Some persistent themes of so-called “modern art”, besides the wide availability of materials used, is the iconoclastic focus on the everyday, the mundane and banal. There are whole genres and artists who stand upon the zen-peaks of the banal, painters who have perfected the bland, and through the “bland” we find an eerie serenity one can only experience by being in some empty government building in the middle of the night. It is like how horror movies of the slasher/splatter variety almost always invariably leads the viewer into some institutional building or hospital, some clinical space for which the generic character and the emptiness of the decor and aesthetic terrorizes us (there is something Foucauldian about this as well).
The empty space used to be profound sites of simplicity and comfort in a sense, resting the eye and the soul, like in the Wabi-Sabi rusticity sort of way. Now a days in any monolithic megalopolis, arcology designs of towering blank walls and utilitarian public spaces no longer calm the soul but deadens, and in some instances terrifies it. Empty modern spaces strike in us this primal fear, perhaps not fear, but a sickening, bottom of the gut feeling that “something ought not to be” about these places, like in splatter films, the surroundings are totally alien and hostile to us; This leads us to the piece we are talking about today, from the illustrator-turned-fine artist, the man who has in some ways single-handedly taken up Hopper’s legacy of dark modern Americana into the pop-art late 20th century, John Register.
To first understand this piece, let us explore the driving concept behind the art analysis I wish to venture into, the concept known as the “non-space”, non-place, or non-location, refined and popularized by architect Marc Auge.
Auge starts with a comment upon some quotes by literary critic Jean Starobinski, who talked of the significance of a place in per-modern times, of the various destinies, thoughts, reminiscences, etc. of places with cultural and spiritual significance. Then there is this odd disruption of these places through time that Auge notices in the analysis of Starobinski, that these places still exists, but without being imbued with the same significance; in other words, modernity does not simply obliterate sacred and significant places, but puts them behind the temporal walls of “ancient times”, turning them into objects of modern sophisticated speculation, robbing them of their power and significance by placing them within a museum status of “the past”.
To Auge, a “space” or location is significant, historical, rooted to an identity and defined as relational, with memory and temporality, etc. Then there is the spaces which define the modern world, the world of globalization through late-capital, the “non-space”; Non-spaces are ‘the true measures of our time”, the sites of identity-erasure. Auge makes an anthropological study of modern, mostly urban spaces ,and characterizes them by speed, ease of use and movement, lack of defining features, utility, mass-consumption and use, banal in the most basic of sense, and meant to accommodate virtually everyone. These are the spaces of capital, the ceaseless accommodation of everyone, in both private sector and government infrastructure. Think of office buildings, lobbies, freeways, public restrooms, hotels, generic architecture, mass urbanite sprawls of the same design plans, etc. There is no “beauty” here in the traditional sense, because this is the aesthetic of mass utility and efficiency, instrumental reason, not a particular cultural longing, is what designed these free spaces.
The non-spaces are characterized by modern excess and the homogeneous coming-together of various events taking place at the same time, like a lobby in a hospital that has different patients there for different things, all in the same generic room. These are no longer localized spaces, but spaces of what Auge calls “super-modernity”, with their old and detached utility. Like malls, they are cross-roads of human relations. Where places of significance ceases to be as people become more atomized and globalized under the driving force of modern capital, so at that very splayed end does the non-place merge as “never fully completed”, like a mass or a city that ceases to stop being renovated and expanded. (a good academic paper on this is “Non-places and the space of art”, Osborne Peter, The Journal of Architecture, Routledge, 6:2, 2001).
The non-place is a negative quality of a place, for they are not spaces in the per-hypermodern sense, but are passages, way-fares, locations and stops on the way to “something”, whatever that something is, that is not intrinsically or significantly “that place” of the non-place. Hence why Register’s work is so powerful in this regard, for it is even more modern and less somber than Hoppers oeuvre….
Keep in mind that hypermodernity is an epoch designated by increasing feats of loneliness, hyper-individualism, and above all solitude, whether it is long stretches of driving to work in urban centers, day long internet crawls, the seductive convenience of deliver services, etc. But more importantly, the increasing taboos of personal space in non-places, especially in public urban centers, where people do not even look at each other, or communicate. Places in the traditional sense, evoke mutual communication, for they are imbued by a rootedness of a significance, culture, idea space, faith, etc. These places evoke mutual understandings, and therefore do not seem so alien, like comparing the hyper-space of a strip mall to a local church. Non-places are also elastic and polymorphic, especially in regards to the ones that share late-capitalist consumer advertising space. The aesthetic is thoroughly one of transience and vagrancy, the type one sees in a Hopper or Register painting.
“Waiting room for the beyond” (1988), is an archetypal expression of the non-space that is a generic waiting room in some office or place of government residence, what one is subjected to by private enterprise, or the managerial state. Register uses silk screen printing to make this work even more streamlined, with a pop-art feel, and a near-exaggeration of the stillness, solitude, and eerie detached loneliness of a Hopper painting. We see a single mass-produced lobby waiting room chair in front of some high-rise building window, peering out into the abstract, cloudy abyss, almost symbolic of the nebulousness that characterizes modern life.
The floor is polished to reflect monochrome streams of light and shadows often cast by the confined light spaces and squareness of modern office buildings, and in it we also see no indication of a unique aesthetic, or tie to any cultural significance whatsoever. This lobby can be anywhere, in any design style, for any government or business purpose, it is so interchangeable, it is like a transparent ghost of a room, symbolic of the empty 80s excess that characterizes Register’s most productive and well-known period of work.
Register’s work is of realism, not abstraction, but the way he depicts his preferred non-place subject matter, they are so purposefully minimalist, they might as well be compared to works of modernist abstraction. Register, like the analysis of Non-places by Auge, almost condemns these sites of transience, stating that he is going far beyond the emotive and tragic figures in Hopper paintings, quote: “With Hopper you witness someone else’s isolation; in my pictures, I think you, the viewer, become the isolated one.”
So here we have in Register’s work, a peak into an aesthetic representation of the modern non-place, and it is only through the artistic lens can we truly sit back and gaze upon these places so common, so unsuspecting, and so banal to us, and truly contemplate the gravity of living in, as Auge says “through most of our lives” spaces that do not speak to any cultural, religious, or even personal uniqueness. Even the things we buy are purely of actual accumulation and mobilized consumption, artisan uniqueness has been broken on the wheel of globalized mass-production. So to our buildings and spaces are not of “us” but of the abstracted “everyone”, the purely all too human, and soon not even human. Accordingly, we act in our public persona in this manner as well, we are self-reflecting behind of habit and social conditioning, therefore we internalize the quietism and isolated individualism of the urban public space. It only takes the work of art to scream at us our very own isolation, the way “Waiting room for the beyond” does, we are not “beyond” any recognition of significance and rootedness in hypermodernity.