Regarded by art critic Peter Schjeldahl as the “dark poet of the national consciousness,” Cady Noland’s practice exposes the underside of the American dream, and its specific fascination with celebrity and violence (P. Schjeldahl, “Venice Anyone?,” in Mirabella, September 1990, p. 93). With its title seemingly pulled from headlines, Noland has fashioned a stock and pillory for Beltway Terror, 1993-1994. A square of wood, faced with shiny aluminum and punctuated by five holes: the three spaced evenly about the above the midpoint would ostensibly hold the arms and head of a guilty or innocent person and the two beneath, his legs. A bench—reminiscent of Donald Judd’s artwork because of its clean lines and reflective aluminum surface—is positioned in front of the two bottom holes. A medieval form of punishment originating in ninth century Europe and continued to be used through end of the nineteenth century, the stock and pillory operate by restraining the body so that the person could be subjected to public humiliation while confined. Historically, it was not only the criminal who would be confined, but also the poor, the dissident, and otherwise disenfranchised and marginalized in society. Combining of punishment and spectacle, Beltway Terror exemplifies the theatre of American political horror that forms the basis of Cady Noland’s work. Noland does so through an elegant rearrangement of the terms of Minimalism and Pop Art.
Metal is a signature material in Noland’s oeuvre, recurring in the form of beer cans, chain link fences and convalescent walkers—visual analogues for the frigidity and hardness intrinsic to the material. In the present context, aluminum in combination with the reduced, simple shapes of the bench and stockade, signifies elements of Donald Judd’s Minimalist sculpture. As Museum of Modern Art curator Christian Rattemeyer has pointed out “For Noland, metal is a deeply symbolic element; metal stands for permanence in society, its structures of power and authority, something to rebel against. Destruction of metal is transgression” (C. Rattemeyer, “Cady Noland,” Modern Women: Women Artists at the Museum of Modern Art, New York, 2010, p. 397). Certainly, by the early 1990s when Noland made Beltway Terror, Minimalism has ascended into museum institutions worldwide and occupied an authoritative place in art history.
While Noland looks to Minimalism for form, she looks to Pop art icon, Andy Warhol, for content. He similarly pointed to the dark currents underlying American culture when reproduced another vehicle of punishment, the electric chair, in addition to car crashes and grieving celebrities in his Death and Disaster series. Where Warhol’s work reproduced these highly-charged images over and over again to dissipate their intensity, Noland solidifies through sculpture. She famously said in an interview with Michéle Cone, “I was making work out of objects I became interested in how, actually, under which circumstances people treat other people like objects” (C. Noland, quoted in M. Cone, “Interview with Cady Noland,” Journal of Contemporary Art, Vol. 3, No. 2, 1990, pp. 20-25). No other object is as effective in objectifying a person as a stock and pillory, positioning as it does a body to be looked and pointed at. Noland conscripts the viewer as a voyeur of violence—like the millions who watch celebrities be crucified in tabloids or men brutalize each other on live television for sport—reflecting on America’s fetishizing of bloodshed and stardom.
Art historian Michael Corris has argued that in “Noland’s work, we understand the concept of abjection as it is coded through the use of the stockade, the allusion to the boxing ring, the restraining and offensive paraphernalia of police, and the way these elements are collaged or strung together. In principle, Noland’s installations invite the physical participation of the viewer” (M. Corris, “Reading Black Through White: Kara Walker and the Question of Racial Stereotyping: A Discussion between Michael Corris and Robert Hobbs,” in Differences and Excess in Contemporary Art: The Visibility of Women’s Practices, Oxford, 2004, p. 108). Using the aluminum metal surface as a mirror, Noland implicates the viewer by presenting a reflection of herself while consuming the spectacle of humiliation. Rattemeyer continues, “By insisting on the potential of an object to act nihilistically, as an obstacle or a provocation, Noland points to the moments in American culture when the social contract ruptures but also liberates the pleasures inherent in gestures of destruction” (C. Rattemeyer, ibid., p. 399). Noland, thus, transforms the reflection in the Minimalist surface into a Warholian carnival mirror.
Beltway Terror is one of four works in which Noland used the stock and pillory motif. She would drape a structure similar to that of Beltway Terror with an American flag for Gibbet, 1993-1994. This work was featured in the New Museum’s reprisal of the year 1993 in the 2013 exhibition NYC 1993: Experimental, Jet Set, Trash, and No Star, alongside works by Mike Kelley, Nan Goldin, Nayland Blake and Andrea Fraser, who with Noland, cumulatively defined their generation’s concerns and aesthetics. Extolling her importance, Jerry Saltz has written, “Noland, not Barney, Hirst, or González-Torres, is the crucial link between last 1980’s commodity art and much that has followed; she is the portal through which enormous amounts of appropriational, political and compositional notions pass. So mercurial, so fierce, and originally poetic is she that I think of her as our Rimbaud” (J. Saltz, “Invasion of the Sculpture Snatchers,” Village Voice, May 12, 2006).
Critic and curator Bob Nickas recalls a display of a sister work, titled Your Fucking Face, and how “the artist would from time to time put herself on display, sticking her head, arms, and legs through the holes, to be locked in place, temporarily imprisoned and on view for anyone who came to see the show.” In addition to the artist, there were also volunteers who inserted themselves into the artwork, at various times. Bob Nickas continues, “Stocks, historically, were a means not only to punish an offender but to publicly humiliate the person. In other works from this period, Noland presented images of politicians who had disgraced themselves or been brought down (most prominently Richard Nixon)...” (B. Nickas, “Traces of SoHo Past,” Vice Magazine, March 1, 2010, http://www.vice.com/print/traces-of-soho-past-366-v17n3 [accessed September 6, 2016]).