There are a lot of different kinds of artwork in the world. I am a believer in this difference—that it “takes all kinds,” so to speak. It makes no difference to me if art is good or bad; for the most part, I’m happy that it’s there. I’m going to guess that the organizers of Other Places art fair (OPaf) feel the same way—and for that, and their unsung efforts to successfully pull off this event, I say, thanks.
As a person that thinks about art a lot, and then tries to verbalize those thoughts regularly, I think it’s worth saying that most of the art I write about does not inspire me, or excite me, or generally produce any specific, pronounced feelings. It’s a slog; to use an annoying but apt athletic metaphor, art-thinking is a marathon, not a sprint. When I see art, I do not know what it means. I do not know what the fuck it is. But I trust that if the artist cares about their artwork, and is invested in it, I too can care, and become invested in it, and then I can get something special from it, that special art feeling where something you’ve encountered helps you articulate a complicated thought that maybe would not have been articulated if that artwork didn’t exist in that way. I am sure the many delightfully messy booths and intriguing but plainly odd installations (mudslinging?) at OPaf offer these delights, when given time, attention, and compassion (I should know; nearly all the shows I’ve reviewed had some presence at OPaf, either the space or the artist); BUT, there was one special thing at OPaf that really transcended my typical marathon approach and sent me into a full-on sprint; that is, Artemisa Clark’s performance, On Record, as presented by ELEVATOR MONDAYS.
Is it possible to write a full, essay-ish length review of an ephemeral artwork I saw at an art fair for about five minutes of what was a 300 minute duration? If you saw just 15% of a painting, would you wake up in the middle of the night wondering if you were a worthy vessel to appreciate this type of profound expression? If you deemed yourself worthy, would you be able to get your thoughts out in time to watch the Super Bowl? These are the hard-hitting questions.
What’s cool about OPaf is the same thing that is so uncool about Art Los Angeles Contemporary (ALAC); whereas ALAC is just a transposition of art to a warehouse for ease-of-shopping (yes, it’s an airplane hangar, but that’s like a warehouse for an airplane, yes?), OPaf is taking the art wayyy out of the gallery, past the warehouse, all the way to the shipping yard itself. It’s outside, in like, a carved-out paved hilltop I cannot exactly describe. It feels sort of like an alleyway on the top of a mountain, (or “hill,” as we say in LA), and it also feels like an aqueduct, and also like a mote. There is an “entrance,” at the front of the mote, designated by a table and handmade sign suggesting a small donation. That’s fine. But what’s interesting about an arbitrary entrance to an outdoor space is that it gives what should seem to be a hierarchy-less landscape a quite profound hierarchy; there is a front, and a back. In flea-market land, (and I’m sure at ALAC, too), closer booths cost more $$. By the time you get to the “back” of OPaf, which takes about two minutes, you have to walk up a set of built-in stairs, next to a chain-link fence, to reach the top of a concrete retaining wall, to get to the last few galleries. I’m not explaining this well, but imagine that OPaf is a basin, with a rim at the top; when you get to the back of the basin, there are more galleries on the rim, but you have to walk up there.
The few galleries on the OPaf rim are all helplessly outshined by the epic view of the Port of Los Angeles. This is no typical ocean view; while us west-coasters pretty much guffaw at a blue blue ocean panorama on a warm February afternoon, this is not Venice Beach; beach bums and the tourists excited for the opportunity to blend in with them do not ride tandem bicycles and eat burritos from styrofoam Perry’s on the Beach containers; no, what we see on our way to San Pedro, and then from the top of Angel’s Gate Park, is the essence of a globalized world; the great migration of people and things, and the military that serves and protects that vision.
I see Don’s ELEVATOR MONDAY shirts hanging on the chain-link fence surrounding the basin, and we (Sarah and me) walk over. Right away Don is playing the gallery attendant, telling us to read the press for the show (his slim stack of press releases ripples in the wind, held down on the ground with a big old rock). ELEVATOR doesn’t have a table or a booth to indicate its presence, but it does have two site specific artworks: Nina Sarnelle’s Nike X and My Dead Hand, and Artemisa Clark’s On Record. Don tells us that Artemisa Clark is reading “right now,” and he points away from OPaf and toward the water; about 500 feet in front of us, separated from the crowds, stands a person, her back to the ocean, bent forward a little, holding something. No one is within earshot of her, and Sarah and I approach and stand there, listening, and looking, too.
It’s always weird when you approach someone doing a performance, and there’s no one else there. Like, they are performing to no one, sort of. Reading to no one really emphasizes this feeling of an absent audience, because reading out-loud is a labor usually performed for someone else’s benefit. So this is the first thing I feel, when I approach On Record; it is saying something profound about audience, or lack thereof.
Of course I am listening to her reading, and though she isn’t quite projecting her voice, I can understand her words clearly. The words matter, yes, but On Record is an extreme visual spectacle, glued together with the words Artemisa speaks while she shows us her body in front of this ultimate and awe-inspiring landscape. Let me explain this better. When I approached her, I did not know what she was reading. There is a clear description in the press release, but we didn’t read it until after. So I had no information about what I was about to see or hear, other than the artist’s name. It’s easy to tell right away that she is reading some governmental or other kind of institutional document, describing an inspection of a site (I assumed it was the site where we currently were; I was not far off). It’s a report, and it’s not a positive one; a lot of problem areas, and areas that need improvement. I can see with my eyes that there are redactions in the text (I think she also says the word “redacted” when she gets to those parts), but seeing the redaction visually assures me that this is a real government document. I can’t remember specifics of what was read, as in, specific sentences, and I have no transcript from which to quote. Certainly this was due to lack of time spent, aka, my fault, and not a lack of clarity on the text’s part.
Okay, so there is what was read (the content of the text), and then how it was read (everything else). First of all, she’s holding a huge stack of papers, at least a full ream (500 pages). And it’s windy. So her hands, with long, painted nails, have to grip the papers, and the papers are fluttering and flipping and all the while she is gripping, reading, turning a little into the wind, a little out of the wind, squinting a little at times, head bowed over the page, body a little bit forward, hair blowing into her eyes a little bit, a little bit sticking to her lips; my god, she’s like the Marilyn Monroe of alternative art fair performance art, windswept, a little messy looking, but totally determined, anchored to the earth by her beat-up looking combat boots, fitted to her bare, quivering legs. When a woman performs anything, it can become sexual; and I find my profound attraction this artist and this artwork a confusing and perhaps embarrassing mix of the romance of the ocean, my permission to look at her bare flesh, the sound of her voice beating back against the wind, and the power to stand alone, not feigning art but really being it, really doing it, on the periphery of the basin of man-made bullshit.
Yes, this is a site-specific artwork, and the text that Artemisa reads (“news articles and official documents regarding the now-defunct INS/ICE San Pedro Processing Center on Terminal Island”) is meant to be political. I mean, it is political, absolutely, and I do not mean to take importance away from the content of the text—but the thing that makes this artwork so poignant is not that it is a condemnation of the government, or that it calls attention to the tragic and dizzying human rights violations that took place so close to that beautiful site—it’s the fact that we, we artists, are oblivious to even the most basic cruelties, the ones that are taking place right under our feet, or just a short drive away; it is a condemnation of us, the audience, who is barely there; she stands on the periphery of the periphery, not just outside of Other Places, but with the backdrop of the edge of the earth; On Record is the condemnation of our smug outsider status, with our convoluted art-objects and Topo Chico, and our small talk and our car artworks and all of our insider fun and gossip. You see, there is nothing complicated about On Record; it’s just, a reading, outside, on a beautiful day. And when I say nothing complicated, I am talking of course about its execution, not its subject. Yes, yes, the wonders of object-based artwork are marvelous and many, but just think about this, her simple gesture, to read aloud in a performance where she plays herself, using the fucking world as her stage. It’s brilliant.
I think that’s all I’ve got. Don, I want you to know—it isn’t lost on me that a gallery typically the size of an elevator (since it is an elevator) was suddenly transformed into something expansive, massive, agoraphobia-inspiring, as opposed to claustrophobia-inspiring. I like that little touch—it shows playfulness, but also adaptability. You set a high standard, and I hope you always will. As for On Record—thank you to Artemisa for taking the opportunity to model how we as artists can be simultaneously peripheral and dominant; simple in gesture but complicated in thought; exposed, but somehow channeling the power of an entire coast. And as for Other Places art fair? Yeah, cool, I’ll be there again next year.
How the West Was Won is an art show by Regina Mamou currently on view at Adjunct Positions. Have you ever been to an art show at Adjunct Positions? The location alone is worth seeing—the house is not just any house but one of those classic craftsman things with a steep stairway going up the hill through a surprisingly lush (but water wise, of course) garden of mature succulents. And unlike other houses in the neighborhood, it doesn’t look like its been “restored”; it feels old, authentic—meaning, it isn’t playing a version of itself to sell an idea of east LA; rather, it stayed put in the hillside, hidden in plain sight, protected by the flora and maybe even some invisible fauna (there is a catio, aka, cat patio). What I’m saying is, I like this place. The vibe is less “art as party” and more “art as block party.” Some of this vibe is due to the location of the first gallery at Adjunct Positions—a street-level single-car garage built into the hillside and outfitted with french doors. The rest of the artwork is shown up in the house, which causes a stratification of audience across the property—little art people and artworks dotting the hillside. For some reason it makes me think of the SIMS.
Getting a grip on the variety of elevations at Adjunct Positions is only necessary in so far as it seems to have influenced How the West Was Won. Looking for Freedom is the title of the artwork in the garage, and on opening night, it contained a performance. I find it so tricky to write about these spaces in which performances happened, and then, for the duration of the exhibition, just the “traces” of the performance are left. Where did this idea come from? Not strictly for Regina, but for all of us? I am tempted to bow out of Looking for Freedom completely, because I almost can’t wrap my mind around reconciling its two forms: the opening performance, which featured two Reagan-masked men in black behind generic-looking stanchions, pulling pre-”glitched” screen prints of David Hasselhoff from an almost fetishistic-looking, handicraft, customized revolving four-station print cart, and piling them up on an IKEA table; and the gallery without the performance, which is the IKEA table with two floppy Reagan masks, a few beer cans on the floor, a print display rail affixed to the wall, and a tornado of Hasselhoff prints looking as if they were thrown about the room, in a fit of rage, or total indifference. The stanchions, which the night before had served as a pseudo fourth wall for the printing performance, were clumped toward the entrance, so that they stanchioned nothing at all.
In a reductive way, this is a very straightforward artwork to interpret, even with a minimal understanding of its references; the Reagan-masked screen printers stand in for a kind of political propaganda machine; and David Hasselhoff, of all people, is a cheesy celebrity whose heterosexual-but-pretty-boy values are being espoused. The “glitch” in the print signals that all is not right; and the stanchions, while playing to their divisional strength, also serve as a cue of both a corporatization, I guess, but really, a “genericism” (not a word, sorry).
I’ve said I am being reductive, and really, I don’t want to be. What if I take my artwork-goggles off and assume that nothing is standing in for anything? Not all artworks are symbolic. They are not all metaphorical. So, this is where the garageness of the gallery comes in—the kind of production that happens in the marginalized space of a garage, disconnected from the house, segregated from the family, away from “creature comforts” (I hate that term, sorry), but also away from the authoritarian eye of the parent. The garage, people, is the place where we find freedom, even if it is a sort of reductive, adolescent, mask-wearing one; and so Looking for Freedom becomes less about a hoaky Hasselhoff we can all easily recognize as satirical, to a teenage, fuck-the-world, punk-rock DIY printing party where we’re all getting fucked up and plotting the downfall of civilization. Of course, this (wild) interpretation is predicated on the location of the other artworks on view, Looping Swans and Kimilsungia; predicated on the idea that the “domestic” (cringe again) locations of those artworks is indeed significant; I think what’s probably more important is the fact that Looking for Freedom is itself an artwork which performs a production that is likely, or at least plausible, to be taking place in that location (a garage). Therefore, Looking for Freedom doesn’t transcend the space of the garage; rather, it uses it as a subject. Now let’s go up to the house.
First of all, that the gallery space of Adjunct Positions is designated by a four-foot wide installation of white laminate flooring over whatever synthetic oak-looking flooring makes up the rest of the house is architecturally insane but pleasantly mysterious. I won’t dwell on it here, because chances are if you visit this space enough, you get used to it, and you adjust; but Kimilsungia, the artwork installed therein, seems tailor-made for it, which consequently makes it seem like an additional, utterly artificial addition to the artwork. The artwork itself is a series of identical orchids in matching pots displayed on those floating white laminate IKEA shelves. The artificiality of this artwork is overwhelming, despite the “natural” flowers, and I don’t know what to make of that feeling quite yet. Another part of Kimilsungia is the bronze plaque, which you could almost miss if it wasn’t so clearly defined on the gallery map. The plaque reads “In 1964 the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea acquired its own flower, a botanical symbol of the nation. Its name is the ‘kimilsungia,’ or ‘flower of Kim Il Sung.’ Later, in 1979, a special greenhouse, the Central Botanical Garden in Pyongyang, was created to specifically grow ‘kimilsungia,’ also known as ‘the flower of loyalty.’”
