Dyed e. coli bacteria under fluorescence microscope
Guest Post by Lise McKean
Tom Denlinger, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland
Terrain South, Oak Park
June 1 to June 29, 2014
Victoria Fuller, Nature2
Packer Schopf Gallery, Chicago
June 6 to July 12, 2014
Current shows by Tom Denlinger (Terrain) and Victoria Fuller (Packer Schopf) bring to mind the opening scene of Blue Velvet. At first glance, their works seem friendly with their eye-catching colors and curious configurations. But on closer look the viewer senses something more menacing.
Tom Denlinger, When Worlds Collide. Photos by Lise McKean unless otherwise credited
Let’s start outdoors with Denlinger’s installation, When Worlds Collide: The Kingdom of Monera @ 710 S. Highland. The work consists of two panels (acrylic and paper on canvas), one larger than the other with a swathe of grass between them. The panels are stretched across the lawn of an empty lot between two early 20th century houses. The installation measures 12 ft. x 19 ft.
Denlinger covers the canvases with large, layered forms, shaped like capsules or bacteria. The layering hints at perspectival space. But flatness prevails, especially since viewers look down to see the work. Just as scientists use fluorescent dye to study bacterial activity with fluorescent microscopy, Denlinger uses yellow-green fluorescent paint to distinguish a subset of the forms. Other elongated oval forms are painted taxi-cab yellow and emergency orange, or are black and white photographs affixed to the canvas. What’s more, the intense colors trick eyes into seeing the white as purplish, as if under black light.
Chicago’s residential streetscapes, i.e., parkways, sidewalks, front yards, and lawns intrigue Denlinger. On and off over the past couple decades his work has explored this Möbius strip of public and private space. With his Terrain show he occupies the very space that fascinates him with a work whose dimensions replicate the front yard of Terrain founder, Sabina Ott.
The concept of umwelt, local or surrounding environment, developed in the 1930s by Jakob von Uexküll, a biologist and pioneer of biosemiotics, figures in the thinking behind Denlinger’s When Worlds Collide. Umwelt is the totality of an environment as subjectively perceived and experienced by an organism. Since it’s subjective, another’s umwelt whether familiar or not is essentially foreign territory. But von Uexküll proposes that it’s possible to better understand alien environments by inventing “images” of them through art or photography.
Of the many umwelts Denlinger might have chosen to image, his work brings us the human and the microbial. In fact, the Kingdom of Monera isn’t a legendary land, but rather the taxonomic realm of one-celled organisms, of bacteria. The collision between the umwelts of bacteria and humans sprawls across his installation. Discarded cucumbers fill the black and white collaged photos, Romanian scapegoats of a lethal outbreak of E. coli in Europe.
When Worlds Collide is a skewed reference to the expansive, energetic, and frequently optimistic space of modernist abstraction. Denlinger’s is a distinctly twenty-first century umwelt. Splayed next to the sidewalk in living color, the work can’t but grab the attention of passersby. And in exchange, Denlinger’s installation—staked to the ground and speckled with dirt, crawling with ants, fading under the June sun, and changing hue in the long twilight—evokes a lifeworld all its own.
Victoria Fuller, Rope Trick
Fuller is known for work that uses everyday objects, e.g., electrical cords and outlets, doorknobs, faucets, books, and shoes, to create sculptural works that can be metaphorical, allegorical, and whimsical. For example, her 2001 exhibition at the Chicago Cultural Center included Bad Plumbing (2001), a sculptural installation made of copper pipe, mop, gourd, suitcase, rope, books, horn, microphone and sound.
Nature2diverges from this established practice in that Fuller combines everyday objects, and particularly pipes, faucets, and hoses with representational objects of her own creation. Unlike Bad Plumbing where she used a large coil of real rope, Rope Trick (2014; resin, epoxy clay, and acrylic; 18 1/4″ diameter x 8 1/2″) looks like real rope—except the coil’s start and finish morph into the front and end of a snake. It’s Fuller’s twist on Ceci ne pas une pipe.
Victoria Fuller, Everything Is Connected Photograph courtesy of Packer Schopf Gallery
In contrast to Denlinger’s exploration of perception and subjectivity, Fuller investigates complex systems invented by humans with processes and effects that permeate our daily lives. She explicitly takes on the behemoths of industrial agriculture, food production, and resource extraction—and their collisions with nonhuman creatures and systems. For example, Everything Is Connected(2014; wood, acrylic, plasti-clay, artifical plants, chain, and gas pipe; 24″x30″x6″) is the first sculpture inside the gallery’s entrance and could be the show’s subtitle. From its subterranean fungi to the dandelion popping up on top with spewing smokestacks in between, Everything Is Connected offers a 3D portrait of global warming.
