GUEST POST BY MARISSA PEREL
Marissa Perel : Here we are in Brooklyn talking about your solo show, “Game On” at threewalls, March 9-April 21st. You are going to give an artist talk at the gallery on April 21st?
Michael Fleming : Hello. Yes, we’ll be giving our talk from 2-4 PM that day.
Alan Fleming: Then we open our solo show, “Spatial Reasoning” at the Happy Collaborationists that night at 6.
MP : So busy! I wanted to ask you guys about your studio practice. Your threewalls exhibition has sculpture, works on paper and performance for video, which is a lot to cover at one time. I’d like to know specifically what your practice was while you were apart in from 2010-2011, and then what it was like when you came together in Brooklyn in 2011.
MF: After working together for several years in a practice that was mostly focused on performance and video and our bodies physically being dependent and in the same proximity, we were were trying to wrap our heads around what to do not being in the same place. How do we collaborate if we are not doing the type of performance and body-based work that we’re known for? So, I think it started to lead us into these questions about communication and connection. People used to poke fun at us or asked us about these issues in our daily lives as twins, like if we had telepathy, or our own language. We tried to take that as a starting point, playing with the idea of latent twin “psychicness,” but also investigating it as a metaphor for how we stay connected when we’re not in the same physical location. How do we collaborate across distance?
One of the pieces that we started the first month of last year resulted in these calendars but it originated from this game where we would try and think of the same color and shape at the same time every day for one month. We were both spending time thinking about these things. We came up with drawing and sculpture, as a means of working out a problem but still trying to hold on to an embodied practice.
MP: I can see that happening in this show, testing the space between game and science experiment, and modes of embodiment. I really enjoy your games, especially the rock, paper, scissors sculptures. I heard that you both didn’t actually know who won until you made the molds? Is that true?
AF: We actually didn’t know who won until we installed the show. So, we had the molds made and we were like, “ok we’re ready to go,” but we didn’t know until the day of the install, which is probably nine months or something after the initial game which we played over the phone. So, we didn’t know until that moment who won.
MP: Because you had to set them in chronological order?
AF: Yeah, so even though we saw the casts in our studio, we didn’t know what permutation of the game they represented. I knew from left to right, this one, this one, this one, and then Mike had something to match that, but we didn’t know which one matched up with which. And, that’s kind of the point of that game. There is no stronger piece, like there is in chess or something, where you have better odds if you go with a certain one in terms of probability. Rock, paper and scissors are equally good choices no matter what you choose.
MF: We were really interested in this idea of a really ephemeral game that we would play when we were younger that was kind of a low-stakes game. But, that if we stretch it out over time and distance, and we embody it in this classical medium, it becomes something larger than itself, or something larger than a game between us, it becomes this metaphorical, conceptual object.
MP: Yes, I noticed that about your mis-matched chairs, too. They made me think of Kosuth’s semiological deconstruction: what happens when you see a thing and then a definition of the thing? Does the language equal the object? But, for you guys, it’s like, each half of the chair is supposed to symbolize you, and then you’re putting them together, and it creates a third idea of what you are.
MF: I think there’s definitely something related to that in terms of the disconnect, because we had a prompt for each other where we said, “Ok, at the same time on the same day we are just going to find a generic, wooden chair; just four legs and a back.” Those were the parameters we used to work with this readymade object. But then, other factors came into play, like what were choices in picking out the chairs and what the limitations were of what was available.
AF: Yeah, our location, too. A chair from Brooklyn Heights versus a chair from Lakeview, not that you can tell which is which…
MF: I think the manifestation of them became these readymades that were dependent on our own choices and the difference inherent in that, along with the difference of our locations and places and two different sites, even though they’re generic chairs. This idea of a readymade that is spliced in half and superimposed on another to make this third, new thing that isn’t either of our chairs.
AF: The point of that wasn’t to have two distinclty different halves of a chair. We first thought that it would just look like a chair with a line down the middle – that the two sides would have a kind of a similar character to them.
MF: We kind of thought of it as one thing split in two by its origin.
AF: The most interesting thing to me is looking at the different rungs of the chairs and how they don’t match up.
MP: It’s interesting that once the chairs are conjoined, they are no longer functional.
AF: Yes, they become nonfunctional objects. That reinforces the readymade nature of these things because they’re not meant to be sat on, they’re meant to be looked at. But, it’s also this weird psychic collage that we made. Conjoined chairs that no longer function separately.
