27 Notes on Jimmy Limit’s Surplus


To approach surplus as subject is to speak in terms not only of quantity, but also of purpose: for there to be an excess of something, there must be some quantifiable figure being exceeded, a desired end eclipsed.


In 1896, Heinrich Wölfflin published “Wie man Skulpturen aufnehmen soll” – roughly translated, “How One Should Photograph Sculpture.” Rejecting the use of photographs as means of studying classical and Renaissance-era carvings, the essay argues for a normative, formalized approach to documenting three-dimensional works. For Wölfflin, the variables of photography – its ability to distort scale, to fragment composition, to elevate detail, to improvise and multiply angles of view – only reinforced what he saw as a fundamental failing of contemporary installation: namely, that unlike classical works, modern offerings did not dictate a single, specific point of observation. His was an argument for art encountered on finite terms, designed and presented so as to deny chance readings or random views that might exceed – and thus obscure – artistic intention.


Since at least the advent of photography, then, the notion of a visual surplus has come as a challenge to longstanding models of artistic production and reception – modes anchored in specificity, uniformity, and control.


It’s fitting that my earliest correspondence with Jimmy Limit came about through a shared interest in Wölfflin’s thesis. Jimmy’s practice has long been driven by similar questions surrounding the relationships between source and reproduction, intention and interpretation. But where Wölfflin saw multiplicity as a kind of degradation, Jimmy seems to relish in it, employing strategies of photography, sculpture, installation and documentation to invite a less fixed, more expansive encounter.

Nowhere is this more apparent than in his most recent offering at Clint Roenisch: through a characteristic assortment of materials, techniques and stagings, Surplus finds Jimmy time and again promoting transitory engagements, unintended responses, unforeseen developments.


In many instances, our enjoyment of art requires an initial act of surrender – a willful shedding of expectation that might allow the work to meet us halfway, clarifying, even illuminating, as much as it confirms. Convention would reserve such allowances for the viewer, for whom surprise is presumably part of the fun, but one (as others have) wonders: why should the same not be true for the artist? What exactly is lost in the relinquishing of control, the obscuring of intention, the courting of varied response? What might be gained?


The worn and cracked surfaces of stacked plaster molds; an impression of the artist’s face, captured as it fades into memory foam; the citrus scattered strategically around the room, rounding the corner of ripeness: so much of Jimmy’s presentation here speaks to notions of transition, evolution, the spaces between distinct modes of being.


Taken from another angle: In Ways of Worldmaking, the philosopher Nelson Goodman suggests that in trying to distinguish creative works from everyday items, the pertinent question isn’t “What is art?” but rather “When is art?” Function, symbolism, intrinsic and extrinsic properties: all, Goodman holds, are ultimately matters of circumstance, the subject’s station shifting back and forth according to its usage. “An object may symbolize different things at different times, and nothing at other times,” he writes. “An inert or purely utilitarian object may come to function as art, and a work of art may come to function as an inert or purely utilitarian object. Perhaps, rather than art being long and life short, both are transient.” (1)

Obviously, Goodman wasn’t the first to consider such questions – or, for that matter, to arrive at similar conclusions: along with a veritable lineage of philosophers and writers, these ideas have been explored to varying ends in practices ranging from Surrealist collage and still-life photography to Pop, Arte Povera and, of course, the readymade. What interests me here about Goodman’s language, though, is this notion of lifetimes. It’s a concept embodied throughout Jimmy’s practice: in his selection of materials, much of which he purchases from hardware stores and groceries, uses briefly, and then promptly returns so as to be bought again, their status as art objects only a momentary interruption of their conventional uses; in his approach to sculpture, wherein items are arranged, presented and dismantled in short order, the assemblages rarely outliving their functions as still-lifes or installations; in his methods of documentation, which he approaches as a viable medium in its own right, going so far as to install the results as framed prints within the show itself before eventually posting them online. It’s all passing phases and varying functions: context as content; application, connotation.


More than any of his previous showings, Surplus finds Jimmy translating these ideas to the byproducts of his own practice. He continues to incorporate studio debris into his still-life imagery, of course, but it goes beyond that: there’s the video installation, with its scrolling cycle of outtakes (unused images, in-progress edits) unfolding as if on a quickly-swiped dashboard; there are the documentation images from prior exhibitions, printed and framed as new pieces; the color graphs, typically used for shooting and editing, here retained and integrated into works’ compositions; the molds cast from previous ceramic works, mildly abstracted or merely re-glazed. Recycling, meta-layering, self-reference: in Surplus, all elements of the process have become materials for use, with even the “final” works themselves treated as points of both culmination and departure.


