We’re all beginners here: support, for beginners by Josh Atlas at Elephant Art Space

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?

Stacks (7), 2017 and Mounds (8), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Stacks (6), 2017. Acrylic, crayon, paper, and wood. 29 5/8 x 4 7/8 x 3/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

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?

Mounds (8), 2017. Acrylic, paper, and wood. 17 3/4 x 3 x 1/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Mounds (1), 2017 and Stacks (6), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Stacks (6), 2017; Stacks (7), 2017; and Mounds (8), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Mounds (9), 2017, and Mounds (1), 2017. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Mounds (5), 2017. Acrylic, paper, pastel, and wood. 13 5/8 x 6 7/8 x 1/4 inches. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Stacks (7), 2017. Acrylic, crayon, paper, and wood. 37 x 96 x 1/2 inches. (Josh Atlas)

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.

Georgia is an artist and writer living in Los Angeles. For more information on her projects, please visit www.georgialikethestate.net

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Stephanie Deumer and Arden Surdam. I’m not too familiar with Arden’s work, but from what I know about Stephanie, it sounds like she may have taken the lead on titling. All of Stephanie’s artworks have serious titles. By serious, I mean thoughtful, and also leading; while the content of the title of this show sets us up for what may be a kind of existential experience (in body, out of body, shadow body, etc. etc.), the poetics of its phrasing also claim an important stake on language and its place in art; namely, that it belongs, and will likely serve us as we approach this exhibition.

I can’t actually get past the title. What is a mere body? As a noun, mere means an expanse of standing water, like a lake or a pool; as an adjective, it means pure. It also means no more than, but it simultaneously means no less than. It’s a fascinating word. The formal poetics of the title work the magic, too; real/mere look very similar and are both monosyllabic; I consider them off-rhymes. Shadows/bodies are both polysyllabic, and are also arguably off-rhymes. And then, perhaps most beautifully, the mirroring of the title, accomplished with a preposition, which can be applied in several ways; for can be a “function word,” indicating a purpose, goal, perception, or desire; it can also have an autonomous, non-function word meaning: because of, in place of, in spite of.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. From left to right: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 76.7″x20″x20″; Arden Surdam’s Gladiolas for a Funeral, 2017. Archival inkjet print, 28″x24″; Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, paper, PVC, paper. 74″x43″x21. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.

Because Of, In Place Of, In Spite Of would also be a good title for this show; for it is predicated on the existence of another artist’s work (in this case Arden’s), and this predication is perhaps the most interesting, but also disconcerting, and even annoying, aspect of this show. (Here I will add that though it’s hard to tell from the documentation of the show, images of Arden’s work appear on, as in are printed directly on, Stephanie’s sculptures.) Is annoying a bad thing? I don’t really think so.  Something that is annoying is often something that must be tolerated, because it is essential. For example, waiting in line can be annoying, but its an essential aspect of life that must be managed; or, the sound of bees buzzing can be annoying, but this is fundamentally beautiful and vital; its buzz is characteristic to its being. So, the buzz characteristic to Stephanie’s being is this thing where she literally uses, typically through photo or video, things that are in the space already, or that will be there at the time of the exhibition. What’s annoying about this is that Arden’s work must go up first, which must be annoying for both of them. But it also raises the question of temporality that i’m not convinced is meaningless: Arden’s work must always come first. Stephanie’s must always come second. Stephanie must always come around and eventually use, steal, borrow, echo, shadow, Arden’s work. And in this sense, someone’s work must occupy the place of the mere body, and someone’s must occupy the real shadow. It may not be a fixed position.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