MP: You also show the sculptures that I saw in your thesis show [at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago] of the measurement of your height and weight and the measurement of time between when you were each born. Those objects are highly refined and manufactured, they’re in plexiglass as opposed to the readymades that you used in the rest of the exhibition that are definitely from the everyday and meant to be low, like the cardboard box. In thinking about difference and how you’re recording distance and communication, how do you discern between these refined objects and the everyday materials?
MF: Even though they’re refined in their look and feel, I think, for both of us, we think of them as a kind of farce in that way. They have the austerity of minimalist sculpture, but they point to something very human. It’s showing an objective difference from each other, but the mathematical reduction doesn’t tell you anything about either of us. The piece points to difference being found in other things. Individuality is found in ways that can’t be measured objectively. That’s the lesson of that piece to me.
AF: The “Our Difference” sculptures are analogous to how I think of “100 tilted cans of beer.” Even though there’s a high and low, or readymade to highly manufactured comparison, I feel like this idea of embodied practice is still present in each of those. The beer cans balancing for two months on their edge reference our bodies just as much as this little cube with our weight difference. But, as far as the plexiglass and this sterile environment, I felt like we created those as units. Before digital times, I guess, scientists had a certain weight that they kept in this big vault for the measurement of a kilogram. Everyone referenced it as this one truth, everything pointed toward this one unit, which our whole system of measurement is based on. We are creating a unit from a system of measurement to show the difference between our bodies, and putting meaning and truth to that as something that defines what a twin is. It’s an idea of a protected unit, and why those were on a different level, or plane, but I feel like they still have the physicality of the rock, paper, scissors, or the balanced cans.
MP: In talking about units of measurement, I’m thinking of the Tetris drawings that you each made. Did you each make a drawing for every lost game? Explain how you went from playing Tetris to drawing it.
AF: We went to an arcade and played an hour’s worth of Tetris and we did these drawings of all the “Game Over” screens. The point of Tetris is to keep this grid of blocks completely clean by completing lines. A “Game Over” screen records your failure to perform this task of puzzling together these different shapes. We each have different ways of failing at that task. What gets recorded in each drawing is the inability to perform this puzzle.
MF: I think the ways [we’re failing] are important because one of the reasons we wanted to find an actual arcade with Tetris, is that for the original two-player Tetris, if you’re playing against someone else, you both get the same Tetris pieces at the same time. So, if you were to mirror each other perfectly, you could go on endlessly. But because of the choices you make, how you decide where you place the pieces, variations start to occur.
AF: It’s a record of human error.
MF: A colorful record. The game pieces made for these beautiful drawings of failure.
MP: I do want to carry on with talking about failure as material in your work. There is something between farce and failure that’s constantly at play in this show that, to me, is a huge departure from your previous work as I’ve known it. I want to hear a little more about your interest in difference now and what you’re bringing out about it through playing these games.
AF: I think we definitely tried to have fun in a new way with this work, where we might have been more serious in other work in the past. I think it comes from this time when we were apart, asking ourselves if we wanted to keep collaborating. Is it fun? Is it something…
MF: Of value?
AF: Yeah, and I think a lot of the value for us was this idea of play…
MF: I think that came through for us in “Lessons in Gravity” because that is a video work where we tried to create these short clips where it was us just going out, doing these actions, and not knowing the outcome of it. They were kind of down and dirty, quick video shoots at all different locations. “Who’s Bad?” is a departure from our past work because it’s not edited. I think that’s something that’s changed, how we’re now showing our process of collaborating, showing this discovery, which is an experience of going through something instead of going for the final product.
MP: Which is definitely revealed in “Psychic Color Pour.”
AF: Yeah, exactly. It’s putting out on the table how we’re going through these processes, or how we’re collaborating, and how having fun is a part of that.
MP: Al looked really excited to pour paint on you, Mike [in that video]. I feel like between that one and “Who’s Bad?,” I was seeing the individual in this way that I haven’t seen in your previous work.
AF: I don’t think we’d allowed that before because I think we felt like deadpan humor required this seriousness about it in order to get our intended reaction. I think Mike put it perfectly, [when he said that] the video works show a process. Our personalities leak out in that moment, when we’re not posing for the picture. It’s recording just before that moment of performing or putting forward your ‘best face’; it’s a little bit more raw…
MF: And unrehearsed.
AF: Yeah, it’s rehearsal takes. For “Who’s Bad?,” after I had been teaching Mike the moves, we were becoming precise, performing the whole combination. But when we started to look at the footage, we were struck by the moment of learning. So, I told Mike, “Don’t learn any choreography before you get to the subway.” The only times he would learn were in front of the camera. So, I would introduce new material to him, explain it, and he would have to learn it on the spot, on site, with people looking.
