support, for beginners is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Josh Atlas. As I sit down to write this, the first thing I have to do is take a deep breath—this is a small show with just several small things; and the material of these small things is in itself small; diminutive, you could say: paper, paint, and wood. Josh calls them slight. He also refers to the wood of these sculptures as spines. So already the artworks are human, somehow, in their nature, at least in the very polite way that the artist describes them. This makes them seem fragile, maybe even emotionally fragile, and this makes me a little bit nervous. Why the deep breath? Because I know that writing on this show is going to present a special set of difficulties and questions, and one of those difficulties will be coming face to face with the very slightness that this work wants to explore. In a community of shows which pride themselves on heavy-handed and specific curatorial visions; in a community where often more is more is more (until it isn’t); and also in a moment of research-driven text-heavy shows (thanks to generous support from the Getty), we walk into this small but pretty room to experience a self-selected show of slight objects by an artist who I would call not-overly-confident, and hasn’t even shown very much. So even though I feel a strong sense of being quantitatively underwhelmed, I simultaneously feel overwhelmed by what must be at stake in these artworks and for this artist. Quiet and empty and deliberate, the sense that something deeply personal, and yet confounding, permeates the space. Both times I entered the gallery, I dealt with this issue by immediately sitting down. Sitting down and breathing, and I suppose, preparing, for the subject to hit me like a ton of bricks. Did it happen?
I have a tendency to veer away from symbolism when thinking about art, because it never gets me anywhere, unless there is something signaling to me within the artwork that it wants to and must be read in a symbolic way in order to be its authentic artwork-self. If we look for that here in Josh’s work, I think we end up with something vaguely sexual and perhaps banal; what stands out to me is the penetration happening here, specifically the penetration of wood through paper. I’m trying to think of other circumstances where wood penetrates paper, perhaps in the non-art world. Maybe just, arrows through an archery target? And this is only if you stick a paper target up on the foam or hay thing. And arrows have metal on the tip, so it doesn’t totally count. (Something funny about this observation is that I know Josh enjoys archery, and has spoken frequently of Eugen Herrigel’s 1953 book Zen In the Art of Archery; I’ve also dabbled in archery myself.) This penetrative act of wood through paper, since I can’t really place it anywhere, is totally new; and things that are totally new are really great at referencing nothing at all. Except, of course, now we are left with just the penetration, and I guess the archery too, so there must be “something to that.” Or not. It doesn’t really seem like it.
The other vaguely sexual thing is that all the works are called either Stacks or Mounds, which sounds pretty sexy to me. Let’s say this is an unconscious aspect of the artwork, and let’s move on from it—at this moment it’s not that helpful.
What else? Even though these sculptures are simple or minimal in their materials, I wouldn’t call them minimalist, and I don’t think anybody would. They’re kind of crafty, with their cheap un-fetishized wood (I called it balsa; Josh informed me it’s really red oak) and slightly streaky application of brightly-colored acrylic paint; they employ some “collage” techniques, if you will, with cut-out pieces of paper painted different colors and layered on top of each other; they also, I think, have sparkles on them (of note here; I asked josh to review this writing for factual accuracy, and he assured me there are no sparkles, but I’m still sure I saw sparkles!). Even when I describe these works, and then I look at them, I think, what the hell is this? Why why why?
And yet there I sit, on those little protruding steps, sitting and thinking and breathing. Something important about the gallery steps is that they offer the work a direction. Sit on the steps and feel suddenly grounded in this calm but esoteric presentation of paper and paint. support, for beginners feels less like an art show and more like a place to sit and think—a meditation space? I’m not into meditation but I am into thinking, and conversation. Josh told me, because I asked, that there were several more works that he proposed to be in this show, but in the end, he only ended up installing six of them. He described the difficulty of decontextualizing them from the space they were made (his living room-now-studio, a place I’ve been many times over many years) and finding the right installation. A balanced installation, you could say. It makes sense to me that editing his work down to a few perfect pieces in the perfect arrangement for this show was challenging, but you can also feel the focus and determination in those choices when you sit down. It feels like a meditative space because so much meditation went into configuring it. It feels like a place for conversation because instead of underwhelming, the artworks are actually, modest. In fact, I would call them submissive. Ah, so there is a connection with those vaguely sexual elements of penetration and mounds! The work is submissive. We dominate it with our presence, with our thoughts, with our desires for what art should be, or our own insecurities about what it is, or what meaning it could have. And, like all dominant/submissive relationships, it satisfies our desires by consenting to our control. It complicates the idea of control. Okay—it complicates the idea of meaning, and how it could be expressed. It’s an artwork (thank you Leslie!) that proposes what an artwork could be. And we, sitting mutely and perhaps judgmentally on those wooden steps, are stuck proposing what kind of an audience we are, and therefore what an audience is or does. If we have some sort of responsibility here, or not.
