The floor is covered with silver tarps and the entrance wall has the press release hand scrawled in acrylic paint. Partitions of white heavy plastic sheeting hanging from aluminum support beams create booths to mimic an art fair. This is Jose Lerma’s own art fair, where the works are made on site while you watch. For a full month during gallery hours, the artist and his assistants utilize MoCAD’s main exhibition space as an artist studio, transforming it into a one person art fair. Having opened May 16, the final display is this Friday, June 13, and will remain on display through July.
One of the strongest works on display is the monster made of U of M T-shirts and Spongebob’s idiotic face hanging from reflective curtains. Walking past the work lights blaring directly onto the curtains, the fabric reacts to create a fantastic sunset effect, albeit unapologetically cheesy. A few hanging junk assemblages are painted a uniform bright yellow to match Spongebob Square Sun. Two slabs of brick ruins from an old brownstone “play” a keyboard set to a shimmering new age setting. The bricks find their final resting place on the keys, and a non stop trance inducing drone fills the entire museum, aided by a small amplifier and the building’s open floor plan. The whole effect is theatrical and sublime, allowing the materials to transcend their position as trash or generic objects of ennui.
To the right is a horizontal stripe painting and a wooden cube reacting to a strobe light overhead. The colors become animated in the lights, dancing to the keyboard drone and a disco beat locked somewhere in the colors and released by the artist’s intervention. While this small section is playful, the strobe gets down to business in the next installation. In the west corner of the gallery, mirrors on both walls work their magic to turn a quarter circle of pastel painted bricks into a full circle. These surround a constructed podium adorned with triangles in every color and direction, ripped from a thrift store sweater (plus a background of Bird Shit White), housing plants and two tube TVs. The TVs play the same video: a few people in this very same environment making unintelligible sounds by flicking their cheeks incessantly, as if they are trying to create a language. The strobe is in the video as in the actual space, slowing down the video by de emphasizing certain frames within. This visual doubling and redoubling is complemented by the mic’d sound of the cheek recital. It too seems doubled and redoubled to the point of not even recognizing it as human: getting within earshot it sounds like a fountain. It takes watching the video and seeing yourself in the space to realize that it is not.
In a video made by MoCAD to promote the exhibition, Lerma speaks about the materials and the resulting work’s relationship to Detroit. He says: “I found a lot of these things on the street. And it’s shocking that they make a suitable replacement for artworks at an art fair; just junk that I found and you put together in a day.” Said so coyly, it seems like a dig, but I doubt to artists who work within the framework of detritus. Since he teaches at one of the nation’s largest art schools, he probably sees more than his fair share, and from all sides, of work that re-makes polemical modernist art, both from his peers and fellow faculty still engaged with it, and young students trying to address it in their smirkingly angry way. Go to Basel and see that shit is in some horse stalls across from the original LeWitts, Judds, etc., and you’re likely to think you can never escape it. So while the fake minimalist crap in the northwest part of the gallery looks really boring, there are a range of artworks at an art fair. Winners and losers. At Basel, its not just the works on display but the spectacle, the who’s who of both sides. The only thing that changes is the number of works still available for purchase. At MoCAD, the number of works keeps increasing, each hour and each day, creating more potentials of dialogues within the works in the exhibition.
While the museum claims Lerma is addressing the history of the building as a former auto dealership, the only real connection is through class markets. As the dealership no longer exists, the market is no longer the people who make the product. Underlining this is the idea of transient economies, like an art fair. Keep reading the press release and no one talks of sale, just dismantling. With support from Andrea Rosen and Kava Gupta Chicago/Berlin, the works will likely go on sale after the exhibition in other economies. The slimy part of art which is on full view at art fairs gets pushed almost entirely out of sight here. Standard procedure, sure, and several of these works deserve a good home. With the DIA just a couple blocks north of MoCAD, one can’t help but think of unspoken intentions when it comes to politicizing art speak. Since Lerma has never avoided history and politics in his work, I don’t doubt he sees this as another relationship his work creates with Detroit.
Beautiful cacophony, the secret rhythms of color exposed and a perfect blending of light, sound and materials. I can’t see him as this cynical, even though he is. Even at his most cynical, the resulting work is too beautiful to deny. Its like a predator perfectly stalking its prey, and that fragile creature who, in a moment of self absorption, or not being quick enough, or just dumb fucking luck — succumbs to the predator with such grace, that the whole event is nothing less than majestic. Everything that took place was exactly as it should, with nothing extra and no piece of carnage left out. The viewer is left staring, amazed. And as the drone seeps into your subconscious, the strobe lights screw with your sense of time and place, you start to understand the language created by the cheek recital.
José Lerma: La Bella Crisis is organized by MOCAD. It is curated by Elysia Borowy-Reeder, Executive Director of MOCAD and coordinated at MOCAD by Exhibitions Coordinator Zeb Smith. Exhibition runs from May 16 – July 27. For more information, visit MoCAD’s website here.