MP: You have that experience with intervening in public space from your past work.
AF: This is funny because one of the things that we learned when we were doing those performances in architecture, is that if any authority figure would come over and tell us not to do it, we would tell them we were dancing. It was a more legitimate response than saying we were doing performance art. If we told them it was dance, they were like, “Oh, I understand what that is so I am going to keep watching.”
MF: But if you’re climbing a building, then you’re a burglar.
AF: Yeah, basically!
MP: Tell me more about this turn between the deadpan and this place where you’re being sincere or serious about what you’re doing, but what you’re doing is totally ridiculous.
AF: Well, I think the turn comes in this idea of no rehearsal that we talked about with “Who’s Bad?”. In the “Psychic Color Pour” it’s just inherent. We can’t rehearse it, it’s a game, it’s always going to be this live recording of reactions and choices and, therefore we can’t know the outcome. It’s nice because then it is just about that process of playing this game. Guess wrong and it’ll be colorful. [laughs]
MF: It’s important that we made this body of work that was interdisciplinary and experimental for our practice. We’re in the same city again and trying to make performance and video work again, but it feels more open and more complex. It felt like we were ready to have fun in a new way.
AF: Since we have a studio together again in New York, it has become this really generative site where we we’re like, “Ok, are we going to make a drawing today? Are we going to make a dance? Are we going to make a sculpture? Is this going to be something that lives on for us?” Basically, it’s very open-ended, the studio feeling after this roundabout journey. I don’t know if any of that makes sense.
MF: It’s good!
Alan and Michael Fleming will give their artist talk for their threewalls SOLO exhibition, Game On, April 21 from 2-4 PM in the gallery. That same evening, their show Spatial Reasoning, opens at Happy Collaborationists, 1254 N Noble, Chicago, IL, reception: 6-10pm. Spatial Reasoning runs through May 9th by appointment.
Marissa Perel is an artist, writer, and independent curator based in Brooklyn, NY. Current projects include “Days of being good to you, always,” a collaboration with Anthony Romero for the ITINERANT Performance Art Festival, NY and co-curation of the Movement Research Festival Spring 2012: Push It. Real. Good. She is co-editor of the on-line dance and performance journal, Critical Correspondence. Perel is also the author of Gimme Shelter, the exclusive column on performance for the Art21 blog.
Guest Post by Monica Westin
The first time I saw Karsten Lund’s project, currently exhibiting at Peregrine Program, while still evolving in the workspace in his apartment, I immediately thought of Difference and Repetition, Gilles Deleuze’s exploration of what difference and repetition would look like simply as functions, as opposed to functions premised on recreations of an original object. In other words, giving the act of repeating primacy rather than the original thing being repeated.
For one of the bodies of work in “Strange Weather, Vague Suspicions,” Karsten (full disclosure: he is a friend of mine, and I cannot call him by his last name) uses a strikingly similar logic, with black geometric shapes, painters tape, and luminescent green watercolor forming fractals and patterns in endless formations of postcard/snapshot-sized drawings. The other grouping uses found pages from old Life magazines (right before it shut down as a weekly publication, hence the title A Few Scraps from the Void, or The Last Days of Life), affixed to another surface and then torn away on a woven sheet of masking tape, leaving behind soft white textures of paper and accidental images.
Seeing the show is a bit like talking with Karsten: ideas spin off constantly, with tangents and trajectories that seem to be pointing off into the stratosphere but which are carefully looping back into a holistic weave. It’s also like talking with Karsten in that the project is sometimes almost maddeningly open-ended; the curator, artist, writer, and general surveyor and careful comber of ideas purposely keeps the potential of the show quivering with signification without spelling anything out too easily– though “generating ideas in its wake,” as the press release accurately describes.
Karsten will be giving a talk of “afterthoughts” talk this Sunday at 1:30, which combines his thoughts with texts lifted from various sources, in a kind of verbal analogue to the show. I emailed with Karsten between when I saw the show and this talk to compare my impressions with his.
Let the conversation begin! It was exciting and sometimes discombobulating to see the show in its finished form after watching the projects progress along various forking logical and associative paths over the last year, with these ever-shifting images and texts on the walls of your second bedroom every time I would come over (there were those zip-reminiscent pieces using the blue tape that dominates the show, the larger and much-larger versions of the smaller pieces). By the end, you had a really quite large body of work, from the small rectangular “aeriel view” drawings as I call them (Edmund Chia of Peregrine says they remind him of car windows looking out onto landscapes), to medium-sized and very large versions using the same logic. The edited body of work at Peregrine does gesture toward the evolution of the process, but it’s somehow extremely restrained, resulting in a more ephemeral experience. The work has room to breathe.