This is something Josh and I discussed at the show. He wondered if people really like, or get anything out of his work, or if it’s just him they like, and want to support. I asked “what’s the difference?” After some moments he explained that he’d like for his work to be able to live without him to an extent, to be able to sort of, let go of it, but be confident in it. Almost like a parent/child relationship, but not exactly. Josh, you show your work love and care; you’re kind, gracious, and patient with it—and with me—as we sit and have a conversation which, at some point, I realize has become more about me than about Josh, or his art show.
I didn’t mention this yet but it’s really important—as soon as I came into the show and sat down (we met on the Monday afternoon following the opening), I immediately started talking about myself. Why I write, what I want out of writing, studio visits I’ve had that seemed weird or bad, things I read on Facebook that infuriated me (a very lame and irrelevant complaint on my part); this is NOT standard procedure for how I behave, or how I want to behave, when talking with an artist at their show. And I would argue that this share, and maybe even over-share, is a function of Josh’s work. It seems, I know, that we were just chit-chatting, since we are friends, and we are both artists, or whatever; but that really isn’t it. The meditative, conversational space that is support, for beginners is to me the crux of the work; heck, it’s even in the title. Support. And yes, I guess I am a beginner. Case and point.
I’ll admit I am being some form of gracious towards this artwork, because that’s how it makes me feel; like if I am somehow unkind, or overly critical, then I will miss the point entirely with all my blustering and hard-headedness, all my expectations and demands and superiorities. My “art world pretensions” if you will. But there are criticisms worth bringing up, and I would be doing this work a disservice if I simply glossed over them.
These works are really opaque. As in, for me, it’s really hard to just look at them and get something out of them. I mean, transparency is not necessarily a quality that I value in art, but in the press release, Josh writes “They present themselves clearly and plainly, giving all they have to offer.” I hate to call out artists’ writing on their own work, but they are just not plain and clear. Like, absolutely no way are they plain and clear. Damn it Josh, they are complicated and difficult! And I do not mean that as a criticism. I think what Josh means is that they aren’t works that have been worked to death with symbols and concepts and ideologies; I think he means to back away from being convoluted; however, not being overly-complicated does not render an artwork plain, and definitely not clear. Let’s remember that. And let’s not sell ourselves short when describing our own work. To Josh, the content of the work may be clarity, openness, whatever; but that doesn’t have to, and will likely not, do a one-to-one translation to its form, despite what art school may want us to think.
Since I am being picky about language, I think the use of the word “empathy” when describing this work is odd, too, and I’m not sure what to make of it. Like, empathic toward what? Is it to Josh? Is it to artists? Is it to ourselves? While I get that I have almost already argued that the nature of this work is in fact empathic, (empathy: the action of understanding, being aware of, being sensitive to, and vicariously experiencing the feelings, thoughts, and experience of another of either the past or present without having the feelings, thoughts, and experience fully communicated in an objectively explicit manner, definition courtesy of Merriam-Webster online, my writing bible), isn’t all art? And, isn’t everything? Without empathy, we are all totally lost and screwed. A singular artwork dedicated to empathy is so broad as to be meaningless. And this isn’t meaningless, is it?
My harshest criticism by far is that I wonder if I could get away with an artwork like this. As in, something that could be argued is at best interested in formalism and other boring un-contemporary aesthetic ideas, and at worst is an a-political artwork that privileges some kind of transcendental experience which seems genderless and raceless and classless, but of course is not. I don’t see it in either of those ways, and I would encourage others not to, either; but I have the time and privilege of figuring out what it could mean, and really, what it could mean to me. This is something I like about this work. If I believe Josh when he writes “they give all they have to offer,” (and I do believe him), then I in turn feel obligated to give back. A question of audience? Asked, and answered.
Even after all this, I don’t know. I’m still really puzzled by this work. It really, really wants a lot from me. It’s like, we all want something from art, a lot of things, but we don’t know how to get them. This work is an attempt to do something that for once I do feel is beyond language; it’s floating a way of working, of thinking, of absorbing. For some people this will click, and for some it won’t; I can tell you I walked away feeling like art is even more mysterious than I ever understood. That I still can’t really tell you anything about this artwork, why this, why that, but I am willing to try. And so was Josh. We don’t want ideologies, we don’t want arrogance, we don’t want didactics, or to join a new religion. What we want is something that can be close to the truth, even if it’s a truth we can’t understand; that’s what support, for beginners, is; if there’s a revelation here, it’s that we’re all beginners, after all.
support, for beginners is on view at Elephant Art Space from October 7th to October 28th, 2017. Elephant Art Space is open on Saturdays and by appointment. For information on Josh Atlas, please visit his website: http://www.joshatlas.com.