I’m working all of this out on a late May afternoon in New York City, looking through my window at the Callery Pear blossoms that go thick as the colder seasons (finally) shift.

I mention it because my being here means that I’m not there – which is to say that I haven’t seen Jimmy’s show in person. My readings are based entirely on documentation shots taken weeks after installation; by the time this text is published and read, the exhibition itself will have long since closed.


As a technical photographer whose output draws on the formal conventions of commercial stock imagery, Jimmy’s work would seem to reinforce certain presumptions of neutrality, of simple precision. But he’s never been shy in acknowledging the extent of his interventions in post: in his work and documentation alike (if such distinctions apply), he regularly alters lighting, adjusts angles, adds shadows, changes colors, digitally removes and inserts elements as desired.


When even the most seemingly trivial aspects of a captured scene can be reduced, exaggerated or subtracted at will, no information left in the resulting image can be considered negligible, unintended. Insofar as the results are precise, they’re also purposeful.


That said: in building perspective through a folder of jpegs, I know there are elements of the IRL experience that I’m missing. I’m equally confident that at least some of what I’m seeing was never physically there to begin with.

But I think that’s one of the larger points being made in Surplus:

Documentation isn’t about making the viewer feel as though s/he’s “been there.” It’s not a method of encapsulation. It’s a process of essentializing, a reflection of preferences, a result of intent. It’s about producing a version of what existed elsewhere, initiating a viable but entirely separate experience.


Put more plainly:

Documentation is simulation, which is translation, which is transformation, which is invention.


Digital interventions like these, routinely employed in even the most straightforward installation views, would seem to fulfill Wölfflin’s call for a more idealized mode of presentation: the static vista, the singular version, the vantage point dictated by artist alone.

Offsetting such practices, however, is a simple but significant development: as mobile technologies become ubiquitous, as snapping and sharing becomes a collective compulsion, one finds that more and more of the documentation s/he encounters online has been produced not by artists or galleries, but by audience members themselves – which is to say, by the only parties involved in the viewing ritual without any professional (creative or financial) stake in the works’ depictions. In short order, this has made for a wonderfully anarchic landscape, with “official” imagery surrounded by amateur snaps, the works newly translated through random framings, varying fidelities, unanticipated angles.


The streaks in reflections, the wandering visitors, uneven edges, electrical sockets: as documentation is democratized, the random details that are so much a part of in-person visits are being gradually integrated into the remote viewing experience.

Of course, one could argue that such elements are superfluous, that they make the works less satisfying, less ideal. But then again, they might just as often be edifying, instructive, illuminating.


You’ll note, however, that I haven’t suggested that this user-generated material might be any more “honest” or “accurate.”


With his most recent string of shows, Jimmy’s made clear efforts to acknowledge, even encourage such interactions. His own approach to documentation, for one, has gradually extended beyond the norms of the C.A.D. style to incorporate far less conventional (though equally compositional) choices of angle and layering. Even more pronounced are the ways in which he’s applied these ideas to his strategies of installation. In scrolling through Surplus, note the painted sections of the wall, tying portions of the layout together while serving as makeshift backdrops for photography (iPhone or otherwise). See the pedestals, colored to match those backdrops, thus allowing for varieties in composition and depth dictated entirely by ones chosen vantage. He’s even included those calibration charts, should one feel inclined to adjust tones before posting.

To an extent, all of this simply acknowledges the dominant mode of consumption: far more people will see Surplus on a screen than in the gallery, so the more images of his work circulate, the broader his viewership will be. But it also suggests a certain recognition on Jimmy’s part: namely, that his interest in producing new versions of his work might be shared as well by his audience – and that, in embracing this fact, he allows for outside perspectives that might very well augment his own.


Two brief thoughts on circulation-as-exhibition:

1.) At this point, most artists have come to terms with the idea that their work might exist in multiple forms simultaneously. Whether ones output is initially physical or natively digital, whether ones online presence is purely promotional or part of the practice, there remains the expectation that all must contend to some extent with these notions of image, of versions, of platforms.

In practical terms, this means that relatively few contemporary artists produce work entirely independent of photographic concerns. It also means that each given artwork we see is but one of at least two separate iterations.