Actually, the first thing I did when I walked inside the house was go straight for the couch, to watch whatever was on the little TV, an artwork called Looping Swans. The artwork is the television set, VCR, and VHS tape, and a looping video, 1 minute 28 seconds in length. At the opening, which was a perfectly lovely event I could have spent all night at, I sat for at least a half an hour on that couch, watching/looking at Looping Swans over and over until I no longer saw or heard anything in particular, but was instead hypnotized by the incessant stepping, glitching, and musical stylings of that video. But what was I looking at? A ballet, of course; or, a recording of a performance of a ballet. An old recording, made apparent by the filmic blurring and stretching of the image, and the otherworldly blue light emanating from it. I’ll guess that the ballet is Swan Lake, but only because of the title of the artwork, Looping Swans. Oh, and there’s an orchid on the table next to the TV set, and the table is from IKEA.
Have we covered everything, at least what there is to be seen with the eyes? Looping Swans is a sculpture and a video, set up in the weirdly tight living room at the back of the house. According to the title sheet, its media is listed as Television set, VCR, VHS tape. Kimilsungia refers to the orchids and the bronze plaque; its media is listed as orchids, bronze plaque. Looking for Freedom is the opening night performance, and its media is listed as stanchions and screen prints. So, what patterns are emerging? We’ve got celebrities hither and thither; Reagan, Hasselhoff, Kim Il Sung, Swan Lake. We’ve got flowers; orchids, to be exact; the Flower of Loyalty, to be exacter; and, perhaps most profoundly and transcendently, we have IKEA.
My idea of what this show is is a really bumpy roller coaster ride. One minute I’m thinking it’s all about garages and rebellion (especially in contrast to the uniformity of flowers and ballet, sitting docile in front of the TV set, blending into the domestic scenery, yet totally artificial, banal); the next, I’m thinking it’s all about the transcendental, cross-cultural power of IKEA (313 stores across 38 counties!). It’s fucking fascinating (curse word used for emphasis) that IKEA never makes its way into the materials list, since its the clear through-line between all the artworks, bringing How the West Was One closer to a cohesive thought made up of small, distinct artworks. If IKEA is missing from the materials list, then what else must be missing? It could be anything.
Regina walked me through How the West Was Won on the Monday after the show opened. BUT that was nearly a week ago (at the time of this writing), and so I cannot remember the specifics of what she said. This memory lapse allowed me to retain most of the original sensation of encountering the show, and before I discuss our conversation a little bit, I will make a few last observations.
When you sit and watch Looping Swans for a long time, you start to feel exhausted; exhausted empathetically for the performers, but also visually and aurally fatigued by the repetition. In some way there is a cruelty to this kind of endless loop of dance, which outside of being impossible is also painful. So, we are presented with this kind of fantasy world of pain and rigidity, so much so that the orchids, a beautiful and somewhat reputationally temperamental flower, become a little bit human. The rigidity and suffering of the endless performance in Looping Swans is transposed onto the orchidsof Kimilsungia, which appear in your peripheral vision (and to the left of the TV) and it is suddenly very, very clear how a flower could be used as a means of subjugation, especially in a gendered way. And if flowers can be used in this way, so can anything, right? Even Hasselhoff? Exactly.
Earlier in this writing, I was making some crazy argument about garages; I was thinking about the site of the house as being specific to a house and its house-parts. Partially, this is because my disbelief in the site as a house is never suspended, and this complicates my interpretation of the artwork. I don’t really think Regina meant for the garage to “be” a garage, although it did not come up in our conversation. We did talk about the complexities of having a performance, and then showing the gallery/garage with the performance “remnants.” She was undecided about what purpose the stanchions now served; should the audience be prevented from walking around in the previously “performers only” area, scattered with the Hasselhoff prints and beer cans? Actually, there were only two cans, and we dedicated a significant amount of time discussing if the cans should be in there, or not. Like, who wants to see empty beer cans in an art show? It seems sort of pretentious. For me, it always makes me feel like I missed the party, and I hate missing the party, because if I missed it, I probably wasn’t invited. I think I saw Looking for Freedom in a kind of intermediary state; it was still literally “as-is” from the performance, with nothing re-staged, nothing moved. We were both looking at it, trying to make sense of it—me from the perspective of having witnessed the performance, and Regina from the perspective of having conceived and staged it. This is a good place to be in art; something intermediary, where thoughts have an opportunity to form, float, and dissipate, maybe even stick. If I was unable to form a non-reductive cohesive thought about Looking for Freedom, it’s because it’s not an artwork that values cohesive thoughts, or finished products; it’s a series of suspiciously clear moving parts waiting (and willing) to be surprised by what they produce.
That being said, I learned a lot of really interesting stuff from my walk-through with Regina. Apparently Hasselhoff has a much greater political resonance than I knew—especially in Germany, where he is über popular (haha). And I thought Regina said that during the cold war, the Russian government played Swan Lake on repeat, so that no news coverage was accessible; but clearly my brain oversimplified that part of the story, because Regina sent me this to clarify: “When tanks rolled into Moscow on 19 August 1991 during a dramatic anti-Perestroika coup by Soviet hardliners, the USSR’s state-controlled airwaves offered a curious response—a continuous loop of Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake.” The story of the orchids is practically a hero’s journey, involving a trip to North Korea where Regina purchased these special orchid seeds, and then worked with a greenhouse in Hawaii for the past year to grow them in a special way. The IKEA fixtures are not coincidental, either, but Regina explained that she wanted to limit the information she gave about the work, so that the interpretations could be broad. I can totally appreciate this instinct; artists like Regina, driven to research-based artwork (based might be too strong, perhaps inspired) often have a clear, correct outcome for their work. That Regina is focused on ways to expand the possibilities of content, not restrict them, is certainly something I feel excited about—I just wonder if the instinct to broaden a specific artwork through omitting the specifics of its making really achieves that. After all, isn’t it structure itself that helps us test the boundaries of our thought, our production?
I said that IKEA was the only clear through-line between the artworks, and in a superficial way, it is; but the title of the show as a whole, How the West Was Won, is spinning political; that there is a west, yes, but also, that it was won. Okay, that’s quite obvious, but I am saying that each individual artwork depicts a kind of nationalism, or some kind of propaganda—Swan Lake was used somewhat openly as a means of propaganda, if I understand the story correctly; the Kimilsungia is also thinly veiled, or not (the flower of loyalty!); and then Hasselhoff; of course he’s being sold and disseminated to us, too. How the West Was Won is a complex art show, and has proven good at producing some complicated, albeit slightly confusing, thoughts in response, at least for me. This may sound silly, but my favorite part of How the West Was Won is that IKEA products slip there way into all of Regina’s artworks, hidden in plain sight. It gives them, of course, the same status as the orchid. And while we do not all have rows of exotic plants or a penchant for screen printing 80s-era celebrities, we probably have a Hemnes or a Billy somewhere in our living spaces, secured to the floor or wall, affordable yet stylish in a “neutral” way; keeping us satisfied, if not aspirational—at least for the moment.
How the West Was Won is on view at Adjunct Positions in Los Angeles, CA, from January 13 to February 24, 2018. For more information on Regina Mamou, please visit her website: www.reginamamou.com.
Last summer, when Sarah, Adrienne, and I got together with the vague idea of starting some kind of writing thing, pretty much everything was to-be-determined. All we really needed was accountability to each other—that is, the feeling of not being alone, you could say—and the rest would figure itself out. This approach was by design; we agreed on a name, a place, and a first assignment—to write our own bios. It was this that allowed us not to be beholden to a particular editorial vision, since each of our individual visions were clearly expressed, and could be applied independently. I’m proud of this approach, and expect that unpublished will stay this way; there is no great authority; we speak for ourselves; and we can own our own participation in whatever way we like.
Which brings me here, to Arden. My first to-be-determined post on unpublished was a writing on “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” Arden Surdam and Stephanie Deumer’s two-person show at College of the Canyons Art Gallery this past fall. Since I had not yet written anything for unpublished, I didn’t really know what to expect; I didn’t have an “approach” in mind. In fact, I had not spoken to either artist about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies,” and had not seen any of the work in it before. I saw the show once; wrote about it the next day, from memory, with no images or notes; Sarah, as always, was my proofreader and editor; and it went live a day or two later.
Since that very first post, I have formed my own internal methods and structures for writing about art, and a lot of these methods and structures come from lessons learned in the process of writing about “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies”—as well as the aftermath of posting that first writing in a public way. Now, I typically review one-person shows, because I realize group shows don’t allow for the kind of in-depth focus of single works of art that I am interested in; if I write about a group show, I might only write about one artwork; and, perhaps most relevant to this particular topic, when I write about two-person shows, I prioritize equity within that writing, and push myself to devote equal amounts of space and energy to both artists. That being said, it is clear to me, through conversations with Arden (many social/gallery-hopping chit-chats; several email exchanges; a studio visit!) that my writing on RSFMB did not give Arden’s work the kind of consideration it would have or should have gotten if it had been, say, anything except the first writing I posted—therefor, a re-visit to Arden’s contribution to RSFMB is in order.
This preamble brings me to the little piece of writing that took both Arden and myself a big piece of time, energy, listening, forthright-ness, and of course, a commitment to the subject. Rather than try to return to the headspace of RSFMB as it was at College of the Canyons, and rewrite the piece myself, I invited Arden to do a Q&A with me for unpublished, and give her (finally!) a chance to speak on the work’s behalf. “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” was a special show, and I’m delighted to add this Q&A to the dialogue it inspired.
G: When I first saw “Real Shadows for Mere Bodies” (RSFMB), my initial reaction was that it was several contemporary-looking sculptures interspersed with very formal photographs. The scale of the sculptures was also much larger than the photos, except for Gladiolas for a Funeral, which is elongated by the curtain that hangs from it. Can you discuss the use of scale in this show, and the various visual juxtapositions you were considering when making your work?
A: The works for the exhibition were deliberately small. I used scale as a tool to signify to the viewer that I would like them to look in a specific way (up close, patiently, with sentimentality etc). When I was constructing sets for the images, the work had a much more intentional sensibility unlike the lovely haphazard moments that can occur in portraiture. Instead, my internal dialogue was closer to– “Should I place this object here, should there be even lighting or dramatic shadows?” etc. So I came to see scale functioning as a parallel or rather, in conversation with the preciseness of a still life. The scale also recalls the print size of the 1930s and 40s images I was looking at; mostly the work of the prolific couple Leslie Gil and Frances McLaughlin-Gil.
And still lifes are unique in that every gesture becomes an opportunity to further convey a thought. In the exhibition’s case, this was a moment in the narrative of the myth or an element of an art historical trope that could be referenced in either the framing, installation, or image size. I ended up seeing the images themselves more as small objects rather than photographs. The aluminum framing, the colored mats, the silk curtain are all essential elements that formulate the work as a whole rather than independent entities. I should say that I don’t see the images as a retelling of the narrative but rather as deconstructing the myth.
G: When I was reviewing the images of RSFMB, it struck me that Gladiolas for a Funeral was mimicking the shape and scale of Stephanie’s Untitled works made of PVC and paper (the “vanities” if you will). So, while your artworks are mirrored in Stephanie’s sculptures (literally printed onto them), your artwork reciprocally mirrors Stephanie’s artwork. Can you discuss how ideas of mirroring play into this show, especially in light of the story of Echo and Narcissus?
A: The concepts of the exhibition began with Stephanie’s video, so under the parameters of her fountain/video piece (which was from 2016) the curtain was meant to mimic the fluidity of the water. I think it was a bit later that Steph decided she wanted to use the vanities without objects, closer to a photography set. But regardless of the timeline, the works do mimic one another. This idea of twinning or mirrored reflections is integral to the communication of the myth and photography. Of course photography is associated with its own mythology, and so a lot of the tropes that I used to represent the myth of Narcissus also embody photographic traditions. This includes the glass lens heads from a darkroom enlarger, mirrors, reflections of my studio lights, etc. Objects more specific to the myth of Narcissus were flowers, which I was presenting as the ultimate symbol for beauty and narcissism. For images like Paired Pomegranate or Gladiolas for a Funeral, the pairing is meant to symbolize the relationship between Narcissus and Echo, Narcissus and himself, mythology, and art. There’s no clear delineation, but instead this gesture of an omnipresent coupling.
G: During our meeting, we discussed the kinds of things we both like to read; I shared that personally, I feel more inspired by reading a Virginia Woolf novel than heavy art theory. Is there anything you would consider “required reading” for viewing your artwork?
A: Yes, absolutely! Fiction functions as a source of inspiration for me. At the time I was shooting, I was reading Elena Ferrante’s Neapolitan romance novels. The texts are addictive and pleasurable in the sense that the narrator makes a series of choices that are not always in her best interest, but highly indulgent almost akin to Narcissus. Both the stories (Narcissus and the Ferrante series) function as tragedies filled with unrequited love and life lessons. In that way, the book felt like a contemporary fable much like Ovid’s Metamorphoses.
More directly, I would say the catalog essay from Mathew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton’s 2009 exhibition “Blood of Two” influenced the work. It was a collaborative show on the island of Hydra at the Deste Foundation. I was studying in Greece at the same time on the Cycladic Island of Paros and was never able to see the exhibition so the show itself (which included performance and a resurrection of a series of drawings from the sea) had its own mythology constructed around it. The catalog features a dialogue between Barney and Peyton discussing what mythology is, which has this wonderful act of perpetuating the “virality” of a myth by retelling it.