Victoria Fuller, Deep Down. Photograph courtesy of Packer Schopf Gallery
Deep Down (2014; carved wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, and acrylic; 16″ x 8″ x 8″) can be seen as a riff on cubism, using five faces of a cube to reveal multiple perspectives on life above, on, and beneath the ground. A chipmunk is curled up and cozy in its burrow and ants carve their passageways underground. Plants shoot up and their roots reach down while snake and earthworm straddle above and below. There’s no sign of human activity and nothing seems amiss or at risk.
Victoria Fuller, Spelling Bee
Fuller draws on the visual languages of the educational diorama, mechanical schematic, and flow chart, as well as a host of materials and a lot of ingenuity and wit to create the show’s nine mixed media sculptures. With its solitary bee and empty honeycomb cells, Spelling Bee (2014; craft fur, epoxy clay, acrylic, resin, mylar, and chloroplast; 33 3/8″x 19″ x 2 1/2″) combines organic form with tactility, fuzzy and smooth, and an ecological reference to complete colony collapse, an epidemic afflicting honeybees.
Factory Farm (2014; wood, epoxy clay, wooden cube, gas pipe, acrylic, resin, found objects, paper, and metal tube; 45″ x 34″ 17″) is particularly apropos for an artist based in Chicago, the corn belt’s metropole and profit center of what environmental scientist Jonathan Foley calls the corn system. Fuller creates a compelling narrative of the system’s moving parts, complete with feed lots, pigs behind bars, colony collapse, GMO-corn, and a molecular model of high fructose corn syrup. I’m grateful to Fuller for prompting me to learn more about the corn system. For example, large-scale honey producers maximize profits by feeding honeybees high fructose corn syrup, and bacteria and fungi are two of the enzymes used by industrial bioscience to manufacture high fructose corn syrup, the gooey backbone of processed food.
Fuller’s work brings to mind Margaret Wharton, another immensely inventive artist whose posthumous show recently closed at the Riverside Arts Center. From the craft fur on the giant bee to the erector set fracking rig and plasti-clay mushrooms, Fuller’s artistry ranges across a wide repertoire of media and adroitly melds form and content. What’s more, her assemblages accomplish the rare feat of being at once playful and polemical.
I met Keith J Varadi—artist, poet, writer, performer, and Associate Director at Greene Exhibitions—at the HMS Bounty, one of my favorite bars in Koreatown. We began by talking about Lance Stephenson’s conduct in the recently-concluded NBA Eastern Conference Finals, athletes behaving badly, athletes as role models, and artists as role models, which led me to ask Keith a question in which I confused the term “digressive” for the term “transgressive.”
KJV: Well, I hope that nobody’s looking up to anybody for digressing. I hope that people would look up to somebody for transgressing. If you’re going to be an artist, isn’t that the point? To be transgressive and push boundaries and fuck with people’s expectations. If artists owe anybody anything, that’s what I’m saying artists owe. I was actually talking about this with a friend of mine about a week or two ago: What do artists actually owe people? Do they owe apologies? Do they owe their “souls”? Do they owe donations to benefit auctions? Do they owe anything? I don’t know, but I think that at the very least, they owe intellectual rigor. If we’re coming to your exhibition, or if we’re coming to your panel discussion, what are we actually, really getting out of this? And it’s important to think of what it means to be transgressive these days? What are new ways of being transgressive? Tino Sehgal—whether or not you or I or anyone at this bar like or would like his work—he’s an artist who has actually changed “the game” in some way. He has stopped people in their tracks. People walk around an art fair, drinking expensive drinks, double-cheek-kissing people they haven’t seen in a couple of weeks or months, looking at each others’ handbags, and it’s like, “Oooh, that’s a nice painting!” But when he’s doing some freak-nasty shit at Marian Goodman, they want to go see what that’s all about. That’s interesting. There are plenty of artists in this current market, and in the last boom, and in the boom before that…there are plenty of young, white, straight dude painters who are making the system work for themselves. They tend to also make abstract paintings. How do you make painting interesting? I still think it’s possible, which is why I make paintings, and why I think artists I dig make them. But it’s like…if all you’re going to do is smear paint around a canvas like cream cheese on a bagel, yeah, you might get $50,000 a pop, but what are you contributing? What are you gaining other than money in the bank? Does this artwork need to exist?
