American Primitives Todd Slaughter

American Primitives
Todd Slaughter

American Primitives
Todd Slaughter
With essays by Michael Goodson and Benjamin Anastas

Canzani Center Gallery 2012

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Contents 07 Bad Blood
Michael Goodson

11 The Foul Reign of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
Benjamin Anastas

16 American Primitives
Todd Slaughter


Bad Blood
Michael Goodson Director of Exhibitions

“You go into these small towns in Pennsylvania and, like a lot of small towns in the Midwest, the jobs have been gone now for 25 years and nothing’s replaced them. And they fell through the Clinton Administration, and the Bush Administration, and each successive administration has said that somehow these communities are gonna regenerate and they have not. And it’s not surprising then [that] they get bitter—they cling to guns or religion or antipathy toward people who aren’t like them or toward anti-immigrant sentiment or anti-trade sentiment as a way to explain their frustrations.” —Barack Obama, San Francisco, 2007 Witness above one of the most widely circulated subjects of willful miscontextualization in the last decade of American politics. Yet in most cases, those who have contested this quote are asleep and dreaming of the America that never was and never will be. When the quote is considered in its complete context, Obama is, of course, right. We—humans, generally, but most certainly Americans—are, by our nature, susceptible to the virulent pull of vitriol and ignorance. Todd Slaughter’s work in American Primitives explores the relationship between the American Transcendentalist movement’s declarations of self reliance and individualism and hate groups isolated within this country’s seemingly


bucolic rural landscape. It looks into the myth of domestic security and how we attempt to make this mythology the foundation of our cultural identity. It’s a bold conceit: that ideas from the first notable American intellectual movement have followed a strange trajectory into the nebulous agendas of a range of conservative proponents of libertarian thought—from politicians like Paul Ryan and Ron Paul to those who seek to utterly isolate themselves from a culture that they perceive to be on the brink of self destruction. This latter group has, in fact, gone mad, and in this madness its members seek to separate themselves from a society they see as moving precariously from a caliginous past into an even murkier future. Their agendas twist. For them the darkness lies ahead, yet they strive for secrecy and self-protection. They have lost sight of the fact that there is no isolation from the whole of American culture. We are, like it or not, all connected, and no depth of forest or stretch of road can diminish that connection. American Primitives is a cycle of sculptural tableaux which calls attention to misapplied romantic perceptions of nature, of the country’s founding, and of its expansion as driven by the assertion of Manifest Destiny. Slaughter points

up parallels between American individualism and isolationism, seeing the phenomenon of hate group members and individual survivalists living in isolated sites as distinctly American in character. As first noted by the 19th century French historian and political thinker Alexis de Tocqueville, an often-lauded aspect of America has been the perceived righteousness of self-reliance, the pioneer spirit, of “roughing it” in nature—all traits which are essentially connected to Henry David Thoreau and the Transcendentalists. There is a correspondingly long tradition of hate groups and other isolationist communities setting themselves apart at least in some measure to establish particularly “American” utopian societies. If we are lucky, there are points in where history, culture, and the flux of our lives intersect. Slaughter’s interest in the ideas and object vocabulary found in American Primitives started around 2000, when he and his wife bought 23 acres of undeveloped land near Laurelville, Ohio, and the Hocking Hills. In three short years, their hopes for a peaceful rural retreat were steadily taken apart by their neighbors. The southern neighbor repeatedly encroached on their land during hunting season, erecting hunting stands and leaving animal detritus. The northern neighbor confided he was a member of the KKK and had


once threatened to “bury the black ass” of a disrespectful land surveyor. The eastern neighbor allowed ten hilly acres of trees overlooking a stream to be clear-cut by the gas company. The man who previously owned their property left it littered with thousands of shotgun casings and, it turned out, was an isolationist serving jail time for shooting the KKK neighbor over a propertyline dispute. Among all these neighbors there was a palpable hostility toward outsiders and government, and a corresponding preoccupation with protection of their space. Slaughter’s retreat, as it turned out, was no Walden. During the same time period, he and his family made a cross-country drive to San Francisco and vacationed in Idaho, arguably the most beautiful state in America. While there, however, Slaughter observed a stark contrast between extreme natural beauty of rural Idaho and the more grotesque machinations of American culture. With the 2000 election looming, hatred of thenpresident Bill Clinton was everywhere: roadside signs of Clinton with bullet holes in his head; Clinton’s visage as the bull’s-eye on targets; signs touting Clinton’s human worthlessness. Every small store they visited in Idaho had such merchandise, along with hunting regalia and “trespass and die” signs. It was a scary, inhospitable place.