Also, maybe it’s because I have this perspective of the sheer amount of work that was a part of this project, but the grouping at Peregrine was most striking for the way it was almost more about framing as an act than anything else… and not only framing your project, but also physically and literally playing with notions of the frame: the giant paper remainders from your smaller cutout shapes on one wall, the pieces involving cut-outs from life magazine, the sense that you were severely limiting your own activity (which played out in the proportions of tape and paintbrush, palette and form in the smaller pieces) even as you left a lot up to chance with the torn tape pieces.
As your note about forking paths suggests, the larger process behind all these works (collectively) has a very different logic: it’s much more expansive, almost opposite to the narrowing effect that framing implies. Over time a web begins spreading outward as little accidents in the process open up new directions or the strange results of working with these precarious materials (whether masking tape or magazine pages) spin off new ideas.
But at the same time I think your observations about framing are interesting and sound. The small drawings here, for example, all begin from much, much larger sheets that are just a chaos of marks in watercolor. I start looking for potential compositions, latent within that field, and cut them out, so there’s an almost “photographic” process in there. Then drawing takes over again and I augment each of the excised compositions with other elements.
And on a larger level, to present a modestly scaled exhibition like this one you have to make selections; this particular configuration accentuates certain aspects in the work (while others momentarily shift into the background). Maybe the notion of framing is one way to think about that…. The next time the picture might change and certain other works you mentioned might be presented instead, or in addition, whether it’s the more sculptural iterations or scaled up versions of drawings made using similar processes and wider blue tape.
A lot of the exciting tension I feel in the show is regarding control… first you have a strong formal emphasis on control, with the explorations of the frame you’re making, but on the other hand, much of the “content” of the Life series are discovered or accidental rather than made. This seems exciting but also potentially sort of frightening. How do you see your relationship to these texts that poke their heads out of the work– and the accidental as part of the process? Is it a system for invention, or as you’ve said for generating ideas, perhaps a way of breaking free of a certain way of thinking? These kind of images make me think about a kind of resisting of their own representation (along with your decontextualized quotations,which I want to bring up later), but which find their own logic and of course their own way of representing themselves… and which involves giving up an enormous sense of authorial control.
Well, one thing that shapes these works are various processes that involve some kind of pseudo-system — but one that tends to have these pockets where productive accidents can happen, or which allow for discovery within the bounds of set procedures. If it’s a system for invention, it’s one that works just as well when the system is going slightly haywire. It does become a different way of thinking that can be pleasantly unfamiliar at times.
There is something open ended about it in that way. And maybe not only in the sense of not knowing exactly what’s going to happen in any given case but also in that these works could almost seem to keep on replicating in endless permutations — all the while bearing traces of how they’re extracts from a more expansive world (let’s say) of related visual material. I like the idea of discovered content though, and I think that element makes things pleasantly more complicated. When that’s paired with these kinds of processes, meaning also appears and sometimes congeals in unexpected ways.
The work has evolved over time, as you noted before, but I’m not sure in the linear sense the word evolution implies. To go back to the metaphor of the web I mentioned before, David Shields offers an analogy in his book Reality Hunger. He’s talking about forms of writing specifically, but it might easily apply elsewhere, too, in relation to art or artists’ practices:
“When plot shapes a narrative, it’s like knitting a scarf. You have this long piece of string and many choices about how to knit, but we understand a sequence is involved, a beginning and an end, with one part connected to the next. You can figure out where the beginning is and where the last stitch is cast off. Webs look orderly, too, but unless you watch the spider weaving, you’ll never know where it started. It could be attached to branches or table legs or eaves in six or eight places. You won’t know the sequence in which the different cells were spun and attached to another. You have to decide for yourself how to read its patterning, but if you pluck it at any point, the entire web will vibrate.”
This quotation reminds me that I want to ask about your use of found text in the process of this project as well as the forthcoming talk. I was always struck by the typewritten notecards in your studio with what I thought of as “foundling” quotations, often very provocative or funny or sad. They formally matched some of the work through their rigid lack of context. I remember also you showing me a selection of them that you had written up into a longer document, and reading it felt like a tornado– a maelstrom– of ideas. That feeling is borne out in the show, at least for me. How will you be incorporating the found text (which is also in the press release) into your “afterthoughts” talk? What prompted you to use this format? What can we expect from this talk?