G: In a similar vein, I have a question about audience. My personal stance on audience is that there is no “universal audience” for art, and therefore trying to construct art “for an audience” is almost an impossible task. (I always just picture my mom). Do you have an ideal audience for RSFMB, or for your work in general? What is your take on the relationship between audience and artwork?
A: I’ve only “constructed art for an audience” once and that was during my first year at CalArts in their Photo and Media MFA program. The work required viewership participation in order to be activated (I asked the audience to eat cake) and it verged on a vulgar spectacle. Now when I consider an audience, I think of a passive viewer. I make two types of work; one that is more installation based (not present in RSFMB) that often involves decomposing materials and another which incorporates more formal elements of photography. Both overlap in their exploration of fetish, organic material, mythos, sexuality, etc., and rely on the audience to be present but not actively engaged. For the installations, passive participation includes scent and so I’ve become more invested in the concept of entering a viewer’s “space” without their consent beyond their choice to enter a room. The photographic work present in RSFMB hinges on observation, and so choices like scale or installation are integral to the work.
To return to your initial question, I agree there is no universal audience so the notion of an ideal audience is difficult to imagine. When creating work I’m focused on my ability to translate ideas to a viewer. However, if there was such a thing, I guess I would say the audience would be invested in concepts that trigger me. This would include major leaps between mediums, romance, magical realism, suspicion of photography.
Siboney is the title of a video work by Joiri Minaya which was on view at LAXART from September 17th to December 16th, 2017. It was installed next to another artwork by Joiri Minaya called Plumerias (after Siboney). Both of these artworks appeared in a show called “Video Art in Latin America,” which was itself part of Pacific Standard Time LA/LA: Latin American Art in LA; which is itself a Getty-funded initiative in which institutions apply to fund a research-driven curatorial project which will end in an art show of some sort. You follow me?
So, to begin with, Siboney and Plumerias (after Siboney) exist within a construct so convoluted it took me 100 words just to describe that construct; and, as a person weary of constructs (such as: schools, galleries, coffee shops, theory of any kind, and most obviously, art), I consider it almost a miracle that I landed on these two particular artworks, of all the PST artworks across greater and lesser Los Angeles.
Of course, this isn’t as accidental as I’d like it to be; these artworks were in the front of the gallery, in what is referred to as “the atrium” on the gallery map. And it’s actually situated in such a way that when you walk through the doors, (the entrance to LAXART is set back at the end of a short path through a small, gated courtyard, a little bit secret-gardeny) Plumerias actually blocks the rest of the show; it’s painted directly onto a wall that appears built for that very purpose, jutting out oddly from the permanent wall, creating its own little contained spot for itself and for Siboney. And of course, despite being included in a show called “Video Art” Plumerias is not a video at all, but a painting; and, unlike videos, generally speaking, it is smudged, smeared—the paint veers off its awkward wall and hits another wall, next to the flat-screen TV where Siboney loops every ten minutes—bang! That little print of paint tells us a pivotal, indexical piece of information; this took place here. Instantly this diptych of painting and video transcends the banal structure of a show called “Video Art.” It announces that it is present, and in turn, demands my presence. Certainly the curators of “Video Art” were acutely aware of the energy force this artwork would channel inside this small but prevalent location; the entrance, but of course, the exit too.
I’ve already gone in further than I wanted to before discussing more the significance of constructs in relationship to these two artworks. While I can’t even bring myself to read the whole curatorial statement for “Video Works,” my experience of the show was that the videos were displayed in such a way as to create a kind of video Russian-roulette; three different galleries within the show, all with their own individual line-ups of videos, all looping, practically guaranteed that timing, and not interest or intention, would determine which works you saw and which you did not. On top of that, some videos (including Siboney) were shown on their own monitors, creating what I thought of as a questionable hierarchy between videos. If endless video loops in several galleries were meant to purposefully vary the content depending on when you visited, than the individual monitors undermined that intent; but, they gave us Siboney. This is another thing to like about Joiri’s artwork; it undermines its own curatorial construct, in the sense that it is a giant painting dominating the entrance of a show titled with and predicated on video art. For me, all of these elements together turn “Video Art” into a dreamy and mesmerizing one-woman show; with the help of some false walls and other spatial and sonic elements, I have made Siboney just the thing I want it to be.
Siboney opens with a quote from Ana Mendieta: “I was looked at by the people in the midwest as an erotic being, aggressive, and sort of evil. This created a very rebellious attitude in me until it sort of exploded inside me and I became aware of my own being, my own existence as a very particular and singular being. This discovery was a form of seeing myself separate from others, alone.” I have a picture of the screen (I took 79 pictures of this show! 79!) and I typed the quote from that picture. But even as I zoom into it to read the text and type it up here for you, I don’t like it. I mean, I don’t like this way of writing, of looking at pictures one by one and going through the video by each frame and extrapolating on what it might mean. Aside from everything I have already discussed, Siboney caught my eye when I realized it was a narrative; that meant I would need to watch it from beginning to end, so that I could understand that narrative. So I did that, and then I realized that this was a very, I don’t know how to say it “polished” or editorialized video; or more like, it had a high production value, and on top of that, it had many different kinds of shots and angles; it must have been conceived of in a very cinematic way. It was wicked professional, as we say in New England. The video, the way the video was shot, seemed smart and self-aware. There is a part of the video where Joiri rubs herself all over the painting she has made (which looks a lot like the painting we see IRL right next to the video we are watching), and I’m not sure if it’s because that was the majority of the footage or not, but every time I passed Siboney (as I mulled pathetically around the gallery, unable to commit to anything in particular), she was rubbing her body on the painting. So, I thought it was a video that was a documentation of a performance where she makes a painting and then rubs her body on it. When I watched it through a second time, I understood that this video was an artwork on its own terms, with a heightened awareness of the tension between its medium and its message. In fact, I will argue that it is this tension, between video, painting, and performance, that this artwork seeks to participate in; more specifically, the tension of objecthood and ownership that arises when we think about an artwork which is a video of an artist making a painting for an institution which will own the artwork, but not the act of it’s making; which is what we see when we watch Siboney.
Since I have decided I will work from memory instead of frame by frame, I will recount the narrative of Siboney briefly, and perhaps inaccurately, for you. It opens with the Ana Mendieta quote, as I mentioned; there is a short scene of Joiri walking up a staircase in what looks like a museum; she passes a painting. The next few shots zoom in on different parts of the painting, and have more text. I can’t remember the text, but it says something like “who gets to decide?” There is also the word “gaze,” I’m sure of it; and also a short sentence about representation. Maybe that it goes both ways? Next is a shot of a big empty gallery, really big; and a big false wall against the actual gallery wall, with a white bra and underwear hanging up next to it. Joiri takes the underthings, and in the next shot, puts them on, maybe in a different room, or at least at a closer angle. We see some skin, but nothing frontal. I’m not too clear about the order of the next few shots, but we see a canvas, I think, laid out with all her painting tools; and then she mixes a paint (to me this is the most memorable and clear of all the shots in the video: it is close-up, and from above; she has a palette knife and is making a well inside a mound of blue pigment; then she squirts something from a bottle inside the well she made, until it gently overflows, and runs out). There’s also a shot of mixing red or orange paint with an egg yolk inside it, breaking the yolk apart with the tip of her paintbrush. Next I think there is a montage of her making the painting on the false wall; she uses stencils and a paint roller, and then removes the stencils and paints in some leafy details by hand. She’s painting a pattern; it looks tropical, I guess, and has a repeat like a wallpaper. By this time she is wearing an all white, sort of translucent short dress, that looks like a uniform, maybe for a nurse or a maid. At some point the painted false wall moves from being flat against the gallery wall to perpendicular to it, now mimicking the rest of the blank walls in the gallery. There is a shot of Joiri laying on her side on a canvas rolled out in front of the painting. She pours water along her body, in a rhythmic, seductive sort of way. At some point music starts playing, and she rubs her wet body across the painting, which smears easily. The paint gets on her white clothes, and she continues to work the painting with her body, almost dancing with it; at some points the dancing reaches a high intensity, and she slams into the permanent gallery wall that her false wall is perpendicular to, leaving a paint-body mark. I know that at some point before all this, Joiri is posing in front of the un-smeared painting, looking directly into the camera, and I’m pretty sure the words on the screen say “I am not for you to look at.” I don’t remember how the video ends. Maybe the song ends?
If you think my description from memory is an exercise in confusion or perhaps misrepresentation, you may be right. But what I am trying to value here is the moment of Siboney as it appears at LAXART; that is, next to the painting called Plumerias (after Siboney), in a show filled with other videos, each one more or less memorable in their own way. There is the video Siboney itself, which is unchanging and representable; and then there is the painting Plumerias which is unchanging and representable, but then there is a third thing, which is Siboney next to Plumerias; it is that relationship that is unrepresentable, and that I am trying to value with the experience of my memory.
Siboney is a really tricky video, because it incorporates layers and layers of meta-art information. There is the gallery itself (Centro León in Santiago, DR) which is complicated by several important things: 1) as Joiri walks up the stairs, she passes an artwork by Jose Vela Zanetti; 2) she’s making a painting directly on the gallery wall, only it isn’t really directly on the gallery wall, because the wall can be moved; 3) she performs a dance on her painting, thus getting reciprocally painted on herself; 4) she poses in front of her painting with a subtitle that says “I am not for you to look at.”
Jose Vela Zanetti’s painting is titled Trópico Suelto. It means “Loose Tropic.” So aside from invoking the much-invoked Ana Mendieta, the most obvious (and of course worthy) feminist Latin American spirit-artist martyr, Joiri is positioning us to see her (own) artwork as a kind of institutional critique. From the beginning, we understand that it is not just our perception of the artist that will be challenged, but our perception of art. That she makes the painting in the gallery (aside from the obvious logistical reasons) also references the kind of labor that is performed there when no one is around; if you look like her, wearing that outfit, you’re more likely to be cleaning the gallery than showing your art in it (at least from a stereotypical American perspective). I also think the use of the false wall is interesting—while it seems to me that it would have been technically much more difficult to make the painting if it were perpendicular (and even more difficult to film it in the varied and stylized manner it was made in), it becomes an odd, almost art-uncanny thing; it’s not a mural, though it’s directly on the wall; it’s not permanent, though it can’t be easily shipped or shown somewhere else. Yes—it is this false sense of permanence, this instability, that I find the most unnerving.
As for the dance she performs on her painting, this is what I really find thrilling; rubbing yourself in paint means you get paint on your body; you become a painting too. This is an artwork about objectification; that much is obvious. But what is less obvious is the complicity this artwork wants to grab and shake; what she is implying here is that the painting, which we have mis-recognized as passive, participates in objectification; it is the act of art, of being an artist, of being a place that proclaims art as passive and stands to speak on its behalf, that Joiri is upending. Art itself is as corrupt as the world it seeks to intervene in; and none of us, not artists, writers, institutions, or audiences, are free from blame: we are at once the painter, the painting, and the painted.
Of course, because this artwork is self-aware, it is not without irony. Take the scene where she poses, wet and beautiful, in front of her painting, which is also wet; fresh; perhaps vulnerable, corruptible. The words “I am not for you to look at” appear, but that’s just what the artist wants us to do; and could we resist if we tried? There are lots of juicy details in Siboney that suggest a frame-by-frame explication might result in pure delight, but I’ll leave that to the video itself. The vaginal lump of pigment overflowing with medium, in the color blue, like both the Virgin and the most objectifying of art-devils, Yves Klein, is an early highlight. And the moment of high dancy-rapey tension where she bodyslams the wall in an orgasmic, or aggressive, burst of rage, leaving her mark in the only way us women know how—that’s awesome, too.
But I should get back down to earth a little bit. Let’s get back into the atrium at LAXART, back to “Video Art in Latin America.” Though Siboney demands ten whole minutes of our time, Plumerias demands almost none at all. And if we walk through the courtyard and pass through the atrium on our way to read the wall text or sniff out that artwork made of decaying bananas, we might misread Plumerias as simplistic; cliched; perfunctory; another feminist bodily smear through a representation that we understand, because this is a gallery after all, meant to stand in for all things wrong with America, and there are many: colonialism, white supremacy, eroticisation of the other, reductive multiculturalism, cultural appropriation, to name a few. The reason Plumerias transcends this plausible, yet anti-nuanced interpretation is because it doesn’t stand alone. It is, in itself, a representation of an action that cannot be bought or explained or even replicated; it’s the evidence that what happened in Siboney was the real deal, and that any gallery that wants to show it must also come face to face with a real body; as powerful and complex as Siboney is on its own, it remains somewhat sanitized, stylized. It lacks intimacy. Plumerias is there to make sure we remember her body, that we remember real bodies make this stuff. In Plumerias, she also achieves her disappearing act; she isn’t there for us to look at; she isn’t there.