While Slaughter’s work meditates on self reliance gone haywire in rural America, it also looks into how American isolationism manifests itself in the seemingly innocuous form of perceived safety in suburban communities. Notions of domestic security have long been built into our architectural concerns, gated suburban developments being only their most recent expression. Slaughter explores these ideas with urgency, humor, and grace. We all know about comfort zones, both literal and metaphorical, and most of us have need of situations that offer some relief from social, intellectual, economic, or environmental tensions. Notions and images of an architectural space in which to take refuge—houses, rooms, tents, shacks, barns—are a common thread throughout Slaughter’s work. He deconstructs the idea of domicile, taking it down to its fallible, tenuous foundation. It is the most arduous of treks, a journey to the dark country of our collective mind.


The Foul Reign of Emerson’s “Self-Reliance”
Benjamin Anastas

My first exposure to the high-flown pap of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “Self-Reliance” came in a basement classroom at the private boys’ school where I enrolled to learn the secrets of discipline and because I wanted, at age 14, to wear a tie. The class was early American literature, the textbook an anthology with the heft of a volume of the Babylonian Talmud; a ribbon for holding your place between “Rip Van Winkle,” by Washington Irving, and “Young Goodman Brown,” by Nathaniel Hawthorne; and a slick hardcover the same shade of green as the backside of a dollar bill. Our teacher, let’s call him Mr. Sideways, had a windblown air, as if he had just stepped out of an open coupe, and the impenetrable selfconfidence of someone who is convinced that he is liked. (He was not.) “Whoso would be a man,” he read aloud to a room full of slouching teenage boys in button-down shirts and ties stained with Sloppy Joes from the dining hall, “must be a nonconformist. He who would gather immortal palms must not be hindered by the name of goodness. . . . Nothing is at last sacred but the integrity of your own mind.” And then he let loose the real hokum: “Absolve you to yourself,” he read, “and you shall have the suffrage of the world.”


I am sure that Mr. Sideways lectured dutifully on transcendentalism and its founding ideas— Emerson’s “transparent eyeball” and its gift of X-ray sight; Thoreau’s flight from a life of “quiet desperation” in society to the stillness of Walden Pond; the starred ceiling of the heavens that Ralph Waldo called the “Over-Soul,” uniting us with its magnetic beams—but what I remember most about that English class was the week that Mr. Sideways told us to leave our anthologies at home so that he could lead us in a seminar in how to make a fortune in real estate by tapping the treasure trove he referred to as “O.P.M.,” or Other People’s Money. He drew pyramids and pie charts on the blackboard. He gave us handouts. For years I blamed Mr. Sideways—and the money fever of the 1980s—for this weird episode of hucksterism in English class. But that was being unfair. Our teacher had merely fallen under the spell, like countless others before and after, of the most pernicious piece of literature in the American canon. The whim that inspired him to lead a seminar in house-flipping to a stupefied under-age audience was Emerson’s handiwork. “All that Adam had,” he goads in his essay “Nature,” “all that Caesar could, you have and can do.” Oh, the deception! The rank insincerity! It’s just like the Devil in Mutton Chops to promise an orgiastic communion fit for the gods, only to deliver a gospel of “self-conceit so intensely

intellectual,” as Melville complained, “that at first one hesitates to call it by its right name.” The excessive love of individual liberty that debases our national politics? It found its original poet in Ralph Waldo. The plague of devices that keep us staring into the shallow puddle of our dopamine reactions, caressing our touch screens for another fix of our own importance? That’s right: it all started with Emerson’s “Self-Reliance.” Our fetish for the authentically homespun and the American affliction of ignoring volumes of evidence in favor of the flashes that meet the eye, the hunches that seize the gut? It’s Emerson again, skulking through Harvard Yard in his cravat and greasy undertaker’s waistcoat, while in his mind he’s trailing silken robes fit for Zoroaster and levitating on the grass. Before it does another generation’s worth of damage to the American psyche, let’s put an end to the foul reign of “Self-Reliance” and let the scholars pick over the meaning of its carcass. One question first, though: Is there anything worth salvaging among the spiritualist ramblings, obscure metaphysics and aphorisms so pandering that Joel Osteen might think twice about delivering them? Is there an essential part of Emerson’s signature essay that we’ve somehow lost sight of?