So as you describe, for a while I’ve had a wall full of post-it notes, which I’ve added to one by one. (Since then this material has taken other forms, too, whether a deluge-like flow on a sheet of paper or a stack of uniform notecards like Mel Bochner might do.) At first this was a way to let my own thoughts trail after the work. Gradually I became fascinated with things I read elsewhere — either encountered randomly or while doing focused research for other essays I was writing at the time — and how they seemed to say something about the work at hand. So I began to collect and compile them; people like John Ashbery, Anne Carson, Susan Sontag, Italo Calvino, Robert Smithson, Perec, Adorno, Borges, and a hundred others start to mingle side by side.
I like your phrase “foundling quotes”; it suggests these little lost things trying to find a good home for themselves. But the works, and not just the words, could be a band of foundlings, too, in a way, pushed out into the world of ideas to find their own way. This manner of bringing language in contact with the work isn’t about applying critical methods or opening up your theoretical toolbox and digging for the right wrench; it’s more like letting outside thoughts, other people’s writings, poetic fragments, even errant ideas, gravitate to the work (though at some point who can say how they in turn effect the work as they glom on).
So the talk I’m titling “Afterthoughts” brings my show at Peregrine Program to a close, this coming Sunday. I won’t tip my hand too much, but I’m not really interested in doing a standard artist talk. Instead it takes this growing accumulation of written material, these foundlings as you call them, as its starting point. Rather than making a case for the work or telling you what you need to know, it’s more like looking back at it from a speculative distance, and then opening it up even further, letting it spin outwards even more.
Monica Westin is a writer, editor, and PhD student in rhetoric. She teaches arts writing and media theory classes at DePaul.
December 12, 2011 · Print This Article
Guest Post by Michael Milano
Among the many forms conceptual art of the 60’s and 70’s took, two major threads can be identified. The first, following Sol Lewitt’s definition of conceptual art in which the “idea becomes the machine that makes the art,”# is characterized by developing a set of rules or instructions that are then slavishly followed in the production of the artwork. The goal of this method of working is to limit or eliminate the subjectivity of the author by dividing the production of a work into two phases: a mental phase, which consists of planning, designing, and constructing a set of rules or system that will produce the work; and a second, manual phase, the physical construction of the art [object], in which the “execution is a perfunctory affair,” and where the “fewer decisions made in the course of completing the work, the better.”# The second major thread of conceptual art follows Joseph Kosuth’s definition that art should question the nature of art. This thread, characterized by its use and reliance on language, accepts the imperative that art ought to interrogate the foundations of its own being.
Karen Reimer’s work has explored both of these threads of conceptual art, albeit through the use of traditional craft methods and materials. In 2008 Reimer exhibited “Endless Set” at Monique Meloche Gallery. Following Lewitt’s definition, it is a highly systematic work that obeys a pre-established set of rules. The work is a set of pillowcases, pieced together from scraps of fabric, with a prime number appliqued onto it. “Each pillowcase is made of the same number of fabric scraps as the prime number decorating it, i.e. prime number 3 is appliqued onto a pillowcase made of 3 scraps of fabric. The white fabric prime number is the same inches high as itself, i.e., prime number 3 is 3 inches high. As the prime numbers get larger than the pillowcases, the excess white fabric is folded back and layered over. As the prime numbers get increasingly larger, there is more and more layering and they more completely obscure the pillowcase made of increasingly smaller scraps.”# The pillowcases retain their conventional dimensions (20 x 32 in.), but as the white appliqued prime number grows in size and increasingly obscures the multi-color fabric fragments, the excess material folded back upon itself gives the works increasing thickness and the appearance of mere stack of white fabric. The work is theoretically open ended, running off to infinity as the prime numbers do. However “Endless Set” will inevitably come to an end at the point in which the fabric scraps that make up the pillowcase support become too many and too small to physically stitch together. “Endless Set” also fruitfully disrupts the goal of working systematically, as defined by Lewitt, which sought to eliminate expressive content and problematize authorship. Rather than eliminating the subject, the author reappears in the form of handicraft, complicating the delineation between mental and manual labor. In “Endless Set” the hand returns devoid of expressionism, and the author returns equipped with an ambivalence about authorship. Because it is important that the work is hand-made, but irrelevant whether the artist’s own hand made the work, Reimer has converted the author from a who to a what: an author is present, but their specific identity is negligible. In this way, Reimer allows conceptual art to be embodied as well as abstract. While the idea is still the engine, it is a hand that is the machine which makes the art.