Earlier I said I would argue that this was an artwork about objecthood and ownership, and I’m not sure I did that. Perhaps it’s more that this artwork blurs those lines, and also claims a special kind of new territory, maybe a ghosty territory. Like, you may own the artwork, or show the video, but you’ll never own the experience. That sounds sort of silly. What I’m trying to say is more complicated than that. The way Joiri shows this artwork—as Siboney and Plumerias(after Siboney) side by side—she’s creating a revolving door of content; she’s constructed a way for the work to remain site-specific, but return to that original point back in the Dominican Republic. Would it be logical to reshoot that same kind of performance every time she makes a painting that she knows she’s going to destroy? I see Plumerias as a kind of rebirth or reincarnation of Siboney. Perhaps that’s made obvious in the title. What I want to say is, it’s not just a critique of Centro León, the museum that would show a Spanish artist’s rendering of the primitivos in the DR called “Loose Tropics,” but of all galleries who would dare stake a claim to her heritage, her body, her story—her labor.
There are so many things I haven’t mentioned—I’ve said almost nothing about the painting itself, either its techniques or its motif; and while I am interested in what the painting looks like, (which is especially striking in the context of Los Angeles, considering its proximity to the Beverly Hills hotel, famous for its banana leaf wallpaper, known as Martinique), I am less interested in how paintings are made. I have said absolutely nothing about the title Siboney, or its namesake, the 1960 Connie Francis recording of the song that accompanies Joiri’s paint smearing dance seduction. Both of these things, among others, deserve their own inquiries.
As always, I know I’ve come to the end here, but I’m clueless as to how it will happen. I’ve written extensively and repetitively about a few things, and I remembered to point out the things I didn’t write extensively about, which is something I like to do. When I watched an excerpt of Siboney just now on Joiri’s website, to double check that it was in fact Connie Francis singing Siboney, I realized how bastardized my description of the video really is; there is wayyyy more text in it than I remember, and what text I did remember, I completely misquoted. This is yet another example of how memory plays into our interpretations—both individual, and collective—and I’m guessing Joiri would approve of this conclusion. Look, no one and nothing is perfect, and everyone is fallible, me especially. I dare you to go back to her work and find the things I missed, that I imagined, that I erred on; go back to her work and try to jump out of the skin you think you occupy—painter, painting, painted.
brittle peace is an art show by Emily Marchand and Lena Wolek currently on view at NowSpace. Before I go any further, I have to clear up this question I keep having about titles in italics versus titles in quotations, because it keeps confusing me. I always thought titles of shows went in quotations, and titles of artworks went in italics. As it happens, it seems every magazine, newspaper, and institution has their own style, which I guess I should not be surprised by. One of the reasons I cling to this notion (and use it as a style in my own writing) is because it brings clarity, as in, separating a title of a show from the individual works, and inferring if they are in fact individual works, or not. In retrospect this may sound REALLY CRAZY, but I honestly thought if I went to a show whose title was set in italics, it meant it was a single artwork, even if the pieces inside it had individual titles, too. And, to sound even crazier, if there was a show with quotation marks around the title, and no individual titles for works, then it made me mad and annoyed.
Obviously this is an incorrect way of looking at titles and artwork, but it brings me to the small first thing I should point out about brittle peace; it is just so, so different if read as a collaborative singular artwork, which is what I first thought it was, for a few reasons. One reason was because of my italics mis-read, as I described; another reason was because the first time I saw brittle peace, it seemed so aesthetically cohesive, so well “designed” if you will, I assumed the artists must have worked together on all the pieces in some way; but mostly, it was because the press release reads “…brittle peace will mark their first ever collaborative effort and the beginning of an ongoing practice creating work synergistically together.” I realize now that this sentence refers to a specific artwork, soft ammunition; but the phrasing lead me to initially considering all the works collaboratively. But I’ll get back to that later; for now, I will proceed in the way I think the works were intended to function; as individual pieces in a two-person show.
The first thing you see when you get through the labyrinth entrance to NowSpace and round the corner into the main gallery is a long table covered in desserts; it’s an artwork called Help Yourself, by Lena Wolek (it’s also the only artwork in the show with what we call headline titling, which means capitalizing (most) words in a title, which distinguishes Lena’s work from Emily’s). Specifically, Help Yourself is an absurdly long and narrow table-object with very non table-like curves; it has a tablecloth, an object sometimes deemed snobby and often deemed unnecessary (especially this one, custom made of canvas and painted communist red on the surface, the color perfectly in-line with the groovy table shape). On top of this already highly sculptural and art-like object are many more highly sculptural art-like objects; an abundance of ceramic foods, all desserts or sweet things, I think, messy, gloppy, surreally colored, fantastical but also somehow real-looking; I would call it “Alice in Wonderland” meets Claes Oldenburg meets Betty Woodman. I don’t typically make comparisons to other artists when I’m looking at artworks, but this one really does look familiar. Maybe it’s because dessert is a trope, not just in art, but in life; but what could it mean?
What’s the difference between a lot of dessert, and a little? I know I always want a lot of dessert, but at the same time it provokes anxiety and even shame (here my editor gave me a simple but loaded note: gender?). I’m actually the kind of person that orders dessert with dinner, but that’s predicated on the fact that I’m enjoying myself. So, dessert is also an extension of a good time, but simultaneously, the end. We simply cannot go on eating dessert forever and ever. And, more to the point, what is a lot of dessert that you can’t eat? The idiom “a feast for the eyes” comes to mind, and also “let them eat cake,” but these are very loose associations. Something else I see in this work is the labor of difference, of differentiation; not just to form the desserts from clay, but then to make them all look different. In a lot of artworks where there are multiples, none of them look special—one or two may stand out for subtle and subjective reasons—but in this piece, they all look special. I coveted them all. I suppose when I look at this table I think about greed and shame, but I also think this artwork is almost profoundly aesthetic; I didn’t mention it but there’s also this red stripe that goes from the table (which abuts the wall on one end) up the wall at an angle; to me it infers distance, or endlessness, imagining the clay desserts ad infinitum. This was really, really striking in the gallery—all these choices about where to put things, the stripe, the colors, the sheer numbers; something about the sloppiness of the desserts seems unnatural to the rest of the work; a calculated sloppiness? But what could that mean? (She wrote for the second time, this time with true longing.)
There are many other things in this gallery, and they are all just as visually compelling in an almost opposite way (for example, where Help Yourself is crass, international treaty is delicate; pretty). Let me say this again; this show looks really good from a design perspective. The balance of colors, sizes, and spatial weighting throughout the gallery (the red stripe especially) feels really, really considered. This is not something that I value (the way art looks), but in this space it’s unavoidable, and I wonder if it should be carefully considered as a subject, as opposed to just an observation or reaction. I am not referring here to the look of the individual pieces, rather, the way all the artworks look together. My gut tells me this cohesion is coincidental; or, it’s a little bit more than coincidental, but I do not believe it is a subject of brittle peace.
Moving along, there are either four or seven other discreet artworks here: international treaty; repose; storm tarp; and surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, icicle hitch. I actually think that surgeon’s knot, acrobat hitch, and icicle hitch are all separate pieces, but that doesn’t really matter. If there is a theme in this room, I think it would be alternative processes, or more simply put, using clay in a way it isn’t really meant to be used. Emily’s clay knots and also her clay word-squiggles do this for me. It just seems like such a peculiar choice of material; it really has me thinking, again for the third time: what could this mean? Something I get from this choice of material is rebellion; extruding long tubes of clay and making a large-scale sentence-looking thing is really antithetical to the type of communication language usually seeks to participate in. That was a confusing way of saying, her artistic process takes language and makes it illegible. But the process of becoming illegible is anything but simple or easy; it is certainly time consuming, expensive, maybe even trial-and-error; it dries out your hands, takes heat, and energy, and delicate handling. I think this artwork, when I consider its title—international treaty— is meant to embody the spirit of undoing; its power lies in its senselessness, its aesthetic attention grab which can never be revelatory; it’s an artwork that works against it’s own message, while simultaneously asking us to find it. I really do not know if the clay squiggles are actual letters, if they actually do spell something (I myself could not “read” the script). It’s a sort of bait-and-switch, and this adds depth to its prettiness, which is a nice kind of art.
The knots are totally different; made of ceramic and “paracord” (I assume that is a term for parachute rope), they cleverly employ the same visual language as Emily’s treaty, but claim to be different objects. These works, too, are pretty, yet viscerally disturbing; as authentic as the knots may look, you certainly don’t want to put your weight on them. I look at them, and I think, “you lie.” I am beginning to connect with the vaguely political sentiment this show wants us to vibe on.
I think I have to address my use of the word “pretty.” What is pretty? A girl is pretty, and so is a woman, though I think “sexy” is more commonly used in older phases. A man can be pretty too, and many are, though I’m not sure they like being called out as such. I also think of pretty, for some reason, as meaning airy, maybe ephemeral; that is definitely from my conditioning through late-90s movies wherein secretly hot teenage girls float through the halls of their schools instead of dragging huge-ass backpacks. I guess an important distinction is also between pretty and beautiful; I guess beautiful is more profound, and pretty is maybe, more superficial? I hate to even be typing this, but it’s relevant. I wouldn’t call any of the works in this show beautiful, (though I can certainly find moments), and I have a feeling these artists would appreciate that. I think something else this show may propose is, how do we find language beyond our familiar language of the visually recognizable? (I see this particularly in international treaty and storm tarp.) But that can’t be all of it. Perhaps it is more that this show proposes a discord beneath pretty things; an utter roughness and uneasiness despite a flawlessly executed design.
repose is cool but bland; I like it more when Emily messes with the extrusions in a deceivingly delicate way. That salt blocks should stand in for pedestals is very very cool, but to me, it’s an opaque gesture. They look a little bit like icebergs, which makes me think of loneliness or isolation (assuming the reposing extrusions are like little people). The word repose is in itself interesting, with disparate meanings, and I’m not sure which one is meant to apply here. Is it more like “a natural periodic loss of consciousness during which the body restores itself” or is it more like “freedom from activity or labor” (Merriam Webster Online). I guess these meanings aren’t disparate, but they are at least subtly different; I can’t help but feel there is a class distinction, between the freedom to rest and restore, versus the freedom from labor, which could also be construed as the freedom from bondage. Maybe. Maybe not.
Lastly is storm tarp, a puzzling artwork which is all about subtle screwups, or rather, trying to repeat something by hand and getting way, way off. Yes, the textile depicts objects/things in such a way as to appear allegorical or even pre-historic; from top to bottom I see it as eyes, mountains, hot/cold, tongues (?), razor blades, infinity squiggle or racetrack, lushness of nature, fire, matchsticks, and a fence. I’m guessing I was correct on some of these, not on others. Anyways what you get from looking at this artwork for a long time and trying to figure out what is depicted is the fact that it is very handmade; even though the stitches are done with a sewing machine, I imagine the process was done freehand, because every iteration of every “glyph” is different, some more noticeable than others, especially the “smoke wisp” (which looks like a comma) coming off of the matches. The thing about art is, almost anything can be fabricated; and artists that value awareness know that fabrication is not an empty gesture. If the glyphs were super important, Emily could have had the damn thing fabricated to her exacting specifications. The act of its production was more important than its legibility as an object; it is an artwork about who makes things, not how we interpret those things once they are finished. That, or it’s an inexplicable parable in the form of a tarp in the form of a textile. There are many possible interpretations.
The last part of brittle peace is installed in what is called the “project space,” which Emily and Lena used as a workspace to create the collaborative artwork soft ammunition. This is an artwork that they literally made together; Lena attached her thrown clay forms to Emily’s extruded ones (or the other way around). There are many, many forms in this room, probably hundreds; and something funny about this installation is that it surpasses in scale even the very impressive Help Yourself, and in that sense really does appear to be a weirdly authentic mash-up of their two practices. When I went back to NowSpace to see the show a second time, I wasn’t expecting to see the artists, but Emily happened to be meeting people there, so I chatted with her a little bit. I didn’t ask her any conceptual questions about the work (I never do), but she shared some anyways. She only mentioned a few things that I can remember; one was that Lena’s table scape was meant to be like a tongue, and the red stripe coming out of the table was supposed to resemble something generic on a flag, like a stripe (I may have said stripe). She also explained that all the artworks were individual, except for soft ammunition, and that the work clothes hanging in the project space was sort of their joke (I noticed it at the opening, and thought perhaps that could be one of those small things I would consider beautiful). Emily said they were thinking of the forms in soft ammunition as flaccid bullets, and that it was a little bit site-specific, since that building had been used as a munitions factory. I think it’s funny that the forms are supposed to be like bullets, because they are so human-like. They’re gestural, they have orifices, and they’re all gathered around a central “figure”; another form that would be relatively generic in the sea of other forms, except for one crucial detail: it’s wearing a hat.
A hat! It’s wearing a hat! When I saw it I just cracked up. I mean, it’s really really funny to have hundreds of clay tubes, and one of them is wearing a hat. The hat here becomes such an important signifier; it shifts soft ammunition from being a trite, repetition-obsessed, done-by-everyone-the-first-time-they-work-with-clay, clay-wasting exercise in the most obvious iteration of multiples—to satire. This is not an artwork interested in anything formal, or functional; these are not objects that are intended to have meaning as individual pieces. It’s completely logical to need many of them, otherwise, their would be no way to signify the masses coming out to follow their hatted leader. In fact, we have no idea what the bullet-people are doing: are they waiting, are they following, are they protesting? It tickles me to think about the conception of this artwork; did they get together and say, okay, let’s make a bunch of phallic yet figural sculptures in the absolute simplest way possible, and then set them up like soldiers, all waiting for commands from the Hatted Phallus Figure? I can’t help but see it as a joke. Like, it is feigning importance or gravity; it is pretending to take itself seriously as an artwork, and as a practice, but it’s really all about a hat. Again, there are many interpretations of this work, but it’s another example of that light touch, covering up something so cynical. All that time, all that material, and for this? It perfectly embodies how so many of us feel about so many, many things.
