Mike Bidlo, "The Fountain Drawings," Sept. 19-Oct. 24, 1998, at Tony Shafrazi Gallery, 119 Wooster Street, New York, N.Y. 10012.
In his latest project, Mike Bidlo has covered the walls of Tony Shafrazi's SoHo gallery from floor to ceiling with more than 1600 drawings. Each drawing is based on Marcel Duchamp's famous entry in the 1917 Society of Independent Artists, Fountain -- an upside-down urinal signed with his psyeudonym, R. Mutt.
Bidlo's "Fountain Drawings" result from his long-standing fascination with Duchamp, the Dada patron saint of conceptual art. From his first impersonation of a Duchamp ready-made in 1984, to St Duchamp, his obsessive 1996-1997 installation of precise copies of Duchamp's oeuvre in an East Village storefront, Bidlo has been dealing with the Dada iconoclast.
Bidlo began his "Fountain Drawings" in 1993 as a small group of works after the quintessential l'objet trouvé, Duchamp's urinal. At that time Bidlo put the drawings away and didn't think about them until years later, when "re-informed by the storefront project," he returned to the series. Over the past two years the "Fountain Drawings" have mushroomed into a body of some three-and-a-half thousand images, plus several more liberal interpretations of Duchamp's original piece.
With the "Fountain Drawings" Bidlo departs from his strategy of literal, reproductive appropriations that he made throughout the '80s. Forging successive series based on work by Pollock, Warhol, Morandi, Brancusi, Picasso, Leger, Yves Klein, de Chirico and Duchamp, among many others, Bidlo's surrogate duplications subverted the art market and acted as a seductive critique of modernism's ideals of novelty, authenticity and originality.
Only a partial selection of the immense opus, the "Fountain Drawings" at Shafrazi Gallery are a disruptive eruption of free-form improvisation in which the original for Bidlo "serves as a model or springboard." Much like his earlier work in which the ironic distance of his post-modern contemporaries was subsumed in a hands-on approach, (of which he says "I wanted to feed myself on the blood of modern art,") the whole process here represents a kind of intuitive investigation into Duchamp's enigmatic intentionality, where "all these questions" (about the form and function of a ready-made and the choices made in Fountain) "evolved in this period as a kind of daily dialogue."
In this voyage of discovery the original Fountain's continued resonance is measured in it's multivarious terms: the double shock of the urinal and its conceit as art, the subversive potency of the prank, the embrace of the quotidian; the nostalgia of the arcane form (long obsolete in the stream-lined manufacture of its present-day counterparts). An oddly autobiographical summation of Bidlo's entire work to date, "informed by the Pollock series of action gestures, the seriality of Warhol and the repetitions of Morandi," the "Fountain Drawings" constitute a kind of automatic writing that "taps into the subconscious in such a way that you go into an altered state, and instead of being a painful replication, each feeds off of and prompts one another."
Stripped from their original context, Duchamp's ready-mades operate as esthetic forms. They are as open to interpretation as even Bidlo's most abstract drawings -- and the later ones in this series are indeed quite removed from the original. "The ready-made is like a Rorschach," Bidlo told us. "You see the bottle rack or the urinal and can metaphysically go into the many layers of what it could be -- the meanings. It's so provocative, it pulls in and embraces people in a very populist way."
And what did Bidlo see after all these thousands of drawings? "The Buddha, the Virgin Mary, the Pieta, a bicycle seat, a stuppa, a breast, a mother, a triangle, the holy trinity, a triskelion (3-headed carved fertility form), a life cycle, a uterus, a phallus, a mushroom, a nose, a face, a gourd, a cornucopia... oh yeah, I finally saw a fountain."