JW: Does Tino Sehgal’s artwork need to exist?
KJV: Well, it barely exists.
JW: It’s very low-impact. Is it punk? What is punk?
KJV: I have a particular personal history with punk, and my own particular understanding of what that means. I started talking about suburbia before, which I don’t want to talk too much about because I think that conversation about suburbia is boring. But when you do grow up in a suburban area, the first time you do hear anything or see anything that is somehow disruptive—and for a lot of people in suburbia, that’s punk—that can be a really exciting, uplifting feeling or sensation. I was always conflicted. I played basketball for a long time—I was a point guard—but I also skated—I was a skateboarder. I played in punk bands and I made sketch comedy videos with my buddies…
KJV: Yeah. I was in a few punk bands at first when I was younger. I played guitar. It was the equivalent of what you make in Painting I or Painting II or Sculpture I or Sculpture II: none of that shit matters! It’s about fucking around, getting weird, picking up some skills. Very rarely does somebody with master skills make any real sort of impression on me. But if you’re going to try to make paintings and you don’t know color or composition, that’s probably going to be a problem. If you’re going to try to make sculptures, you don’t necessarily need to understand how to weld, you don’t necessarily need to be great with any saw, you just need to intuitively know things like: How does this shit fit together? When I assemble these things, is it going to fall to shit? So basically, it’s like dick around a little bit, pick up some tools, learn how to paint or sculpt or make videos or sound or whatever, enough so that once your ideas and sense of self develop to a more sophisticated place, you’ll better be able to articulate yourself. So I feel like I was able to do that by being in those punk bands, and that led me to eventually be in free jazz bands and noise bands and far more punk things as far as I’m concerned.
JW: I feel like my bad feeling about punk is from hanging around people who just used punk to identify all the things they didn’t like, including and especially other people who call themselves punks.
KJV: Right, but I don’t think that that is by any means particular to punks. Any type of group is going to be like that. “That’s not punk enough,” “that’s fake punk,” “I’m not a hipster.” These conversations are inane, yet we all end up participating in them. This sort of talk bums me out. If I’m going to define what I think punk means to me, it’s being able to get to a place where you feel confident enough and mature enough to not have that conversation.
JW: To not give a fuck.
Harmony Korine and David Letterman
KJV: Yes. To not give a fuck. I mean, look at me…I’m wearing J. Crew chinos! You think I give a shit whether any mohawked ding-dongs think I’m punk or not punk? I mean, the point is: my art, my poetry, my critical essays, my painting, et cetera et cetera, they’re punk.
JW: It’s not like: “I’m wearing a leather jacket, therefore I’m punk,” it’s like “I have an attitude, therefore I’m punk.”
KJV: That’s all that matters to me.
JW: That helps.
KJV: Altman: punk director. Cassavetes: punk director. I mean, Cassavetes was like the most dapper man, too!
J. Crew Chinos
JW: I’ve never seen a picture of him, but his movies are fucking crazy.
KJV: He’s probably my favorite director. Have you seen Husbands?
JW: No. Have you seen The Long Goodbye?
KJV: Yeah! And what’s-his-face, Elliott Gould, you know what his other big role was? I mean, aside from Ocean’s 11, 12, 13, you know what else he’s really known for? Being Ross and Monica’s father on Friends…!
KJV: Yeah. That’s Elliott Gould from The Long Goodbye.
KJV: Repetition! A lot of my favorite artists use repetition as a very effective device, and it’s something that I have definitely recognized—the power that it has had on me, seeing certain films. Spring Breakers is one of my favorite recent movies, and there is so much repetition in that movie. Spring Breakers will kind of put you in a trance. I think Harmony Korine is a really interesting example of a punk, or a transgressive artist, in the sense that I’m talking about these things. He’s just an interesting figure, period. He had all those sequential visits on the Letterman show, where he totally freaked out Dave—have you seen those?
Elliot Gould (Jack Sheldon not pictured)
JW: No, I haven’t. But tell me about them.