In the beginning of this writing, I said I had first approached this show as a completely collaborative artwork, and that it was of course very different when viewed in this way. The truth is, when you think something is one way, it really seems to make sense that way; and then, when you learn it isn’t, it’s hard to see what you saw before. When I go back and try to channel what it was I was seeing before I knew what I was looking at, I think I come away with something about materials, and the idea of what it means to be overwhelmed, or even underwhelmed, for that matter. The whole show riffs on the question of where we are, and just what we’re looking at. When I first saw Help Yourself, I thought it was fun, silly, and deadly theatrical; but the more I considered it, the more I saw it as some kind of helpless act; it doesn’t matter what material, or language, or symbol, or metaphor we use; legibility remains something that exists somewhere else. And I don’t mean legibility of this artwork, but legibility of the world that brought us to this point; a world where, as Help Yourself suggests, we produce, produce, produce, and are never satiated; where, as international treaty suggests, we value style over substance; and where, as soft ammunition suggests, we futilely give countless hours of our labor to a purpose, only to have that labor misrepresented as a joke.
If I could change anything about this show, it would just be the title; I have a strong distaste for puns, but I love homonyms. Why not call it brittle piece? Why make this whole, very lovely, very subtle (emotionally subtle, not visually subtle!) series of artworks, and slap the word peace on it? Sometimes the audience is just no good. You can’t trust us to get anything right. And that’s what puns are for, right? It just occurred to me at this very moment that perhaps this title is not meant to be a homonym. Maybe it is just supposed to be interpreted as peace—a state without war. Maybe the “peace” refers to the art itself, its materiality, its ability to be at peace with itself, with its making; that would be way better than my initial interpretation, which was more along the lines of “a state of peace that will break apart at any moment.” There is no peace, right, so that doesn’t really make sense? I have a lot of questions about this artwork, and I have no idea if my reading of it is even close to the mark of what the artists were thinking about, or even hoping for (though I seriously doubt they had “hopes”). There was very little to suggest a conceptual direction for this show to go in, other than a little bit in the titling; but even the titling was somewhat opaque. I think “very little suggestion” is the perfect amount here; it’s a nudge, resisting rigidity, letting us fall into the fun and mystery of the materiality, the design, the look. I don’t value prescription, I value passion; it is in abundance here, and just in time for the long, lonely LA winter. Feast on it.
“Three Dimensional Stimuli, and Reflected Versions” is an artwork by Pam Valfer currently on view at Elevator Mondays. While there are at least four distinct elements to this artwork, I’ll consider it a single piece, even though the quotation marks indicate a show title as opposed to an artwork, which would instead appear in italics. This isn’t really important, except that I am interested in artworks which form into a singular vision when shown together, or that can be read “off of eachother” if you will—but from the perspective of the artist. This is the reason I only write about one and two-person shows; I am less interested in curatorial constructs, and more interested in artistic ones. The thing about Pam’s piece, so perfectly scaled, installed, and conceptualIzed, is that it simultaneously uses the construct of the gallery (an elevator, and a tiny one, at that) while seeming to shed all notions of curator or curatorial intervention. I suppose what I’m saying here is that while this show is incredibly “man-made,” or constructed, it retains subtly, but also unity; it’s a packaged experience.
If it seems that I’m being too vague, it’s because I’m trying to figure out how to describe what it’s like to enter Pam’s artwork, and why while you’re in there, a lightbulb goes off, and you’re just like, “this is an awesome artwork.” I rarely feel that way in the moment about an artwork—but it is the narrative construction of this piece, from beginning to end, that sets you up, builds you up, to a kind of climax, which ends as an anti-climax, and then the lightbulb moment. Okay, still too vague. Let’s walk through it.
If you’re like me, you read the Press Release for “Three Dimensional Stimuli, and Reflected Versions” for the show when you received the invitation. I got mine in an email, and since I am interested in Don’s gallery (I have shown there myself) and I am friendly with Pam (her husband and I were classmates in grad school), seeing the show was a no-brainer. I read the press release, which is sort of hard to describe—it’s several sentences interspersed with links, and excerpts of the content of those links, which are all in different fonts and sizes than the “sentence,” which pretends to be a traditional description by starting with “Pamela Valfer’s exhibition ‘Three Dimensional Stimuli, and Reflected Versions’ explores how mental rotation tasks.” In total, it’s six pages long. If you just read the press release, and you’re not in front of the actual artwork, it makes no fucking sense. I immediately responded to the invitation by asking if Pam had written this press release. The answer was yes. Okay, so we can agree, it’s really an artwork, not a press release; maybe it’s both.
I have evidence that it’s an artwork, and I will argue that because the printed press release, which exists in the gallery sitting area where the press releases usually are, includes the links, printed in color, it wants to stage itself as some kind of hyper-object, or at least a really weird contemporary paper/internet hybrid thing. Including a link before a quote is not a standard way of quoting or attributing—it implies a kind of narrative reading structure, it implies a path that the artist wants us to follow. Yes, it’s an awkward and difficult to read text mash-up, but it’s kind of an analog search path. Think of it like this. Let’s remove all the links. We end up with the following text:
Pamela Valfer’s exhibition “Three Dimensional Stimuli, and Reflected Versions” explores how mental rotation tasks can be affected by space, and sound. But what is the object that is being promoted? Stimulus is constantly being absorbed. We strain to see it, as it is underneath our feet and above our head. We become passive to see it, as it is underneath our feet and above our head. We believe it, as it is underneath our feet and above our head.
The links that appear interspersed in the original text are what we would presumably search for and click on, to make sense of the words and concepts being used to describe this art show. So at first it seems that Pam has laid the path she wants us to follow—to find the information she would want us to find. But, when you get to the three similar end lines, two of which have strikethroughs, you realize, it’s not the path we follow as readers; rather, it is the path she followed as the artist. I interpret the strikethroughs as a kind of transparent writing/editing process; a way of demonstrating that a subject is being “figured out.” Retrospectively, I’ll apply that logic to the links—the artist wants us to see her thought process. I’ll call it, “the journey of this artwork,” even though that’s cheesy, because it feels like that. So, all in all, it is simultaneously the narrative that the artist followed; the narrative that the artist wants us to follow; a constructed narrative artwork; a press release; and, I must say, a verbose and confusing document that may or may not be meant to be comprehended. I’d say, it’s both a metaphor for and physical manifestation of the vastness and quickness of internet information, but also its superficiality. It’s a few plunges into an unfathomably deep pool of information, which can be used for good or for evil, and certainly will be.
Such a complicated object, and we’re not even inside the show yet! This is literally thrilling. As you approach the gallery, which is actually an old elevator that Don made into a gallery, before you see inside it, you hear music. The volume of the music is weird. It’s not so loud that you can’t have a conversation, but it is so loud that you’re definitely hearing it; like, you can’t really tune it out. So even though the gallery itself is very little, the show really begins several steps away from the artwork, several steps before your realize where the music is coming from. This is another gesture toward narrating an experience, and another additional stimuli, a la the wordy and nerdy title of this show. Oh, and it’s classical music.
Inside the gallery is a rug, on the floor, where rugs belong, and a flat-screen TV, on the ceiling, definitely not where TVs belong. On each side of the TV there is a round white speaker—the source of the maddening music. So we’ve got a rug on the floor, printed (or painted) with an image, which looks like some kind of bare-bones rendering of a building drawn in perspective. An even simpler way of describing it would be a series of connected open cubes, rendered in perspective. The rug is white, maybe a warm white or an ivory, and the image on it is black. Also visually important is that the rug is on some kind of rubber backing, which sticks out beyond the rug, and creates a frame. So it could be construed as a rubber-framed rug print. As someone who has dabbled in rugs myself, I think it’s important to point out that many rugs have images on them, usually patterns. The quality of a rug may be determined by the image—if it is woven in, or printed on top; if it is made by hand, or by machine. Rugs don’t come with rubber-backings, like this one has, unless they are welcome mats, and even welcome mats don’t usually come with perimeters. I’m trying to get at the fact that this rug thing is very synthetic. It’s not a rug, it’s a rug-faker; but more on that later.
The flat-screen TV, mounted to the ceiling, is playing a video; if it’s on a loop, I don’t know how much of it I watched, which also means I don’t know how long the video is. I guess more than a video, it’s an animation; it’s the image on the rug, but rotating around in a three-dimensional space; again, a black drawing on a white background. This kind of image rotating in space as it does in this video recalls both architectural renderings and silly/engrossing crime shows, whose sets and plotlines revolve around some not-real technology that makes holograms that solve crimes, or something like that. All this contributes again to the synthetic feel of the show. Nothing is just “as-is”; everything is constructed, or should I say, everything is a construct.
One element I didn’t consider until this moment are the two fluorescent tubes that light the show, which are also hung from the ceiling in such a way next to the speakers as to look like sculptural elements. In this sense they are related to the rug, so I guess they are light-fakes; and I overheard Don say that the ceiling is false, too, so that’s a ceiling-fake; and the elevator, which it stationary; well, that’s fake too.
So at this point, we get that the “three dimensional stimuli” of the title of this artwork is floating in an animation above us, and its “reflected version” is under our feet (if we are standing in the gallery, looking up). We also get that the “mental rotation” of the press release is the rotation of the object, and the “space” is the gallery/elevator, and the “sound” is the music. I love how the next line in the press release is posed as a question, and at the perfect moment, and in no objective way: “But what is the object that is being promoted?” It’s the question of the hour, or of the show, and if you read the press release in its entirety you will understand, and if don’t, you will never know, unless someone who read the press release tells you (or the artist tells you). The use of the word “promoted” is really key here—it speaks to its non-neutrality, that somehow within the artwork Pam is assigning a subjective value to something that seems too object-like to resist objectivity. If there is a crux of the artwork, then it is the use of that word, promoted—not displayed, or screened, or shown, or on-view, or “that we see,” or my least favorite, explored—promoted. Which is what art does, and what design does too, and that this piece argues architecture is responsible for, and even decorating, and even entertainment. And this is why I want to shake Pam and say THANK YOU! Because this is a totally anti-modern artwork in so many ways, but the most important is that it demonstrates, in a weird sciency-theory-y way, that design is not neutral, and of course, neither are we.
Okay, so it’s the Trump/Pence logo, wherein the T penetrates the P (I thought even Trump knew it is typical in conservative-land for the P to penetrate the V). Stupid jokes aside, we get to the humor of this artwork. Yes, I’m pretty sure it’s humor, and not irony. Actually, its place in this artwork fits at least one definition of irony: incongruity between the actual result of a sequence of events and the normal or expected result (Merriam-Webster Online). So, that the T penetrates the P in the Trump/Pence logo is funny, and that this whole highly theoretical-seeming, highly-stylized, supremely slick artwork revolved around the T/P logo is also funny; but it also represents irony, and so does Trump’s presidency. I love this aspect of the artwork. It’s like, maybe that’s the lightbulb. When you’re standing in the gallery, looking up, and everything you’ve read and heard starts to make sense, and then you get that recognition of what you’re looking at, you sort of think, oh, I get it…the irony of it all! And if we can pull ourselves together long enough to think about Trump (which we can), we have the very same thought. The irony!
Of course, the thing I am not describing in great detail are the excerpts from the press release, which you may want to read now, if you haven’t done so yet. Each one is very different, and as we have traced, relates to a specific part of the artwork. Honestly, this stuff is very heady, and I only engaged in reading each one enough to get the jist of it; these aren’t really ideas I am personally interested in, or find very compelling. I don’t “nerd out” on stuff like this, so to speak. So the vague but lasting impression of each “concept” (as I’ll call them) for me goes something like this: 1) mental rotation has something to do with how the brain recognizes objects, and something to do with intelligence, and those objects are called stimuli; 2) that architecture, specifically ceiling height, affects the way people are able to solve problems (in an almost literal way); 3) the “Mozart effect” is when spatial cognitive tasks are improved after exposure to Mozart music; 4) that everyone made fun of the Trump/Pence logo; 5) the Norman Klein excerpt about “truthiness” was not something I could really comprehend; and 6) Hito Steyerl is saying something about proxy perspectives, and how we see things from above, even when we’re not seeing things from above. Of course, you and I are free to delve further into these ideas, or not; personally I like where this artwork takes me with only my superficial attempt at internalizing its concepts.
But perhaps that feeling, too, is a subject of this artwork; maybe not just our unwillingness to go in-depth, but our inability, too. Could I make a cohesive thought from all of these snippets of theory and psychology and internet gossip? No; but when I step into Pam’s elevator, I mean gallery, I experience all these ideas just a little bit, and as I stare upwards at the revolving penetrated P, I have a fleeting moment where I feel I have glimpsed the structures that undid the world that I knew to be real. Or maybe, Pam is arguing, they were always truthy, always unstable.
I think I’m getting to the end here, and I don’t know if I’ve really pinned down what this artwork is at all. It’s slippery, and it’s addictive, it’s too theoretical but it’s also brainless, it’s futuristic but also retro; it’s a rug and a TV and Mozart, and three pages of color print-outs. It’s far out.