On the other hand, Reimer’s current show at Monique Meloche Gallery follows Kosuth’s definition. The work again consists of a number of standard size pillow cases hand embroidered/embellished with either text or image. The majority of the works are text based, consisting of quotes from poet Emily Dickinson, scientist Richard Feynman, art historian John Ruskin, and author Mark Twain, among others. A central motif, whether pictorial or textual, is the flower–a quintessential form of domestic embellishment. Some of the of the quoted texts warn against using flowers or flowery language, consistent with early modernism’s negative assessment of ornament. For example, in the embroidered Mark Twain quote, “Don’t let fluff and flowers and verbosity creep in. When you catch an adjective, kill it. An adjective habit, a wordy, flowery habit, once fastened upon a person, is as hard to get rid of as any other vice,” the words flower and flowery are highlighted in red and struck through. It is this floweriness that is at the heart of the work, revealing its logic and its relationship to Kosuth’s definition of conceptual art. Because it is non-utilitarian and decorative, embroidery is inherently flowery; it is a useless, lyrical embellishment upon a utilitarian form. Reimer, however, by her choice of texts creates work that is simultaneously an embellishment (embroidery on cloth, that is not structurally integral), and an interrogation of embellishment (texts that question the function or justification of embellishment itself). Likewise, the treatment of the texts is not overly flowery, and yet their existence on the pillowcases can be described as nothing other than a flowery embellishment. In this context, the few works which actually picture flowers must be understood as tongue-and-cheek gestures, or at least “Sarcastic Flowers” as another pillowcase states.
Reimer’s work would be central to working out what a conceptual craft might mean. In this context, conceptual would merely mean that the idea is the most important aspect of the work; i.e. “The idea becomes a machine that makes the art,” or that craft, like art, must questions its own grounds for being. And by craft we would not necessarily mean craftsmanship, skill, specialization, or a fetishism of the handmade. We merely mean that labor (both mental and physical) can not be ignored; i.e. that it is integral to the content of the work. This is one of the things that a conceptual craft would have to offer the historical category of conceptual art: labor, whether mental or manual, is not negligible. The pillowcase embroidered with the Ruskin quote states: “I believe the right question to ask, respecting all ornament, is simply this; was the maker happy while he was about it?” Conceptual craft, however, would ask: was the maker rigorous and systematic in their making? did the maker interrogate or problematize the methods and materials they are employing? is the maker’s labor part of the content of the work? Reimer’s art answers yes to all these questions. Whether working systematically within a set of rules or using traditional craft techniques to question themselves, the work of Karen Reimer is a conceptual craft.
Karen Reimer’s exhibition at Monique Meloche Gallery is titled The Domestic Partnership of Heaven and Hell and runs from November 19 – December 31, 2011 (however, please note that the gallery is temporarily closed for repairs).
Guest Post by Jeriah Hildwine
Stephanie and I took the Metra to Hammond, Indiana, where Linda Dorman and Tom Torluemke picked us up at the station, and brought us back to their place. We ate pizza around their dining room table and then drank beer around a campfire in their backyard. (Linda drank Coke, Tom O’Doul’s.) Tom had built a perfect teepee fire, abashedly using compressed firestarters (which he called “cheating”) to light the fire.
They took us to Sidecar Gallery to see “Water,” a show of work by Tom Burtonwood, Holly Holmes, and James Jankowiak. Tom Burtonwood created a wallpaper of a computer-generated alphabet consisting of isomorphic perspective renderings of three-dimensional blocks (like Tetris pieces), each rendered in a different, simple pattern of marks. It looked like a 1980s visualization of some kind of data set, but in fact represented an alphabet or code. Apparently it incorporated QR codes which stored a Uniform Resource Locator (URL) for a website that would decode the alphabet for you…but, lacking a smartphone, we didn’t try it. Burtonwood also created some small wooden sculptures that mimicked the form of the wallpaper.
James Jankowiak also created a wallpaper of sorts, covering several walls of the gallery with parallel strips of brightly colored plastic tape. But his major works are small, square, incredibly precise paintings of minutely varying shades of color. The works in this exhibition consisted of concentric circles. In one, each circle was a slightly different shade of blue. In another, a green torus vibrates electrically against a red field. In a third, blues, browns, and whites alternate on a beige field. One’s first thought is of course of sectioned Jawbreaker candies but a moment’s thought links them more closely with Josef Albers’ color studies.