KJV: He went on a few times in the mid-late 90s. He was just “being himself,” whatever that means. But Dave couldn’t even try to understand or access his persona or vibe. He was later accused of snooping around Meryl Streep’s purse backstage during one of his visits. You know, people use the phrase “thrust in the spotlight,” but I feel like artists or athletes or whoever might get to that point (“the spotlight”) most likely wanted that their entire lives. There was probably a point where they were like, “I would love to be on the David Letterman show,” or “I would love to show at David Zwirner” or “I would love to play for the Yankees.” When you’re at that point, you know what you want and you’re just figuring out how to get it. For me, another thing that’s important is how you deal with that position: you’re placed in a position, you have volition, you have autonomy—if you want it—it’s there for the taking…
JW: What do you mean by autonomy?
KJV: You were talking about archetypes earlier, in whatever field, and how there are certain roles you’re supposed to play, certain duties or obligations you’re supposed to fulfill, but the best artists, the best athletes, the best musicians—or rather, my favorite artists, athletes, musicians, or whatever—don’t fulfill those duties or obligations; they redefine the roles, they try to figure out how they can determine their own destiny, as opposed to thinking that things actually need to be so predetermined. This is a major problem for me: “I chose to be an artist, so therefore I need to get my BFA from RISD; I need to get my MFA from Columbia; I need to go to Skowhegan; I need to do the Whitney Independent Study Program; I need to show at a gallery in the Lower East Side; then after two shows, I need to show at a gallery in Chelsea; after three shows, I need to…” It’s like, “Holy shit! It doesn’t have to be this way, guys!” I mean, it can be, and there is nothing wrong with that—I think certain artists who have followed that trajectory are really interesting artists that we should all pay close attention to, but a lot of them are very derivative and predictable because they follow this path that they feel has been set out for them in order to be a successful artist. And I think the same thing goes for film directors, musicians, athletes, whatever. Dennis Rodman, “The Worm,” is one of my favorite athletes ever. I mean, the guy averaged upwards of 20 rebounds a game for a large portion of his career and he did press conferences in wedding dresses, he dated women like Carmen Electra, he has had people like Phil Jackson say he’s one of his favorite players he’s ever been privileged to coach, that he’s the most athletic player he’s ever coached. And Phil has coached Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal. These are without a doubt some of the best players ever, and he was like, “That dude is a freak beyond freaks!” I admire the shit out of Dennis Rodman. And another example, Matt Korvette, the frontman of the band Pissed Jeans…he’s one of the better performance artists I’ve ever seen. That dude’s a wildly entertaining man and one slippery fish. I’d rather watch him do his thing on stage or in some basement than watch most people who are invited to perform at this or that biennial do whatever it is that they do. And I mean, Korvette comes from punk roots, too. But now he’s a claims adjuster, singing about going bald and having car problems. But it’s the attitude with which he presents the material that gives him agency and charms his fans. I think a lot of these self-righteous punks that you talk about having issues with, they seem to be the types of folks who believe the most punk thing you could ever do is to “kill your idol,” to “fuck shit up.” But actually, I think someone like Harmony…he fucks shit up, for sure, but he also gives a lot of respect and pays a lot of dues. He references the history of cinema, he references pop culture and includes pop cultural figures in his films, and he even does things like get Werner Herzog to star as a brutal father figure in Julien Donkey-Boy. For him, it’s not just about killing idols, it’s about understanding them. I think that’s a major thing that I respect about Harmony Korine. He seems to have a strange sense of empathy. People sometimes think he’s just a smartass, thumbing his nose and mocking people, trolling the hell out of Hollywood. But I think he has more curiosity and self-reflexivity than most people in his position. I just saw an ad for Dior that he directed, which was kind of hilarious to me. And he also recently had a solo show at Gagosian. For him to be able to get away with having a solo show at Gagosian and doing an ad for Dior, and neither of them totally sucking…that’s pretty punk. No?
JW: There’s a lot of bad performance art or things in galleries happening made by actors.
KJV: Well, he’s a director. And the show was a painting show. He had a painting show at Gagosian, and it was quite good.
JW: It wasn’t bad.
KJV: It was good.
JW: It was good? I’m impressed.
KJV: The paintings are actually good; they don’t just “not suck.” Generally speaking, I think he’s actually paying homage to folks, while also trying to carve his own path, which is radical to me, given the current circumstances of things. There seem to be plenty of naïve purists and distracted cynics who won’t acknowledge the benefits of accepting influences in the creation of one’s work. I mean, if you’re hanging out with good painters like Rita Ackerman and Christopher Wool, you’re going to notice a few things. But don’t just ape someone else’s style. You know?