“There is a time in every man’s education,” Emerson writes, presuming, with his usual élan, to both personify his young country and issue a decree for its revival, “when he arrives at the conviction that envy is ignorance; that imitation is suicide; that he must take himself for better, for worse, as his portion; that though the wide universe is full of good, no kernel of nourishing corn can come to him but through his toil bestowed on the plot of ground which is given him to till.” As the story in our high-school anthology went, the citizenry that the Bard of Concord met on his strolls through the town green in the 1830s were still cowed by the sermons of their Puritan forefathers—we had read Jonathan Edwards’s “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” to get a taste—prone to awe when it came to the literature of distant foreign empires and too complacent on the biggest moral issues of the day: the institution of slavery and the genocide of the Indians. (At least Emerson saw well enough with his transparent eye to criticize both.) The country had every bit of God-given energy and talent and latent conviction that it needed to produce genius, he believed, but too much kowtowing to society and the approval of elders had tamed his fellows of their natural gifts (the “aboriginal Self,” he called it) and sapped them of their courage.

“[M]ost men have bound their eyes with one or another handkerchief,” a disenchanted Emerson observed, “and attached themselves to . . . communities of opinion. This conformity makes them not false in a few particulars, but false in all particulars.” Society operates like a corporation that requires its shareholders to sacrifice their rights for the comfort of all, Emerson believed. Instead of “realities and creators,” it gives men “names and customs.” So what is his cure for the country’s ailing soul, his recipe for our deliverance from civilization and its discontents? This is the aim of “Self-Reliance,” which Emerson culled from a series of lectures he delivered at the Masonic Temple of Boston— his “Divinity School Address” at Harvard in 1838, denounced by one listener as “an incoherent rhapsody,” had already caused an outcry—and published in his collection Essays: First Series in 1841. Cornel West has praised Emerson for his “dynamic perspective” and for his “prescription for courageous self-reliance by means of nonconformity and inconsistency.” Harold Bloom noted, in an article for the Times, that by “‘self-reliance’ Emerson meant the recognition of the God within us, rather than the worship of the Christian godhead.” This is the essay’s greatest virtue for its original audience: it ordained them with an authority to speak what had been reserved for only the powerful, and bowed to no


greater human laws, social customs or dictates conviction that Trader Joe’s sells good food—is from the pulpit. “Trust thyself: every heart vibrates the prattle of the unenlightened majority and can to that iron string.” Or: “No law can be sacred to be dismissed out of hand. me but that of my nature.” Some of the lines are so ingrained in us that we know them by heart. “A man is to carry himself in the presence of all They feel like natural law. opposition,” Emerson advises, “as if every thing were titular and ephemeral but he.” If this isn’t There is a downside to ordaining the self with the official motto of the 112th Congress of the divine authority, though. We humans are fickle United States, well, it should be. The gridlock, creatures, and natures—however sacred—can grandstanding, rule manipulating and inability mislead us. That didn’t bother Emerson. “Speak to compromise aren’t symptoms of national what you think now in hard words,” Emerson decline. We’re simply coming into our own as exhorted, “and tomorrow speak what tomorrow Emerson’s republic. thinks in hard words again, though it contradict every thing you said today.” (Memo to Mitt Just recently I was watching the original “Think Romney: no more apologies for being “as Different” spot that reversed Apple Computer’s consistent as human beings can be.” You’re fortunes when it was first shown in 1997 and Emersonian!) marked the first real triumph for Steve Jobs after The larger problem with the essay, and its more lasting legacy as a cornerstone of the American identity, has been Emerson’s tacit endorsement of a radically self-centered worldview. It’s a lot like the Ptolemaic model of the planets that preceded Copernicus; the sun, the moon and the stars revolve around our portable reclining chairs, and whatever contradicts our right to harbor misconceptions—whether it be Birtherism, climate-science denial or the returning from the wilderness to the company he helped to found. The echoes of Emerson in the ad are striking, especially in the famous voice-over narration by Richard Dreyfuss, reading a poem now known by historians and Apple’s legion of fans as “Here’s to the Crazy Ones.” The message was already familiar when it first met our ears. In calling out to all the misfits and the rebels and the troublemakers, the “round pegs in