Both Jankowiak’s and Burtonwood’s wallpapers served as backdrops for their own, and each other’s, small paintings and sculptures, turning the exhibition into more of a collaboration than a group show. In the front room was one of Holly Holmes’ recent wooden sculptures, in which thin strips of wooden lathe are bent into a complex, looping form, like a diagram of the flight of a bumblebee, or a crazy zero-gravity roller-coaster. I’ve seen a previous work of this type by Holmes, at Chicago Urban Arts Society, as part of Wood Worked, in which the material of the piece was left raw and unfinished. In Water, it was painted in blue and white. In each case the color and surface seemed an homage to the theme of the exhibition.
We had tickets for the 11:10pm South Shore Line Metra train home, but Sidecar was shutting down at 10pm, so instead of waiting around the train station in the cold for an hour after the show, Linda hooked us up with her friend Erik, who agreed to bring us back to Chicago. But, he said, we had to make what he assured us would be a brief stop at a friend’s birthday party. That’s how we ended up at Cisa Studio.
The birthday boy is this kid Flex, one of the guys who runs Cisa Studio in Hammond Indiana. I call him a kid because he’s full of youthful energy, but in fact this is the eve of his 40th Birthday. The vibe is like a house party or maybe like the office Christmas party for a tattoo parlor. Erik introduces us as we walk in the door, and everybody is so nice, welcoming us with warm handshakes and cold beer. The bathroom is immaculately clean, and the main space is stylishly decorated, with mood lighting and music befitting the occasion. We meet Flex, see some of his work (a portrait, in spraypaint on canvas, very realistically executed), and then he shows us the backyard.
This involves three layers: first, downstairs to an indoor, basement-like space where people gather to smoke around a big plywood table covered in drawings and graffiti writing. A massive digital printer sits against one wall. Signs advertise various services: fine art paintings, signs, and airbrushed images for your motorcycle helmet, gas tank, leather jackets, and cars. There’s a motorcycle helmet with an absolutely flawless airbrushed rendering of the comic book character Venom on it: more of Flex’s work.
From there we moved into the garage, where a classic car sat, grind marks showing bare metal through the primer: a work in progress, speaking of infinite potential. In the back corner, a motorcycle sported a Minigun-type cluster of barrels emerging from its exhaust pipes. I don’t know, but I imagine that they spin and belch fire when the motorcycle is running. I sat there, spinning the barrels by hand, entranced.
The backyard itself hosted a bench that had been airbrushed by some of Flex’s friends as part of a public art commission. I looked around, and admired the facilities: an absolutely gorgeous, spacious workspace. What’s more, Flex told me, their rent is less than what Steph and I pay for our bedroom-and-a-half apartment in Ravenswood! “This is why Indiana is the shit,” Flex explained. It’s hard to argue with that.
We smoked cigarettes, talked to the Cisa crew, and drank more beer. Then we were gathered, slowly and chaotically, into a rough herd, with the purpose of ambling down the alley to the studio’s exhibition space, a separate building a block down, to see Arte Muerte 2011, the 4th annual occurrence of this “Day Of The Dead” themed exhibition. On the way I met the crew’s photographer, the most heavily-tattooed guy there, long-haired, with a rock-and-roll aesthetic that goes some way towards explaining his nickname, “Tommy Lee.” To look at him you’d expect him to be biting the head off a bat or something, and turns out to be an incredibly sweet and super righteous dude.
Arte Muerte consisted of Day of the Dead altars and two-dimensional wall art, all encompassing themes of death, family, ancestry, tradition, ritual, and a Latino or Mexican cultural heritage. The aesthetic of the work ranged from psychedelic and graffiti to Aztec and Maya glyphic writing, Catholic saints, and plenty of skulls. What struck me most immediately about the show was that not a single thing in it felt ironic, exploitative, or appropriated: there weren’t sculptures of altars, they weren’t about altars, they were genuine and sincere embodiments of this tradition.
After checking out the exhibition we made our way back to the studios where some of the guys were breakdancing, and we all did tequila shots in celebration of Flex’s birthday. The Cisa studio crew talked to be about growing up together, and about how they hung out with Keith Haring when he was in Chicago. They showed me a picture of them all, years ago, hanging out with Haring. Erik mentioned working at Genesis Art Supply back in the day, and I asked him if he’d known Wesley Willis. They guys all started telling stories about hanging out with him back in the day, of setting him up in the store to sit there and draw. One of the guys proudly told me that Wesley had given him a drawing, which he still had. Another had Willis’ old Casio keyboard from when he was growing up.
