If a cockroach was making the rounds in Chelsea looking at art, I wager it would go apoplectic at Brice Marden’s show at Matthew Marks. The large paintings would not appeal, too much empty space – roaches abhor a barren landscape - but the small drawings in the gallery next door would send a roach’s antennae atwitter.
Marden’s sinuous lines are their type of mark-making. Scurrying is the roach’s specialty. Irregular, random lines not followed or traced by others is the standard of cockroach taste, the ideal Blattidian form. Roaches are not a social species. They may like each other’s company, and even die early when isolated, but they don’t follow the routes drawn by others.
It might even scoff, “Oh, I could do that.” And it would be right. Spontaneous gestures help protect a roach from being squished or eaten. Irrational aesthetics is a sound strategy to achieve a full short life when you’re considered both disgusting and tasty. It pays to have long sensitive antennae, not only to view art but also to tell you when to run for your life.
After Marden, I went to see Mark Bradford’s show at Hauser & Wirth. Well, a cockroach just wouldn’t get it. Maps, diagrams, centers - these are motifs not of beauty to a cockroach but depictions of fear. Yet, to leafcutter ants, Bradford’s work would be genius. If they made art their work might look like his.
Morphologically, a leafcutter ant has the tools necessary to make art. Their jaws are veritable scissors able to deftly cut and carve. Collectively they are consummate earth artists, sculpting mounds, building pyramids and excavating underground labyrinths.
Unlike the cockroach, leafcutter ants have a home base, a center from which a network of pathways radiates out into the forest. These arteries are meticulously maintained foraging routes laboriously etched through stories of leaf litter, a process not unlike Bradford’s method of incising into layers of paper. The colony follows these pheromone maps to important trees, essentially creating a history of the colony’s existence.
Leafcutter ants are in a symbiotic relationship with the fungus they farm. Each is entirely dependent on the other. The abstract cellular pattern of healthy fungi would rank high in visual importance to the ants. The walls of their underground chambers are covered with layers of fungi that look remarkably similar to the molecular imagery in Bradford’s paintings.
After inventing agriculture over 50 million years ago, might leafcutter ants take the next step and develop culture?