square holes” who “see things differently” and our families, neighbors, communities and—here have trouble with the rules, the ad evokes Emerson can’t resist a bit of snark—our cats and the ideal first created by Emerson of a roughdogs. Which confessional is the higher one? To hewed outsider who changes the world whom do we owe our ultimate allegiance? It’s not through a combination of courage, tenacity, even a contest. resourcefulness and that God-given wild card, genius. While Dreyfuss narrates, archival footage “I have my own stern claims and perfect circle,” of the “crazy ones” flickers on the screen in Emerson writes. With this one fell swoop, black and white: Albert Einstein leads the way, Emerson tips the scales in favor of his own followed by Bob Dylan, the Rev. Martin Luther confessional, and any hope he might have raised King Jr., a jubilant Richard Branson shaking a for creating a balance to the self’s divinity is lost. Champagne bottle in a flight suit. Ever since, we’ve been misreading him, or at least misapplying him. As a sad result, it has This is the problem when the self is endowed been the swagger of a man’s walk that makes his with divinity, and it’s a weakness that Emerson measure, and Americans’ right to love ourselves acknowledged: if the only measure of greatness before any other that trumps all. is how big an iconoclast you are, then there Benjamin Anastas is the author of two novels, An really is no difference between coming up with Underachiever’s Diary and The Faithful Narrative of a the theory of relativity, plugging in an electric Pastor’s Disappearance. His short fiction has been guitar, leading a civil rights movement or published in The Paris Review, The Yale Review, and spending great gobs of your own money to fly GQ, while his criticism and essays have appeared a balloon across the Atlantic. In “Self-Reliance,” regularly in Bookforum, The New York Times Sunday Book Review, and The New York Observer. As a Emerson addresses this potentially fatal flaw to journalist and travel writer, he has contributed to The his thinking with a principle he calls “the law of New York Times Magazine, Men’s Vogue, and The consciousness.” (It is not convincing.) Every one New York Times “T” Style Magazine. His memoir, Too of us has two confessionals, he writes. At the first, Good To Be True, will be published this fall. we clear our actions in the mirror (a recapitulation of the dictum “trust thyself”). At the second, we consider whether we’ve fulfilled our obligations to


2002 Painted fiberglass and reconfigured metal hunting stand 11 x 9 x 9 feet TS: Red Ridinghood Stand is a rejection of Red Riding Hood’s passivity. It is a pre-emptive strike; she will not be ambushed.



2012 Fabric and CNC-cut supporting ribs 9 feet 6 inches x 8 feet in diameter TS: Walden Woods points to a romantic perception of nature and to the misuse of Emerson and Thoreau’s ideas of identity as an endorsement of radical, self-centered worldviews. The artwork is intended as the touchstone of this exhibition, pointing up parallels between American individualism and isolationism. An often-applauded aspect of the American character has been the perceived righteousness of the self-reliant individual roughing it, toughing it, and lone-ing it.




Walden Woods detail


2009 Copper-plated polyester, carbon fiber, & aluminum 5 feet 2 inches x 7 feet 10 inches x 6 feet 10 inches TS: My EMF Comfort Zone is a prototypical sleeping/meditating retreat to be used inside the home, developed from an optical scan of the user’s head. In this case, the user is myself. The work is an idiosyncratic gesture of selfprotection, meant as a protecting inner liner, a last level of defense, a shell within a shell. The copper-plated fabric used here was developed for shielding electronic equipment from the electromagnetic field (EMF) energy that accompanies electrical devices. The material, form, and functions of future Comfort Zone HeadTents will be determined in collaboration with the individual for whom the tent is developed.




2012 Carved foam, resin, glass cloth, pigments, faux gold leaf 3 feet 8 inches x 2 feet x 1 foot 5 inches




2012 Carved foam, resin, glass cloth, wood, carbon fiber, pigment, faux gold leaf 4 feet x 4 feet 1 inch x 4 feet 1 inch



2012 Carved foam, resin, glass cloth, carbon fiber, pigments, faux gold leaf 4 feet x 5 feet x 5 feet



2012 Carved foam, resin, glass cloth, carbon fiber, pigments, faux gold leaf 3 feet 11 inches x 4 feet x 4 feet



2011 Printed paper and chair 48 x 60 x 30 inches TS: Romance with an American Loner is intended to participate in the de-romanticizing of the rural survivalist and the cultural loner. Eric Rudolph is best known as the perpetrator of the Centennial Olympic Park bombing in Atlanta that occurred during the 1996 Summer Olympics, killing Alice Hawthorne and wounding 111 others. Rudolph also confessed to the bombings of an abortion clinic in the Atlanta suburb in 1997; the Otherside Lounge (a lesbian bar) in Atlanta in 1997; and an abortion clinic in Birmingham in 1998, which killed the security guard and injured a nurse. Even though the FBI considered Rudolph to be armed and extremely dangerous and offered a $1-million reward for information leading directly to his arrest, he spent more than five years as a fugitive in the Appalachian wilderness, during which time both federal and amateur search teams scoured the area without success. Rudolph was assisted by sympathizers while evading capture, and some in the area were vocal in support of him. Two country music songs were written about him, and a best-selling local T-shirt read “Run Rudolph Run.” The AntiDefamation League has noted that extremist chatter on the Internet praised Rudolph as a hero and that some followers of hate groups are calling for further acts of violence to be modeled after his. Rudolph was arrested in Murphy, North Carolina, on May 31, 2003. In 2005, he pled guilty to all charges against him in order to escape the death penalty.