Stephanie’s fountain piece is clearly the centerpiece of the show. As you make your way into the gallery (a small-ish room, albeit with unusual architectural characteristics, like a sloped ceiling, and, I think, skylights?) it is basically the first thing you see. It is placed diagonally toward what I believe is the most trafficked entrance to the gallery (an exterior door all the way to the left), so that as you enter the actual exhibition space, as opposed to the entryway, you’re squared up with the thing. The thing is a working fountain that looks a lot like a mantle; I don’t know anything about making fountains, but presumably there are pipes inside, and a hose, or another pipe, that cycles the water through. It looks kind of like a window with a planter box. I don’t know what it’s constructed out of, but the outside may be wood or plastic; either way, the pipes are housed inside of this window/mantle structure, which is itself covered in faux-marble contact paper, or something of the sort. Water flows down from the top of the window over a piece of plexi, I think, and it certainly makes a nice, relaxing sound. Overall it looks like Stephanie knows how to make a fountain, and the faux-marble contact paper (which is grimy, and not pristine, and not mis-recognizable) is the only thing that gives away that this structure is meant to represent something fake, something obviously fake; and that this fakeness may be more important than the fountain’s fountain-ness, which is to produce a jet of water in some form.

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Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x19.25″. Image courtesy of the artist.

This is not the whole artwork, although it could be. In fact, there is a 10-minute video projected onto the “screen” of the fountain, but from the back. This may explain the location of the fountain in the gallery (it seems the most logical, and the only practical) but it may not. I don’t really want to describe the video. I think the most important things about it are that women are in it, and only women; that these women are either faceless, or simply tropes of women, putting on makeup, or swimming up at us seductively and ethereally from a very blue pool. There are fish swimming upstream, or dying out of water; it’s hard to tell, and its disturbing. Also, there are a lot of meta-screen things happening, like a tablet screen the size of the fountain screen, and then scrolling through the screen, and maybe screens popping up and becoming other screens. There is a voiceover that accompanies the piece; another poetic thing, a story about reflection and love and recognition, which implies the myth of Narcissus very clearly, but never uses his name. A transcript of this voiceover is offered on paper in the gallery, which seems unusual and maybe odd, made odder by the fact that it is formatted for, and then cut to, a smaller paper size. Or perhaps it is useful to those that are hard of hearing.

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Installation view of Real Shadows for Mere Bodies. In the foreground: Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″32.5″x22″. In the background, from left to right: Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. PVC, acrylic, vinyl, wood, wire mesh, plastic basin, fountain pump, water, digital video projection. 56″x32″x”19.25″. Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of Stephanie Deumer.
Arden Surdam’s Untitled #1 and Untitled #2. Both are archival inkjet prints, 5″x3.3″, from 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.
Arden Surdam’s Echo, 2017. Image courtesy of the artist.

I’m trying to understand if my reaction to the fountain video can be separated from my reaction the fountain, or from the other works in the show. The worst part of the video, which I  am really leaving many interesting and worthy details out of, is that it makes the fountain into a prop; a mechanism for screening. It is a really, really clever way to screen a video, and I can’t stop thinking about that. When I say worst part of the video, what I mean is that the video is having a weird effect on the fountain—it’s almost revealing too much about the fountain—its revealing this really direct relationship between the insinuated story of Narcissus told in the voiceover, and the fact that when you watch the video, you’re also staring into a stream of water. And yet you can rarely see your reflection when you watch; you can only see it in those two minutes between video loops, which I happened to ruin by crassly yelling to Stephanie, “hey, is this thing gonna loop again??”

That only women appear in this video in various forms seems to be besides the point. That a video about, say, in a superficial sense, the narcissism of our culture should be directed at or performed through only female bodied people seems tragically unfair. Why Stephanie, why? I know a little bit about the myth of Narcissus. Its most important and most misunderstood attribute is that Narcissus doesn’t fall in love with himself; he falls in love with an untouchable, unknowable creature that has no materiality at all. It is a fundamental misrecognition; he doesn’t know it’s him. The tragedy here isn’t that he’s fallen in love with himself: it’s that he doesn’t recognize himself. Is that our problem? Is it that as women, we don’t recognize ourselves, since we’ve become immaterial, digital versions of ourselves? I don’t know. I mean, it is possible that Narcissus, in this artwork, represents a kind of male gaze, but it would be hard for me to argue that at this point. I struggle with the dualities represented in this artwork; the tropes of women in opposition to, I guess, the tropes of humankind? In the artwork, is Narcissus a man or a myth? A man, or a metaphor? A metaphor for man? For the male-bodied?