I also want to say, props to Pam for making a political artwork that doesn’t evoke, either literally or metaphorically in any way, the American flag or its colors, and that doesn’t use rage to channel energy toward a rhetorical sentiment. I think this makes this artwork authentic, because in some ways, it speaks to her position. What we are experiencing here is political artwork that forgets about identity and reconfigures it as ideology. Pam is the artist, but the subject position is that of an object; we look up and down, we stand, we listen; inside, it is us that becomes the three dimensional stimuli, and perhaps everyone else is the dark mirror, the “reflected version,” if you will.
What else is there to say? It’s very important that you see this artwork in person if you can; images of it are almost pathetic, compared to the real thing. I’m really proud of this artwork, even though I didn’t make it, and that’s a totally new feeling for me; it makes me feel like, maybe art can communicate something beyond language, at least for a moment.
I didn’t have a title for this writing until I got to nearly the end of it. Usually some kind of title pops out at me, or I have it in mind before I start. For this show, I asked myself, if you had to take away just one idea from the entire artwork, what would it be? To me, it was what if we could see that our identities were ideologies? Well, what if we could? What if we could see that our rugs, and TVs, and music, and color printers, and color print-outs, and our houses, and our studios, and our friends, and the way we look up at things, or down at things, that all of those were ideologies thriving just beneath the surface of banality? I don’t know, but I’m willing to think about it. Even though in this dimension, for now, the T is still penetrating the P, in another dimension, there is no P or T at all. We’ll have to picture it; rotate it; chuck some of it away.
Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. Gallery1993 is a car used as an exhibition space. Typical viewings of the show take the form of a ride in the car. In my case, the car pulled up in front of my neighbor’s house; I read an exhibition text in the form of a poem written by the gallerist, Seymour, while I stood in the street; we drove around for maybe 15 or 20 minutes while he explained what each artwork was; and at some point, I requested we pull over so I could get a closer look at the artwork. To end the appointment, I was dropped back off at my house. There it is.
Let me start over. Smokeless Fire is a show of artworks by Sharif Farrag currently on view at Gallery1993. There are five distinct pieces in this show, only one of which has a title, and it’s a damn good one: Hanging Up Sharif. I’ll call the other works the “wheel piece,” the “drawing,” the “lighter piece,” and the “door lock piece.” They don’t have titles now, according to Sharif, but they may eventually. This is a difficult show to approach because while there are many unique and interesting objects to draw connections between, it’s quite difficult to contextualize any of them, other than their location on or inside the car. I’ll start with some descriptions.
The wheel piece is a small drawing attached to the center of the hubcap of the front passenger wheel. I’m not sure how it’s attached, I think it’s just underneath a prefab plastic hubcap piece, but I’m not familiar enough with specialized car parts to really know. The drawing looks like it’s in pen; the paper, which appears to be ripped off of a larger paper, has a hole punched out of the corner; it must be three-ring binder paper. The drawing itself is a dotted line that goes diagonally across what I’ll now call this “slip” of paper, with a little scissor drawn next to the dotted line, and, I am told, something (but not what!) written in Arabic (to me, sadly, it just looks like scribbles). Again, I can see that the slip of paper has been torn away from the larger piece of paper, not cut cleanly, as a scissor would indicate. And again, I don’t know what the Arabic says, but I suppose scissors and dotted lines are universal symbols. The wheel of the car gleams, damp and freshly washed; another kind of universal symbol.
Next is the drawing inside the glove compartment. You open the glove, and there it is, just lying there by itself. Seeing it is akin to a surprise, like opening a drawer and finding a chocolate bar (which can be either exciting or gross). It also reminded me of a flat file. I’ll touch back on the idea of drawings in drawers later. The drawing itself is small, less than letter size, rendered in pen and watercolor, I think. It depicts a group of men waiting in line at a store window to buy bread. Some men are wearing pants and t-shirts, and others are wearing robes; some are wearing noticeably funny combinations of traditional clothes and western clothes, accessorized with baseball caps and sunglasses; one even carries an American-looking plastic bag with a yellow smiley face on it. The drawing itself is pretty; while the characters are comic-bookish, there are many subtle colors and textures; Sharif has paid special attention to patterns, in both architecture and fabric; he has also rendered, I think importantly, the hair on the men’s legs which stick out from their robes. This scene is clearly not from here. During my car ride appointment, Seymour mentioned something about Morocco, but I couldn’t quite make sense of the story.
The lighter piece is a sculptural form (I thought it was resin, it’s actually epoxy clay) that’s “plugged-in” to the cigarette lighter; it’s hard to place the form, and Seymour describes it as a paper clip.
The door lock piece is wilder, and also kinetic (because it goes up and down); again made of epoxy clay but painted to look like metal (I am told), it’s a skinny thing that looks like it grew somewhat organically out of the knob. It also looks like a wisp of smoke, which is what it reminds me of; or, it’s just a two-pronged form that resembles the letter Y, and really nothing else. Seymour doesn’t offer specifics on the referential shape of this one, that I can remember.
Lastly there is Hanging Up Sharif, a puppet-like version of, I presume, Sharif, draped over an epoxy clay covered coat hanger. It hangs from the roof handle of the rear-passenger seat, in the same place where I hang my dry cleaning, once or twice a year.
Do you see what I’m saying about the lack of context? Sure, the car is the context, but it’s the exhibition space. I struggled to determine on whose terms to interpret this artwork. The car’s or Sharif’s? Perhaps they were one in the same. I decided to meet with Sharif to figure it out.
It will be hard to describe our meeting without just gushing about how nice Sharif is, how kind and genuine he comes across. He’s tall and pretty, with long, thick hair and full, though not dramatic lips. We meet on the USC campus and he walks me around, pointing out artworks he made. He doesn’t have a studio on campus (undergrads don’t), but he’s made himself comfortable here, especially in the ceramics studio, where he also holds a job. At one point we have to retrace our steps to a towering artwork he made (it is literally modeled off of an electrical tower) because we were talking, and he didn’t want to interrupt our conversation. This man is sweet as pie and polite as fuck. He’s also mysterious—who is this person who made Hanging Up Sharif,but also, like, a clay smoke-wisp exploding out of a door lock, painted silver? While I cannot recount our conversation in any faithful way (I don’t take notes or record), Sharif is figuring things out. He’s trying different mediums to see what suits him, using ceramic, metal, drawing, free-writing, fabric, incense, ritual, and now, this car. For Sharif it’s both an experiment and experience to be working closely with a gallerist. The upside is that he feels encouraged, motivated, excited; the downside is he has to hand over some creative control, perhaps without knowing. While we sit on stools and talk in the empty, dusty ceramics studio, he shows me a series of censers he made; these censers (incense burners) were used during the opening of Smokeless Fire (the title of the show starts to make a little more sense now). I tell Sharif I didn’t go to the opening, and usually the reason I don’t go is because I won’t get to see the art. He describes the opening to me; it took place at his house near USC; they drove the car into the backyard and created an installation of censers arranged in a circle around the car, burning an incense of frankincense and myrrh. I tell him I wish I had known that there would be a one-time installation at the opening, because then I would have come. “I’m sorry,” he says, looking genuinely sorry; “it’s not really part of the show, it’s just something we came up with at the last second. You didn’t miss anything, we just lit the incense to purify the car before it went out.” I laugh and say “Oh sure, I didn’t miss anything important, just THE PURIFICATION OF THE CAR!” It seems important to me.
This is something you need to understand about Sharif; it’s not that he doesn’t have particular ideas about his work, or how it should be installed or perceived; its more like he’s open, like actually open, not open by necessity, to new ways of thinking about what he’s doing. That me missing the purification of the gallery and its contents is to him not a big deal speaks to his unpretentiousness; my agitation at having missed this event because of lack of advertising speaks, paradoxically, to my pretentiousness. As our conversation goes on, I soften a little; I am learning something new about art and about myself, and about where we place value. I wanted to be at the car purification, but to Sharif, what was important was that it happened. It wasn’t a performance, but an action; it had a purpose. An actual purpose. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me “The purification of the car goes back to Muslim traditions, not the sage-burning nag champa type of cleansing. It’s based on something called bakhour, my mom used to bombard me with it every Friday. It also can be used as a gesture of hospitality when inviting guests over a house, or to celebrate holy days or weddings.” I don’t see his comment as antithetical to my interpretation, but I wanted to include it nonetheless.)
Before I forget, I also have to say that early in our conversation, in the context of making intuitive work invested in materials, Sharif said “it’s not that I don’t have concepts, it’s that I’m weary of them.” Sharif’s art practice, if not the art itself, is invested in an exploration; an exploration of the possibility of art. Not a public exploration; but more like, the possibility of making art as Sharif, of being Sharif. I see this both clearly and subtly in Hanging Up Sharif.
Hanging Up Sharif at Gallery1993 is the third iteration of Hanging Up Sharif (he told me that). The first iteration was in a cabinet filled with ceramic trophies; the second iteration was hanging on the wall with the trophies underneath; and in fact there was another iteration, which Seymour told me about, if I remember correctly. During my car appointment, I asked Seymour if the artworks were made especially for this show, and he said some were, but when he first saw Hanging Up Sharif, it was literally in Sharif’s bedroom closet. Clever art storage, indeed! That this is the only artwork in the show that’s been shown before, already “iterated” if you will, fits well with its content. The most obvious way to read the work is that it’s a comment on identity politics; or, not a comment on, I guess, but more an embodiment of it. In fact, it’s almost a caricature of the idea of identity politics, because it is literally a puppet that Sharif made of himself; a version of himself, presumably one of many, that hangs in his closet, and that must be occasionally (or rarely, if he’s like me) taken for a cleaning. I totally see the Sharif in the car as drycleaning, if I haven’t made that clear enough. The title of the work, too, is clever, but also dark. The idea of hanging yourself up can be interpreted in many ways—the first that comes to mind is the idea of retiring (like “hanging up your jersey”); Sharif is letting go of a certain identity that this puppet represents (though I couldn’t tell you which one). The next thing I think of is “hang me out to dry,” an expression that means to abandon or to betray in some way. The third is my personal favorite, the quintessential breakup song “Hang Me Up To Dry” by Cold War Kids, which refers more to finally being let go (the lyric goes “so hang me up to dry/you rang me out too too too many times). It’s actually a great song full of laundry metaphors, and I must listen to it immediately (now you do it too). The last, and darkest reading of Hanging Up Sharif is the idea of hanging—of an execution. The sculpture itself, all floppy and cute and slung over a coat hanger, does not visually read this way, but the title of the work suggests it anyways. I don’t know any other way to say this, other than that I think, perhaps even unconsciously, I’m not sure, it represents the pain of the bigotry and violence of our disgusting country, along with what seems to be its logical conclusion: you can hang up Sharif, or just plain hang him. This is an artwork where the title complicates its interpretation and makes it nuanced. It makes the show; it saves the show; it embodies the spirit of the car and its journey, while staying true to its own journey. This is what I mean by the possibility of being Sharif.
There are two other important aspects of our conversation I want to share; the little bit about his family life (it really accounted for maybe, three percent of our conversation), and his responses to my questions about each artwork. Since the exhibition text that Seymour provided was a semi-abstract poem which did not give standard information such as titles, materials, dates, a bio, or anything of the sort, I wanted to share the context of the works (as told to me by Sharif, because I specifically asked).
That little slip of paper from the wheel piece is ripped off of a larger drawing that Sharif bought from a beggar in Morocco. He was in Morocco on a travel grant from USC; he had wanted to visit Syria, where his mother’s side of the family is from, but based on the stipulations of the grant, Syria was deemed too dangerous. While in Morocco, Sharif spent many hours at local cafes, basically people-watching, eating bread and honey, and drawing. He said it’s common for people to approach you at cafes, wanting money; one man handed Sharif a comic, and then made his rounds at the cafe. When he came back to Sharif, he wanted money, or he wanted the comic back. Sharif bought it; that little piece of paper on the hubcap, with no title and no subtitle—it says “thank you.”
The drawing in the glove box was kind of an exercise for Sharif; he also made it in Morocco, sitting in a cafe, because he didn’t know many people and didn’t have a lot to do, and he wanted to practice his drawing, because he doesn’t think he’s good at it. He drew that particular scene because of what he saw as the silliness/absurdity of the traditional dress combined with the western accessories.
The lighter piece is a baby rattle, and it’s supposed to make noise as you drive. That’s all I can remember about that.
The door lock piece is in the shape of a slingshot. A slingshot!
I think the context of this work gives it legibility, and I think the context of the car gives that legibility a new context; as in, I like considering Sharif’s work in the context of being installed in a functioning car, but I would argue that that consideration is only possible (or at least more accessible) when I have more information about the artwork. That a little slip of paper was carried thousands of miles and then glued to the wheel of a car inspires the idea of a journey—of some kind of communication across cultures, and perhaps most poignantly, an appreciation for little, little things; a slip of paper from a stranger that says “thank you.” It could bring me to tears.
