal with that subject. So, I actually screwed it down because I already drove the piece a couple hundred miles and didn’t want to lose credit for a museum show. I guess I sold out!”
Ultimately, Aurbach’s work embraces humor. A smirk lies in the heart of his metallic sculptures, infusing his take on cold post-modern dystopia with a certain sarcastic warmth. It takes great stamina to deal with bureaucracy, and Aurbach’s sardonic sensibilities stuck with him throughout his administrative warfare. Despite never getting in serious trouble because of his viewpoints, he saw colleagues face liabilities over their artistic decisions while others rose to the rank of chairperson simply for groveling to the deans. Now retired from Vanderbilt with the title of professor emeritus, Aurbach is finally freed from all the workplace politics. However, he still worries about censorship in art with the emergence of overt political correctness.
“I do miss the classroom and teaching,” he admits. “But I don’t miss all the politics and the risk. I’ve got a pretty edgy sense of humor. If I say the wrong thing once and I’m toast. Everybody’s offended by everything. If you’re going to talk about art, you’ve got to open up the box when it comes to subject matter. You’re going to hit a minefield no matter what you do.”
Aurbach will present a brief presentation during Thursday’s opening reception; music and refreshments offered. His work will be on display through September.