2.) As modes of presentation become fragmented, the process of reception becomes cumulative. Online viewing favors the aggregate over the individual, fluid relationships over standalone offerings.

This is particularly relevant in addressing notions of surplus: for when the ultimate point is the sum of the parts, there’s no longer such thing as “too many.”


The true measure of quality for any given work lays less in its initial impact than in how it ages – a process that has as much to do with breadth of viewership as it does with the passage of time.

On that basis, one might suggest that an artwork’s value ultimately lies in its resonance: the variety of experience it accommodates, the range of readings it can withstand over time. Authorial intention, execution, presentation: these things are vital, of course, but they remain, in the end, ancillary, instructive but never definitive of the item itself.


I’m strolling through MoMA with Cameron, making our way through a lightweight but fun collection of Warhols. Entering the second gallery, we find a long set of screenprinted Soup Cans, installed as a linear sequence of frames. I ask which is his favorite. He scans them and says, “Black Bean.”

A mechanized process yielding items at once interrelated and unique. The artist’s methods confirmed through surface discrepancies, however random or minute. Value: relative, a matter of palate, of taste.

As we walk on, my mind turns to slipcasting.


Recent years have seen ceramics take on an increasingly prominent role in Jimmy’s work. He and I have spoken elsewhere as to the reasons behind that development (2), but in the context of Surplus, one might consider a simple point:

Slipcasting is like copy-and-pasting, screen printing, or making editions from a negative: even in duplicating from a given source, there arise issues of both authenticity and consistency. Towards the former: When copy and original are ostensibly the same, what becomes of those hierarchies that would otherwise distinguish them? To the latter: Reproduction (whether manual or mechanized) tends to be a matter of fidelity; even in apparently “neutral” methods of replication, one often finds variation, differences in detail, material discrepancies, however slight. The process tends to be essential rather than absolute, each new item of a set and yet singular.


An early morning email from Jimmy: “I had this thought last night of a perfectly preserved Home Depot, discovered 10,000 years from now by some sort of beings. Imagining what they’d think about what they found – and what it would tell them about the civilization that had produced and used it.”


If his thoughts here seem to flirt with the archaeological, consider as well some of the elements on view in Surplus: the stacked ceramic molds, vessel-like but ultimately ambiguous in form (and thus function); the plastic frames, wastebaskets and metal pipes, overturned and recast as formalist constructions; the water hoses and industrial tubing, reshaped to serve as lines within two-dimensional compositions; and most literally, an assortment of artifacts (Egyptian funerary objects, Paleolithic stone tools, 1st Century Roman pendants) and sci-fi film props, purchased on eBay and repurposed as sculpture. Throughout, we find items transmuted (liberated, an aesthete might argue) by disconnect – from context, from discourse, from conventional function.


The larger archaeology/photography comparison that Jimmy draws here is apt: in artifacts, as in photos, one is presented with mere remnants, items carrying traces of history but ultimately without points of reference beyond themselves. Deprived of context, we find in both disciplines the potential for objects to take on imagined narratives, ambiguous meanings, fresh and unforeseen applications.


Were Surplus left to its own devices, relieved of texts and willed to the passage of time, how would it read to those encountering it five years removed? Thirty years? Three hundred?


Now, in June (the blossoms gone), reading back through what I’ve written, I’m not sure that Jimmy will necessarily relate to all of this. But then I guess that’s the point.


In art, as in most things, stability resides more in concept than practice. Circumstances vary, precedents fade, meaning shifts as a function of context and time: this much is inherent to how works are presented and received. Whether this comes as a source of anxiety or potential insight, however, is entirely a matter of perspective, a question of choice. What I find so gratifying about Jimmy’s presentation here is that he leaves little doubt as to which side of the line he’s chosen. This is work that embraces the blur, designed to resonate within a given moment without being bound to it. It is, in the end, the very denial of surplus: a proliferation of outcomes met not as a failing, not as a burden, but as an opportunity.

Christopher Schreck
New York City
June 2015

1. Goodman, Nelson. Ways of Worldmaking. (Cambridge: Hackett Publishing Company, 1978). Pg. 70.
2. Schreck, Christopher, in conversation with Jimmy Limit et al. New Balance: Approaching the Use of Ceramics in Contemporary Art. (New York: Off-White New York, 2014). pp. 43-55.

Essay written to accompany Surplus, an exhibition by Jimmy Limit at Clint Roenisch Gallery, Toronto