2009 Fabric, silicone, and wooden valet stand 5 feet 6 inches x 2 feet 2 inches x 1 foot 8 inches TS: This coat offers its wearer self-value, confidence, and contentment because it protects the wearer from seeing the needs and desires of others. The coat’s portability supports the wearer’s uninterrupted perception of his or her personal worldview as he or she walks about.



2002 Cast graphite, polycarbonate sheet, felt, aluminum, DVD video, modified wooden chair 11 x 6 x 5 feet TS: Safe Alone juxtaposes a feeling of enclosure and temporal safety with the growing threat of intrusion. Projected into the interior through the translucent roof is a video of an increasing number of silhouetted visitors pressing together to form a dense crowd on the roof, blotting out the light projected within, while the sounds of the crowd’s restlessness become progressively louder. The gallery visitor sits alone within the felt-padded house sheathed with pairs of cast graphite fists until the video culminates in a total blackening out of both the projection and the entire gallery room.




Safe Alone details


2002 Miniature and full-sized furniture 7-minute DVD video, looped TS: The equilibrium of a family dinner is juxtaposed with the initial formative event of the universe, the Big Bang, and the new order that followed it. The video portrays the turbulence of an upended dining room that finally settles into a new arrangement and focus. The sound track is the Columbia University cosmologist Brian Green describing the nature of the universe through string theory.




Family Dinner video stills


2005 Altered digital image with back-lit panel 28 x 22 inches TS: Thomas Jefferson Reconstructed is an image of Rembrandt Peale’s portrait of Jefferson at age 57, altered to mirror the insistence by some Americans that Jefferson publicly supported the Christian religion as a model for the United States of America. (In fact, Jefferson rejected any notion of a state religion or governmental support for religion.) Other Americans have insisted that Jefferson was a blasphemer because his version of the New Testament had all “supernatural events” edited out. After completing The Life and Morals of Jesus of Nazareth (also known as the Jefferson Bible) in about 1820, Jefferson shared it with a number of friends, but he never allowed it to be published during his lifetime. The most complete form Jefferson produced was published in 1895 by the National Museum in Washington.


2002 Silicone, polycarbonate, polyurethane hybrid domestic duck and swan body/beak forms, motor 11 feet x 5 feet 6 inches x 6 feet 6 inches TS: This isolated, outer-suburban home/farm defensive complex of buildings sits atop a slowly rotating cake stand surrounded by a landscape of translucent silicone berries and guard-swans, exhibiting an extravagant paranoia and self-isolation.




Domestic Fortress detail



Domestic Fortress details

Produced in association with American Primitives September 27–November 8, 2012 Canzani Center Gallery Columbus College of Art & Design Columbus, Ohio Curated by Michael Goodson, CCAD Director of Exhibitions Creative Director/Designer: Lindsay Kronmiller Editorial Director: Laura Bidwa “The Foul Reign of Emerson’s ‘Self-Reliance’” is reprinted with permission from Benjamin Anastas, the New York Times, and PARS International Corp., License Agreement #56381. Photographs of Red Ridinghood Stand, Romance with an American Loner, Self-Reliant Coat for Walking About, Walden Woods detail, and Domestic Fortress by Danielle Grace Ford (CCAD 2013). All other images are courtesy of the artist. ©2012 Columbus College of Art & Design, the authors, and the artist. All rights reserved. No part of the publication may be reproduced or otherwise transmitted in any form by any means electronic or otherwise without written permission from Columbus College of Art & Design, 60 Cleveland Avenue, Columbus, Ohio 43215. Support for this exhibition and publication provided by

Todd Slaughter would like to thank: For project assistance on Walden Woods: The Southern Poverty Law Center Dave Greenberg Marcus Bonn John Alexander Philip Szymanski Alison Nocera Amy Dalrymple Justin Braun For video production assistance on Safe Alone and Family Dinner: Martijin Van Wagtendonk For project assistance on My EMF Comfort Zone and Self-Reliant Coat for Walking About: Dave Greenberg Adele Mattern For project assistance on Domestic Fortress: Ben Jones Phil Taylor (engineering) Jesse Hemminger