Stephanie Deumer’s Untitled, 2017. MDP, acrylic, PVC, paper. 74″x”43″21″. Image courtesy of the artist.

When we step away from the video, we encounter several other sculptures and images. Stephanie has built what I think of as very, very weird structures out of PVC; she mentioned to me that they are like “vanities,” which are, essentially, dressing tables. Sometimes they have mirrors affixed to them, or just sitting on them (like what I have at home, an antique desk that my grandmother used for letter-writing, that my mom used as a vanity, and that I gave to my wife as a dressing-table, which is what I call it). Stephanie’s vanities, made of PVC and paper, mimic the kind with the attached mirror; the outline is similar to her fountain, but with a much taller base. There is a photograph attached between what would be the “top” of the mirror (though again, this is made of PVC) and the front edge of the desk part (also made of PVC). This has the effect of looking somewhat crude, but also like a photographers sweep; the kind of thing you rig up to take photos of soft goods, or of anything, I guess. The images on these sweeps come from the gallery space itself; they are literally photos of different angles of the gallery, which include Arden’s prints; in this way, her work subsumes Arden’s by reproducing it; another kind of gesture towards Narcissus.

But of course, the myth is only partially complete. In fact, it is the myth of Echo and Narcissus, who were never meant to be, but seem perfectly at ease in Real Shadows For Mere Bodies. Echo was the beautiful nymph cursed by Zeus’s wife, Hera (because she was flirtatious, and talked too much, and covered for her slutty nymph-friends). Hera’s curse was simple; instead of initiating her own sentences, she could only speak when spoken to, and could only repeat back what was said to her. She fell in love with Narcissus but was rejected by him; soon after, he saw his reflection, and fell in love. Echo, with her curse, was unable to tell Narcissus that the love he sought was his own, and soon she wasted away. The only trace left of her was the sound of her voice, scattered among the mountains and caves of the countryside.

The idea of such a curse is a clever one; being confined to speak only what is spoken to you is so twisted. And yet this is what Stephanie’s work performs. It is not Narcissus that Real Shadows For Mere Bodies represents, but Echo; the manifestation of the work is confined to the space of the gallery, and as an artist, Stephanie is cursed only to repeat that space, back into her work; into her images; into her representations.

At this point I start to get it a little more, but its very complicated. Stephanie’s work, in this show and in general, proposes that as artists, we are stuck inside of some kind of self-centered (narcissistic?) repetition when it comes to art-making. And this show in particular is proposing that part of that loop is our woman-ness; it is the state that is reflected back to us, and that we reflect back, in turn.

It’s hard to know how to wrap this up—I like Arden’s prints; this show renders them banal while quietly allowing them to be exquisite. I think this is what they do best—reminding us of tradition, of composition, of semiotics, and other intriguing, pretty, docile things. They ground the show, and whisper, ever so faintly, that not all manifestations of art are clever, and not all of them are masquerading as something else. They represent one version of a way out of Echo’s curse.

Arden Surdam’s Fixed Gaze, 2017. Archival inkjet print. 28″x24″. Image courtesy of the artist.

It is very, very difficult to see this show as nine separate artworks, so I have answered my own question. I think it’s a perplexing show, with so many different materials and layers of ideas. It’s interesting that some things are so obvious, like a fountain and Narcissus, and some things are so obscure, like skeleton vanities made of PVC with photographer’s sweeps on them. It’s a sensory overload, if you’ll let it be, but also, these are structures you can see right through. I think these artworks should always be shown together, and I hope that when they are separated, they lose all meaning entirely. Like Echo and Narcissus.

Real Shadows For Mere Bodies is on view at College of the Canyons in Valencia, CA through October 12, 2017. For more information on these artists, please visit their websites: http://stephaniedeumer.com/ and http://www.ardensurdam.com.