Something I like about the drawing in the drawer is that it makes me think of flat files, the fanciest and art-iest of drawings in drawers (personally I own the largest style you can buy, and on wheels!). For a native Angeleno, raised in Reseda and educated between El Camino Real High School and a Muslim youth group which met at the Mosque every Saturday, the contrast between the world depicted in Sharif’s drawing and the world both immediately within and outside of the car, a Crown Victoria, presents a paradox of place, and a reality of present. The world is small, and both of these cultures live and thrive together, not just in Los Angeles, not just in Sharif, but in this little box inside this sumptuous, clean, and straight-up super duper fly car. You can make a bunch of drawings alone in your studio and store them in your convenient and very functional flat file, where they won’t be damaged, or even seen, for that matter. Or, you can stick your drawing in the glove box and cruise anywhere you want. I’m starting to think it’s not the car that’s the context, but what it represents; a kind of freedom.
As for the slingshot and the baby rattle, those are a bit more mysterious and random. I don’t think I would have ever guessed it was a baby rattle—maybe I would have if I heard it rattle, I don’t know. That it was described to me during my car visit as a paper clip whose negative space was somehow important did not help, but nothing really would have. I suppose that plugging in a baby rattle where you would normally light a cigarette is humorous, but I don’t really get it. But nothing ventured, nothing gained!
The slingshot is a little bit of a different story. During my talk with Sharif at USC, the first artwork he took me to was a huge sculpture he made in the shape of a slingshot; it was made of different fabrics, mostly plaid-patterned, stretched and glued over a giant slingshot armature, not in the “resting” position, but in the aim/fire position, so it’s stretched backward to the max. (When fact-checking this writing, Sharif wrote to me that his intention was for it to be a “gummy slingshot that if you tried to pull it would just slump over.” I would argue that gummy things don’t have metal armatures, but that’s my interpretation.) I thought it was a cool sculpture; I like how he made it human-like by basically dressing it up in clothes. Its posture was such that it was on the verge of firing, and firing hard. But of course it isn’t really a slingshot, because it’s not designed to shoot anything; so the posture is ultimately a let-down. No climax. The slingshot on the door lock knob (Sharif told me that’s what it’s called) is similarly functionless, and I can’t really make sense of it here, other than it would be considered a kind of “customization” (a word both Seymour and Sharif used), to have that thing instead of normal knobs. It’s not what I would choose! But I suppose that’s the point. I think slingshots are an important and interesting aspect of Sharif’s visual vocabulary, but it’s sort of blah here. It should go in the big slingshot show I think Sharif should do…
I could have said more about about the structure of the gallery, but I’d rather try to make sense of its contents. I think the experience of the car appointment probably changes depending on who you are; honestly, I felt my experience was a little bizarre. That being said, let me point out that Seymour’s decision to write a poem (the thing I find myself most critical of) instead of providing a bio, or blurb about the show, or even a title list, is interesting because it values experience over understanding, which is exactly how my car ride felt. Seymour’s poem is a gesture toward-non understanding, or toward confusion; something Sharif and I talked about at length; that art is confusing, to do and to experience. Sharif is not a didactic artist, and is not invested in placing his artwork in some kind of lineage or traditional compressed press release form, so why should Seymour be? As frustrating as the poem was, knowing all that I know, I think it was a gesture of kindness, of camaraderie, understanding, sympathy—i’m just not sure it functioned that way in the end.
If I had to ascribe a theme to this show, it would be “Sharif does Sharif.” The customizations, the personal drawings, the little thank you note from the Moroccan beggar tucked under the wheel; the effigy hanging like a costume in the back seat; it’s as if to say, which one of these is Sharif the artist? Is he the macho, opaque, abstract sculptor? Is he the collector of keepsakes, notes, and journals from travels? Is it the Sharif sitting anonymously in a Moroccan cafe, a Sharif among Sharifs, finding beauty but also irony, rattling ideas of authenticity? Is he the crafty type, gluing fabric and shoes and making dolls, making fun of himself and giving everyone a good laugh? Is he the hipster shaman performer, purifying the gallery which is itself parked in his backyard?
You’ll notice I titled this writing “How Sharif is Sharif?”; of course I’m thinking of Laura Aguilar’s multi-part work How Mexican Is Mexican (1990), which I recently saw at the Vincent Price Museum as part of the Getty-funded Pacific Standard Time: LA/LA initiative. While Aguilar’s title lacks a question mark, making it as much of a question as a directive, (from something like “how Mexican is Mexican enough?” to “how Mexicans perform Mexican identity,”) I pose my title as a question, because again, this show is an exploration, not just for Sharif to figure himself out, but for all of us to figure ourselves out. How Sharif is Sharif? How Georgia is Georgia? And across the spectrum of identity.
Lastly, I want to address the title of the show, Smokeless Fire. Though I did not know what it referred to, it sounded vaguely biblical. I thought perhaps it was a reference to Moses and the burning bush; a fire that famously burns, but does not consume, a bush. I searched for “smokeless fire” and found that the Quran refers to creatures called Jinn, who were created from a smokeless fire. Jinn, from my very brief reading, are like spirits; they aren’t angels, but more like fallen angels, or less-than angels. How does this affect my interpretation of Sharif’s work? I’m not sure. In the most basic sense, it indicates that the show is somehow coded, or that there is more than “meets the eye” so to speak. This would be absolutely true. But it also evokes spirits, and perhaps even the spiritual. Smokeless Fire, though it is just a title made up of an adjective and a noun, is also a way of looking; as in, the show itself is smokeless fire; it conjures the invisible and opens the possibility to another realm, one that we cannot access through just our eyes; Sharif’s realm.
Of course it takes a certain level of commitment to get to the lengthy interpretation of this show I’ve presented here, but that’s who I am. After all, this is what I look for in art—some kind of transformation. If I were you, when I go to see this show, (or really, when the show comes to see me), I would try to look past the car and the ride, and forget the pressure to listen or engage in a conversation, or the pressure to be, well, moved (the car does plenty of that for you). Sit in the back and focus on taking in the artwork more than the scenery; look for the artist inside the work; become a little more Sharif.
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.
CODES is the title of an artwork by Shaun Johnson. This artwork was on view last month at Queens, and was notably the inaugural exhibition for that space. It’s actually unclear if CODES is the title of a singular artwork, or a title for the show, generally speaking. This kind of un-clarity, between subject and object, is a theme in this work; maybe it is better said as subjectivity and objectivity. You know, what we appear to be, versus what we really are. Either way, every approach I had to this show was a question. At the opening, it was, who are all these people? (As in, people depicted in the images present in Shaun’s work). A question of identification. And then at my second encounter, the closing of the show, the question was, is this artwork the same as it was a month ago? I actually asked the gallery attendant, who assured me it had not changed since its original installation. Because that question had a rather satisfying answer, I decided to ask more questions: How did you decide Shaun would show this artwork? Did you pick it out from his studio? I also asked, rather stupidly, is this like his other work? And lastly, and definitely most profoundly (to me), I asked how the show would be taken down. Will it be ripped off the wall and trashed? Will it be saved for another iteration? Will it exist like this, as a discreet artwork, always in the same composition, always titled CODES? Does the materiality of this work, here and now, mean anything at all, or is it just a method for depiction? Is the material of art, generally speaking, material to its meaning? Are we talking about the kind of codes that are symbolic, and secret? Or are we talking about moral codes, rules, principals?
Truthfully I only actually asked the first three of those questions. The gallery attendant, Paul (also a co-founder of the space) informed me that they selected Shaun to make a piece, any piece, not the specific artwork; he said it is similar to Shaun’s other works in that it is a collage, though in his other work, he mainly uses depictions of himself; and lastly, about the show being taken down—he said he didn’t know. Delightful, I thought to myself. I love mysteries! Or maybe it’s secrets that I love. I can’t be sure.
One really beautiful thing about this show, beautiful as in, it was beautiful to me, was that it grew; it expanded. Somehow in my mind, the work was so much smaller, so much less detailed. But when I walked through the door a second time, I found its intricacies fascinating, even overwhelming. What had appeared repetitive and perhaps superficial (though I am in favor of superficiality), now seemed complex, thoughtful, deliberate. Nothing at all had changed. So what was I seeing?
To understand what changed, I ought to describe what stayed the same. This is a small gallery of three walls, probably 150 sq ft, or even less. The entrance to the gallery is a glass store-front. Behind the gallery is a series of studios, which you must walk through to get to the bathroom. In this way it is a bathroom hidden behind an art studio, hidden behind a gallery, hidden behind a storefront. So already there are many layers, and many questions of front-ness and backness; unexplored depth and space. It may seem that Shaun’s work doesn’t really address this spatial aspect of the gallery, but I think it does; in the simplest sense, it gets me thinking about facades; how they can be architectural, sure, but also emotional. How, depending on who we are, or what kind of access we have, we interpret what’s “behind the curtain,” so to speak.
But getting back to a description of CODES. It’s a collage that touches all three walls, but not in a continuous way; each wall seems to represent a separate “panel” of the artwork. It is made up of black and white print-outs, or copies, of images of, I assume, gay people. Gay entertainers to be exact. And I think, mostly men? Or at least, the men are the famous ones? (A quick look at the Queens website informs me that “The portraits document gay male singers of the 70’s and 80’s, specifically those who were ‘straight’ or didn’t identify as gay.”) The images are all different sizes, and they have different degrees of pixilation. So, some must have been blown-up in size to accommodate the collage, and others must have been shrunk. Maybe some just stayed the same. I think the piece is affixed directly to the wall, with a combination of push-pins and glue. There are little push-pin marks all over the papers, sometimes five or ten in the same general area. There are also random shapes cut out of different images; it’s not just a head or a fist or a razor or a chain that’s being cut out, but also, like, an elongated teardrop shape, or a long, skinny, arbitrary rectangle. There is also a recurring shape that references, I think, tiger stripes? Or maybe it references flames. Someone told me that they thought of those shapes as tears, like tears that a “tiger claw” would make (I love that they said, specifically, tiger claw, and I said, specifically, tiger stripes). Or maybe it’s just a non-referential shape, easy and natural to cut with scissors.
Before I go on, I’d like to say that when I first saw this artwork, I found it to be sort of phallocentric, and also very immediate. The second time I saw it, I found that it was filled with detail. In a sexist way, this detail redeems the artwork’s phallocentric viewpoint for me, because it balances it with some (stereotypical) femininity. That being said, I don’t recall any famous, blown-up female entertainers (and the press release confirms it), but I do remember one medium-sized female face that recalled the Breakfast Club, albeit with its eyes cut out. So I had the feeling that I may not be exactly the right audience for this artwork, since I’m not a gay man. But the more I think of it, it’s actually because I’m a woman who is sensitive to, or at least alert to, artworks which privilege men in a certain way. I can’t levy that as a criticism of this artwork, even with the diminutive and obscured female faces, because it is this difference that is the subject of the work. In CODES, it may seem that powerful men are being worshipped by scores of women; but part of the point is the falseness of that worship, the total misunderstanding of what power and privilege may be, and who has it.
But back to my sense that the artwork grew in size—I think it’s because of the detail I was able to notice upon a closer look. Sort of like, a flower with its petals blooming, or opening? I know, that’s a really weird and cheesy and probably wrong thing to picture, but I do feel that this work somehow expanded organically. It’s not stuck there. It wants to escape the bounds of that place. Could it be, maybe, it’s in the wrong place?
I wonder if there is a distinction to be made between, the “wrong” place, and “out of” place. I remember making collages when I was a kid; mostly they were confined to a piece of paper or a poster board, and a lot of them had text written in different interesting colors and shapes. When I was a little girl, and I must have been really little, because I learned who I was fairly early, I definitely made collages from fashion magazines. They probably had words like “beauty” and “fashion”; and as I said, they were based on a composition of colors and shapes.
I think I’m getting it now—something important about this artwork, and rather obvious, in a way. What’s out of place about Shaun’s collage is that it lacks color; for all its flamboyant entertainers, it’s the opposite of vibrant. It’s an anti-collage. It’s a representation of gay people, our people, stripped of their stereotypical “pizazz,” their “queen-y” ness; he’s managed to suck the life out of them, and what’s left is their razor blades, their chains, their flames; maybe, the ugly parts? The violent, self-hating parts? They’re not the aspirational celebrities of a little girl’s, or in this case, boy’s bedroom wall; they represent the reality of their situation: lifeless; symbolic; anemic; blah. Codes, yes, but also shadows; they regain their materiality only as crummy pieces of computer paper, and live, all cut-up and disembodied, pinned to the wall—lifeless, voiceless, misunderstood representations.
Is this a really dark interpretation of this work? Is it too dark? I’m tempted to talk about what the press release says again, but I don’t think it’s relevant to harp on it. When I think of Shaun on Instagram, posing with selfies and flowers in front of the work, I think of it as a joyous thing; and the opening—that was certainly a joyous thing, too. Starting a gallery called Queens, and showing CODES as the inaugural exhibition, is making a strong statement about the type of work that will be shown there; it will celebrate a certain kind of people, our people, even when it’s not; even when the work itself complicates the idea of what an identity is, and what aspects of that identity are celebratory, or even understood. Or, for that matter, visible.
I think there are two ways to approach this work, and I don’t know which is better, but I know which I’m more inclined toward. One approach is that the meaning behind the work, or the intention, you could say, lies within the stories of the lives of the people depicted. This would require me knowing and/or understanding something about these particular people’s lives, which again would start by being able to identify them. All I can tell you is Boy George, the Village People, and Liberace—a mixed bag of gay stories, all with their own tragic parts (except the Village People? I know they’re feuding now, but the brief google search I did on them didn’t reveal anything too striking). To this end, the life-stories of these entertainers fits right in with my dark interpretation of the work. But the other approach, the one I’m more inclined to, has to do with all those little push-pin marks on the collage.