Many hours, many stories, and many beers later, we were all feeling pretty ready to head out. Another couple was catching a ride with us as well. Erik DeBat, our ride, had made sure to moderate his consumption and was quite sober and fit to drive. The rest of us were all pretty sauced, but I was still pretty lucid, and due to my long-leggedness our fellow passengers had afforded me the front seat, so I had much opportunity for conversation with Erik. We talked about his work, and he gave me a copy of the catalog from a recent exhibition he’d had: Risk & Reward, at The Renaissance Blackstone Hotel, in August of 2011. I open it up, and I see this painting of The Hulk, and something looks familiar about it. The catalog essay is by Tony Fitzpatrick and it all falls into place: I’ve seen Erik’s work, and probably Erik himself, at Tony Fitzpatrick’s place. He gave me a card for an upcoming exhibition (Recursion, at 2612 Space) featuring Erik’s work as well as James Jankowiak, Mario Gonzalez Jr., Victor Lopez, and William Weyna. I wasn’t able to make it to that one, but he also told me that he’s got a show coming up at Firecat Projects, in May 2012. I generally make it to all of the openings at Firecat, but I’m looking forward to this one in particular.
Guest Post by Pamela Fraser
Two shows up simultaneously this month in New York seemed ripe for comparison, both having text at the heart of theatrical approaches to exhibition making. Great titles to both exhibitions, Matthew Brannon’s Gentlemen’s Relish and Michael Krebber’s C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting.
Matthew Brannon, installation shots, Casey Kaplan Gallery, Gentlemen’s Relish, 2011
Brannon’s show is a gallery-as-stage. Unlike the work of Karen Kilimnik, whose period-sets buttress the paintings that are always clearly the main event, Brannon’s set doesn’t read as way to situate or enhance objects, but as the work itself. The paintings and sculptural objects are props and backdrops in a scenario, playing subordinate to a whole, with the text perhaps, playing the leading role. The paintings are not approached as individual arenas of activity, but are more akin to decorative screens. As paintings, the gray-scale floral print patterns seem intentionally mild, so it’s not painting as object that sparks excitement here, but the refusal to be paintings in the customary sense.
The text in Brannon’s letterpress prints, drawings, and sculptures place the viewer inside of a plot involving a sexual frustration and deviancy. Bits of text can make one gasp (made me gasp) with their raw vulnerability, which is heightened by being packaged-not just within the pretenses of the well-mannered Noir-ish and WASPy worlds conjured, but by popping out of constraints in unexpected ways, amidst self-conscious play with forms of signification. The third-person narrative allows a psychological and emotional content to co-mingle with the pleasure and wit of the high-style artifice.
Krebber’s show, a few blocks north, is comprised up of tight rows of many uniformly sized canvasses on which the artist sketchily copied art blog pages from specific sources. The press release informs that he sees this activity as the following: “By parasitizing the negative socio-pedagogical influence networked painting, Krebber agency to hasten collapse.” Hard to tell if this is an awkward translation, art-speak, or poetic form, but it does let us know that the paintings intend to be parasitic, dependent creatures related to Brannon’s parts-of-a-whole; a curious and provocative approach.
selections from Michael Krebber, C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting, Greene Naftali, 2011
While the particular art-blog source material is made quite clear, Krebber’s signature light touch in this case renders things vague. I’m a fan of his sleight-of-hand approach to painting, and his self-described ‘empty appropriation’ strategy, but I began to wish the artist had been as trenchant and trashy as some of what he reproduced here. The artist as neutral copyist worked to great power and effect in Richter’s 18th October 1977, but with the art-world content, things feel a bit parochial and insider-y. Even after institutional critique, the subject of art world machinations and dialogues may be ripe for scrutinizing, but viewing these paintings apes the passivity of trolling the internet.
Dead (Tote), 1988, oil on canvas, 62×73 cm
Perhaps this is the point. Viewers leave the exhibition with the same diffused series of under-developed thoughts that we usually get from these sorts of dialogues. Krebber’s show is alternatively as engaging, and un-engaging, as blog posts are (acknowledging that this is a blog post). Alternatively, Brannon’s show is an immersive set-up that places the viewer inside of the production. In it, aridity and restraint work toward the making of an elegant, gripping thriller where everything is over-stylized, where plaintive characters are completely over the top. Yet one leaves the show with a convincing and forceful sense of haunting peculiarity.
Casey Kaplan Gallery
525 W21 St
Thru December 17th
C-A-N-V-A-S, Uhutrust, Jerry Magoo and guardian.co.uk Painting
508 W26 St, 8 fl
Thru November 19
Pamela Fraser is an artist represented by Casey Kaplan in New York and Galerie Schmidt Maczollek in Cologne, Germany. She lives in Charlotte, Vermont.