[Roy Orbison comes on]
JW: I love it when Roy Orbison comes on.
Mark di Suvero
KJV: You missed it. Before you came in, I was sitting here by myself and they played “It’s My Life” by Bon Jovi, which I think is kind of funny given the stuff we’ve been talking about tonight. But anyways, I think the apprehension that it seems like you’re feeling as a result of punk, and directed towards punk is valid. I sort of address that at the beginning of the “Biting the Hand that Feeds You” essay, when I illustrate this teenage mall punk narrative. I think that certain people are unable to or feel like they lack the ability to grow out of that mentality. It’s one thing to have those tendencies or proclivities if you’re a 16-year-old brat, but if you’re a 32-year-old brat who thinks you’re fucking shit up in Barstow, California, get a grip. Seriously, man, get a grip. And it’s the same thing with graffiti culture, you know, tagging. The actual art form—graffiti art, well, what it has been turned into, that is “street art”—is, as far as I’m concerned, some of the worst art on the planet—but the culture surround tagging is fascinating to me.
JW: What’s the dividing line?
KJV: Having a city dictate or map out things out for you. “Hey, Pratt student or SFAI student, we’re designating this zone as a safe zone for you to do your thing, and make something really beautiful and colorful and vibrant that appeals to the community.” It’s like saying to a sculptor: “We have this park, why don’t you put a sculpture in it that won’t offend anybody, but that’s kind of big and expensive?”
JW: And even if it does offend somebody, it’ll be in a sculpture park, so people will encounter it expecting a certain offensiveness.
KJV: Basically, as long as there’s not a dick and there’s nothing political, it’s deemed acceptable. That’s why Richard Serra can make public sculptures, because it’s just like big sheets of rusty stuff. Or Mark di Suvero stacking I-beams. It’s just stuff. It’s the worst, man. We don’t need that shit. And we don’t need any more supposedly zany, but in reality, tepid wannabe Cartoon Network crap on the side of some building in Bushwick. I mean, come on. The chase, the allure, the territorial disputes, the swagger—that’s what’s interesting about tagging. But if you’re a 37-year-old, still just tagging? Yo dude, you need to stop. It’s not about tagging not being a valid art form or graffiti culture not being a valid art forum. But like…don’t you want to take it further? Don’t you want to go somewhere else? If all you’re doing is getting in disputes, if you’re just calling people out, at a certain point…it’s like, “Who cares? What’s the point?” Pusha T is a good example of what I’m talking about. He’s a guy who’s defining what progression means to him. And nobody is really questioning his legitimacy. That dude is legit, no doubt. But he’s also like, “Hey man, A$AP Rocky wants me to be on a track? Okay, that’s cool, whatever.” Or he’s like, “You want to put me on a track that’s going to be on Power 106? Word.” I mean, that’s like next level gangster—or punk—where you say, “I’m going to continue writing these lyrics and projecting this image that I’ve been working really hard at pushing forward all these years, and I’m not going to do anything to jeopardize that, but on the other hand, if you’re going to give my persona and my product more visibility, hell yeah, I’ll take it.” That’s rad to me. Or in the case of Tino Sehgal, it’s like, “You’re going to pay me six figures to not give you anything tangible, and it’s going to be in cash? Fuck yeah. I’m in.” That’s rad, too. That’s some gangster-ass punk shit. The punks you’re talking about can’t really escape living in a world of capitalism. It’s like, okay…on the one hand, you can say there are certain punks who are not filling up their car with gas from Arco or BP or wherever. Instead, they’re putting some type of corn oil fusion whatever in the tank. Oh, and don’t forget…their car was definitely purchased used. And the only clothes that they purchase are from Goodwills and consignment stores and otherwise, they just wear hand-me-downs. It’s the same thing with freeganism and whatever else. You brainwash yourself into thinking that you’re doing the “right thing,” but in the end, you’re still driving a car, a car that at some point was produced by one of the more laissez-faire companies in the world! If you’re a freegan, you didn’t purchase those Levi’s, but who made those Levi’s? Whoever made them probably made them in the 70s, and labor laws were even worse back then! Instead of devising a system or making up rules that they think everybody else ought to abide by, they should maybe reconsider all of the contradictions inherent and apparent in their ideologies. And that’s the thing—they feel like the rest of the planet should be obliged to deal with their parameters they set up: “This is the right way of living, and anybody who would not acknowledge the merits of this belief system is out of their mind.” They’re the ones who are delusional. There is no distance. There is no self-reflexivity.
