Portable (Real) Estate

from Toland Grinnell’s artist catalogue, 2001

“Small rooms discipline the mind.”
—Leonardo Da Vinci

Some people have names that wrap around them with the luxurious fit of sable or a chinchilla coat. Other people grow into their inheritance. And of course there are the names that remain as sadly anonymous as their owners.

“Toland Grinnell” sounds like the name of a giant from the Brothers Grimm, an accomplice of Beowulf, the nemesis of Mad Max. Of course all names are “made-up,” but this one sounds like the work of pure fantasy. So perhaps it’s not surprising that its owner, is, in fact, a striking 21st century pretty boy with a beautiful, glamorous wife.

Cry foul if you want, but Grinnell himself wouldn’t. Political correctness is not his game. The image enhances the brand: you can’t have him, but you can have “T.G.” Or someone with a lot of cash can. Is it too flippant to talk about a serious artist this way? Is it sexist? Vulgar? Who, Grinnell would ask, is accusing whom?

If the privileged (yes, that includes you) were divided into the chattering and spending classes, you would still find that both betray a deep obsession with beauty and its kissing cousin, luxury. And it’s along this imaginary divide that Grinnell works—cutting so close we’re uncomfortable, making it seem at times as if there’s no division at all between the luxury of moralism and the beauty of decadence. That’s when we know satire is delicious and effective—when the satirist is almost too complicit with, almost too in awe of, the troubles he mocks.

It can be confusing and disturbing just how much obsessive, elegant purpose Grinnell’s work has: there’s a place for everything and everything in its place. No detail is forgotten. In fact, Grinnell makes us wonder whether too many details have been remembered. Looking at what’s inside this trunk show, we’re overwhelmed with choice and possibility, quality and tastelessness. In “Pied-a-Terre” we’re standing amidst Wunderkammers of appetite; we’re in a strange room, unpacked and poised in the moment before something weird happens, before the plot thickens. Do we commit the crime (what crime?) or do we hold ourselves back? Are we reckless or respectful of greed’s danger?

Cocteau made a famous quip that “tact consists in knowing how far to go in going too far.” This is the line Grinnell travels. Of course, it’s all too much; of course, it’s gone too far. But only so far… and, in any case, someone else will lug along all these gorgeously obscene trunks for us. Marco Polo might have found Grinnell’s luggage very impractical on the road, but Kubla Khan would have loved it—one more gift from Polo that he’d never use.

The great travel writer Pico Iyer has written that travel can be “a kind of monasticism on the move” because we take along no more possessions than we can carry. Grinnell’s valises are for those who are scared to death of the fact that we can’t take it with us, but are still too restless to stay home.

Many artists from Duchamp to Mike Kelly have been interested in the valise, the kit, the world condensed and portable. Such work often evokes the idiosyncrasy of withdrawal, as if the given world is not good enough, as if the artist’s response must be to pack up and move on—or move in, further in, to fantasy. Does it surprise you that “Toland Grinnell” rhymes with “Joseph Cornell?” But very unlike Cornell, Grinnell is an optimist. If it’s beautiful and well-made, flaunt it. But only if. Don’t embarrass us with something cheap or badly made.

Grinnell is that paradox of the decadent moralist. He has standards. In some ways, his take on what makes art interesting is similar to St. Augustine’s conviction about what makes belief true: not in faith alone, but in work. Confronting the identity crisis of consumer culture, the mass produced, the shoddy, the fake, Grinnell’s proposition is not to observe and despair, but to make and to marvel –and then to make fun of what he’s making—all at the same time.

But there’s also something more seriously troubling too. Grinnell makes the point that the creative act—trying to make things more beautiful than we find them, whether it’s plastic surgery or painting—wouldn’t be interesting if success were certain and the results guaranteed. Beauty has to be dangerous, aloof, tempermental. Rimbaud, no surprise, expressed this perfectly: “One evening I sat Beauty on my knees; and I found her bitter and I injured her.”

Injuring Beauty: now that’s true luxury. Grinnell’s work is about forcing beauty into a kinky, perverse lap dance: so lovely it hurts. The people who make themselves suffer most from beauty are those who come closest to having it or making it. And so here we are, artist and consumer, with the best that money can buy, suffocating ourselves with choice, fantasizing that purchasing power is freedom. The only luggage we’re missing is a custom leather T.G. body bag.

At the very least, I can imagine Oscar Wilde, (or perhaps the newly disgraced former chairman of Sotheby’s?) arranging for “Pied-a-Terre” to be unpacked in his prison cell. It’s the perfect luggage for a fallen king of connoisseurs, for someone who needs an uber-suitcase for that long trip of going nowhere fast.

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