When you see an artwork like CODES, it can be difficult to find something in its materiality to latch onto; it’s one of those kinds of artworks that “anybody could make,” which makes it a little bit unlikeable, not because of the way it’s made, but because I feel this narrows the window of interpretations and pushes toward that first approach, the it’s-their-gay-stories interpretation; you stop seeing it as a thing and see it only as an idea. When I see all the little push-pin marks, this brings me back to Shaun, the artist, and connects me more with his process. I picture him in a studio somewhere, painstakingly moving each bit of the collage, snipping at and reworking each shape, giving everything a lot of love and tenderness; giving everything the kind of consideration that it may look like he missed, when you step back and see his piece as an amalgamation of pure image.
Perhaps that’s what’s at play here; from a distance there is something shallow, something flat about these lives; the richness—the differentiation—is to be found in the places touched by Shaun’s hands, and thus, by the spirit of his intuition, and perhaps that spirit-ghost of his past. CODES is not a “cutting-edge” artwork, and it’s not meant to be; in fact, it’s something we can do ourselves. With a little paper, scissors, glue, and a willingness to search into our own pasts for our own influences, the gallery can transform from a place of convolution and competition to a place of community and vulnerability; a place of reflection. That’s something we really need, and I’m grateful to Shaun, and Queens, for using their inaugural exhibition to prioritize that kind of exchange.
CODESwas on view at Queens in Los Angeles, CA from August 26th to September 24th, 2017. Queens is open Sundays from 12:00pm to 5:00pm during exhibitions. For more information on Shaun Johnson, please visit his website: http://www.shaunjohnson.space/
Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha is the title of an exhibition of artworks by Alice Lang. As I see it, there are three iterations of this show that are possible to encounter: 1) the “opening” event; 2) the “by appointment” hours; and 3) the “dinner party.” So far I have experienced two out of three of these iterations, and it is from these experiences that I come to this writing. I think it’s important to distinguish how different the encounter with the show was when it was just me and Alice in the gallery together, without the other fifty (or more?) people that attended the opening. The thing about this space, as the name of the gallery suggests (Abode) is that it’s an apartment, and a pretty small one, at that. And, since it’s on the second floor, it’s not like there is an easy overflow out the front or back door, or to some outside space, as there often is for tiny-ish galleries of this sort. Basically I am saying it was packed in there, and while I was able to see some of the artworks that were hung up high, I was shocked, upon my second encounter, at how much is going on below the waist that I was completely unable to perceive. It simply was not visible. I am saying there is another show entirely happening “below the belt,” if you will, and while it may have been unconscious or perhaps not predictable, it is certainly not antithetical to the subject matter of the show. In fact, it supports it, both literally and figuratively.
Silly puns aside, I’m talking about the pieces of furniture that Alice’s sculptures sit on top of. Their thick, smooth-sanded (and I think untreated) plywood tops are cut in unusual, somewhat retro looking shapes, like the kidney bean, while their tall, plaster-textured, lumpy legs are painted in chalky pastels. There’s also a plainly constructed three-sided box, but with U-shaped cutouts on the side, reminiscent of children’s furniture; and another piece which is a tubular plaster construction, again lumpy, again pastel, again cartoonish and otherworldly. These works are completely unlisted in the title sheet, which in itself is incredibly extensive (there are fifteen artworks in the “Living Room” alone, all with unique titles). These pieces of furniture, which you could call pedestals (I think Alice cringed when referring to them in that way, which she did for clarity’s sake) are arguably the largest artworks in the show, but remain unmentioned. Honestly, this is basically all I want to talk about, but before I get too far down that rabbit hole, there are several other aspects of this show I want to consider.
If I had to describe to someone what this show looks like, I would call it a show of sculptures, made of clay, which at first glance appear to have an amateurish quality; matte pastels (pastel penises, to be exact) remind me of the off-the-shelf low-fire glazes often available to children at paint-your-own-pottery stores; lumps of clay take on figurative shapes appearing to be molded only by the act of squeezing one’s fist together; “mask” faces, reminiscent of the famous and now infamous balaclava (which has appeared in Alice’s work before) look almost like paper, in the sense that they have a flatness and a cut-out ness, since they are constructed from simply cutting mouth and eye holes from a flat slab of clay. This flatness is something that I think most users of the ceramic medium do not desire (these pieces hang on the wall, or lay flat on a table; they don’t adhere to the placement rules typical of ceramic sculptures). Why don’t I think ceramic artists desire this? Well, as someone with an extensive background in ceramics myself, I would argue that it’s antithetical to the medium; the beauty of clay is its unique capacity for volume, and the unique way that hands, and maybe hands with tools, are able to control that volume.
Volume these artworks may lack, but detail they do not. Despite appearing somewhat crude, many of these sculptures offer us weird, hidden moments of delight; tiny, realistic penises appear rendered in pink and gold (realistic not as in super-real, which is another ceramic tradition, but as in there is a distinctive ball vs. shaft). One figurine, called Vital Lift, shows a female figure holding her breasts up, I think, but the breasts are actually simple faces—flattened balls of clay with two pokes for eyes and a swipe-poke for a mouth. To me, this is a funny sculpture. This lies in the fact that instead of rendering breasts on the figure, Alice just formed two balls and mushed them on so they stuck, and made a little face on each. It’s the epitome of randomness and uselessness, and I begin to see this work as the expression of an intuition that cares little for volume or tradition, or even symbolism. For women to be silly is certainly a bold move—Alice, I would offer it is a feminist one, which is incredible, because it manages to be feminist without being ideological, which is what I think this artwork, and this artist, is most interested in.
To get back to the penises, they appear frequently. Two sculptures, Hydraburst and Active Mud, are figures draped in the balaclava mask, and the tiny penis is sticking out a little bit through the mask’s mouth-hole. I think reading these sculptures as symbolic or allegorical would be a mistake; it’s more about scale. This gaping mouth-hole, and the mask itself, are just so much bigger than the penis! I mean, it’s a joke, right? It’s like, this balaclava mask, which became a symbol of feminine power through the Russian anti-Putin art collective Pussy Riot, is so much bigger than the penis! Just look at the size of the mouth and the size of the penis. Who’s in charge here? I think it’s Alice.
Shirt Cocker (flowers) is another funny and emasculating artwork; in this one, the gold-penised figure wears a cute little flower-beaded shirt. It’s enough to make you laugh out loud, but this is getting really serious. I keep emphasizing this, but there is a power play here. God made man, but not from mud; no, it was the Golem that was made of mud. I think of Alice as the god here, and she sure is a cruel one, forming all those tiny penises when they could have been any size she desired; cutting and sewing little beaded shirts for her Golem men to wear, when they could have had plain, neutral fabrics, and perhaps the dignity of pants.
Further along in the show the penises get bigger, but they never get more respectable. Her Better Half sculptures constitute another linguistic joke, with a pair of severed thighs constructed from coils, and pieces of colored clay stuck between some of the layers of coils, and a penis rendered in orange, purple, and yellow, those childish colors I mentioned earlier. All this, the linguistics and the colors and the coils, they’re all foils for a deadly serious issue: how does one live as a woman attracted to men? Heterosexual, that’s what they call it. Should you make your own? Should you simply engage with a simulation? Is the joke that the penis is the better half, or that we are all laughing at this dismembered male body?
Anthurium muse is just too damn much for me. It’s a giant penis-head coil with like, a leaf patch and a claw coming out of it? And it has eyebrows? It’s terrifying and really, really weird, and again, I would attribute it to not-always-silly not-always-pretty intuition, which Alice wants to make sure we understand can be naughty as easily as it can be nice.
To return the “show beneath the show” (as I think of it), the furniture that Alice has built constitutes at least four unlabeled and unmentioned artworks; I’d say the vases, bowls, and plates Alice made for the “dinner party” portion of the show (this is a structure of the gallery, not of Alice’s work) count as unlabeled artworks, too. I asked Alice about that, if they were intentionally left off of the list of artworks, or purposely not listed in the materials section of the artworks they appear beneath. She said she didn’t think of it, and she also said something about constructing the pedestals to be viewed in a home space (maybe she said domestic? Maybe she said living space? I wasn’t taking notes). I don’t know if I believe any of that, or really what they have to do with appearing in a home space (they certainly don’t look like any of the furniture I have in my house, and I have A LOT of furniture). What I do get out of this is that Alice snuck a bunch of art into her show that, in some regard, she would not have to be held accountable for: what I mean by this is that they don’t belong to us, the audience; they’re not for sale; no, they’re not for us at all.
In a way this is the perfect metaphor for this show, not that it needs one; but that part of this work does not belong to you. You, as in me. We can covet Alice’s artworks, which are appealing in their irreverence (a word she used, for sure), but we can never own the intuition that made them. There is a spark somewhere in there, a love for something, a desire to use her hands, as clichéd as that is; a desire to use weird colors and just to be, I’d say, unique; to be herself. We can take one of Alice’s Shirt Cockers home, and it may inspire us, but we’ll never be that person, who made those weird things. Perhaps they will inspire us to be ourselves.
There are still two important things (among many) that I haven’t addressed, but I’d like to. One, of course, is the namesake artwork of the show, Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha, a really big drawing whose materials are listed as “marbled paper and acrylic on paper.” The second is the text that accompanied the invitation to the show, which I think was a collaboration between Alice and Abode. These things are, naturally, linked, and I’m thinking about what that link is. Here is an excerpt of that text:
Welcome to the cult of the Mutha where candy colored relics of humanity’s future past are preserved. A matriarchal society, the Mutha was preoccupied with the corporeal and its connection to the natural world. . . . There is much still to learn from these fragments of their world, secret histories of power and possibility yet uncovered. We offer them up to you for your enjoyment and understanding, and in hopes that the ethos of the Mutha can flourish and thrive. (http://abode.gallery/Alice-Lang).
I told Alice that when I read this piece of writing, it made me think I was going to see a very different show. Basically, it set me up to experience her work as a narrative, and also, as a relic. The cult of the Mutha. Like, what the hell is that? I know from talking to Alice, and also from my own experience growing up in New England (where mother is pronounced “mutha” and Georgia is pronounced “Georger”) that she is referring to the way she pronounces the word mother. Of course, saying mutha of a mutha of a mutha could mean many different things. Here, as the above text informs us, it refers to a matrilineage, but I still find it perplexing. I mean, we are all mothers of mothers, unless we’re daughterless mothers, or unless we’re mothers with daughters but those daughters don’t have children, or unless we’re not mothers at all…so actually, very few of us are muthas of muthas of muthas, or, it is certainly not a given. Is the cult of the Mutha a matriarchy gone horribly awry, in which only women who birth women who birth women are accepted in society? Or, is it aspirational? My mother had me, and now I hope I have a daughter? Or, is it cyclical? Are we trapped in the cycle of mothers and daughters?
I would argue that in a sense, the idea of mutha of a mutha is a trick; it’s a nonsensical narrative; or, if it makes some sense, that sense really has no meaning. I said to Alice, I’m really excited to write about your show, because I don’t want that text to be the only writing associated with this work. And although it was a jerky and probably unnecessary thing to say, what I mean by it is that the text certainly functions as part of the artwork (or at least in a similar way as the artworks) but it doesn’t describe the artwork. Not that I think anything should or could describe it. But it leads me to look for a narrative within this show, which I would argue I will never find, or is not worth finding. As for the drawing Mutha of a mutha of a mutha of a mutha, it is absolutely stunning, aesthetically “yes” in all the ways her other artworks say “no” or even, “fuck you!” I think that drawing is also a gesture towards patience; that Alice has it, despite the immediacy of her sculptures (ceramics often looks this way but believe me, it is not this way…this show represents a commitment, that’s for damn sure…).
Alice and I talked about feminism in art—if you’re a feminist making art, are you a feminist artist? If you’re making art about feminism, are you a feminist lady? I told Alice these are things I never think about. And I wondered out loud why she should be an artist whose job it is, aside from the impossible task of making art, to figure out what exactly it is, and how it should be properly categorized. I realize now that this show isn’t all about “p” things (penises, pastels, power, pink walls, Pussy Riot), but it is also about the task of making this work, of performing as the artist who makes it, and waiting for the second half of that performance; which is to be judged. I think this is why Alice saved so many of the artworks for herself by not listing them, or heck, even thinking of them as artworks.
There are many aspects of this show that I did not go into at all—the piece in the bathroom; the idea of how the dinner parties will play out; that many of the artworks are vases (they have Anthuriums, a kind of flower, inside them); that the mask-on-penis figure sculptures are based on a sculpture Alice encountered at the Getty; the particularity of the gallery, with its dingy carpet and moldings on the wall, all which appear crusty and somewhat gross and run-down (some may call it “Old Hollywood”); the complexity of the many techniques Alice used to produce this body of work; and other things I am forgetting. Mainly I would say this show inspires us to let our inner freak out; but also, not to suffer fools; that we, as potential Muthas, have the capacity to create and to destroy; we are silly; we are decisive; we are god-like creatures.