JW: I guess it’s like any system that functions needs entropy, needs a part of the system that doesn’t function at all—and from that non-functioning, the system gets better. So any sort of life system or economic system or ideological system needs the things or the people that are fucking it up, but it needs those things to be fucking it up in a way that’s predictable and predicted by the system. So what bothers me about punk is the extent to which punk only fills that role that the system needs in order to continue.
KJV: But that’s such a caricature. That’s a misrepresentation. If you’re a real punk, you’re not trying to fuck up someone’s day. What you’re trying to do is fuck with their current perspective. But you’re still a real person, trying to make rent, or you’re trying to pay for your kids or fill up your tank of gas to go back to work the next day. The people you’re describing don’t have this realization—it’s kind of cliché—but the realization of: “Oh my god, I’m becoming my mom” or “Oh my god, I’m becoming my dad.” They don’t have the realization of “Oh my god, I’m becoming the idol I tried to kill.” Angst has an expiration date.
Jacob Wick is an artist, writer, and improviser who lives in Los Angeles. “Scripting Misperformance, Misperforming Scripts,” an essay co-written with Byron Peters, appears in the current issue of Fillip. objet a, a collection of improvised duos with guitarist Shane Perlowin, was released by Prom Night Records in May 2014.
A string of questions: What is the discourse of power that we subscribe to? Is it constrained by capital or physical strength? Is it supernatural or material? Where is it located? Who participates?
Further: What are the material conditions that underpin these power plays? The currencies, objects, commodities? How physically present are they? Or, how virtual are they?
In Atlanta, three recent shows and a dance performance provoked these questions concerning the dynamics of power structures. Varying in methods of representation and subversion, the works materialize the many ways in which power pervades the multiple facets of our lives: spiritual, physical, economic, electrical, corporate, digital. While each of these, the exhibitions and performance, taken on their own offer a perhaps more simplistic notion of power, limited to a particular variable (some more limited than others), taken together, these works can lead the viewer to consider the complexities of our contemporary globalized world’s power structures.
Let this be an argument for synthesis. Individual artists and works do not exist in a vacuum. They live in an assemblage which the artist, discourse, institution, and viewer create. In keeping with my experience attending the 9/50 Summit at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center which brought together arts organizations from around the southeast region, it seems important to address the issue of making connections. Of particular interest here are the ways in which the region determines the shows and the works within them.
Something that seemed to sit beneath the words spoken at the panel “Does Regionalism Exist?” at the Summit was the acknowledgement of one’s power or lack thereof. I realize how redundant and out-of-date this may sound in its Foucauldian inclinations and hints of institutional critique. However, I can’t deny that the ways in which I saw these works as an assemblage prompted the question: What is the meta-discourse here? As both a practicing visual/performance artist and a writer, I am always attempting to make sense of what I’m looking at, why it’s been placed before me, or why I’m before it. Sometimes it seems like there is no rhyme or reason to it.
The institutions that house the exhibitions/performance I mention here run the gamut – from DIY resourcefulness to larger budget non-profit institution. Layers of authority and administration surround these works many times over — the specific histories, practices, and objects addressed as well as the sites in which they lived temporarily.
Simone Leigh’s solo show Gone South at the Atlanta Contemporary Art Center offers the most complex rendering of power relations, providing the viewer with an image of the materiality, social history, economics, and spirituality of the South.
In Leigh’s installation Cupboard, she directly references the Mississippi restaurant Mammy’s Cupboard which is featured in the 1941 Edward Weston photograph Mammy’s Cupboard, Natchez, Mississippi. Using steel as the armature, Leigh creates what would be the skirt that the viewer/restaurant-goer walks into. However, instead of taking a seat and ordering pancakes, the viewer confronts Leigh’s 2013 work Topsy Turvy, which here reads as female reproductive anatomy. Since this biology is made from symbols of currency (the cowrie shell), stepping inside the skirt provokes anxieties. In the installation’s juxtaposition of histories, economies, infrastructure, and architecture, Leigh makes apparent the complexities of labor that undergird our current structures of capital.
Simone Leigh. “Cupboard.” 2014. with “Topsy Turvey.” 2013. Courtesy ACAC.
The video work my works, my dreams, must wait until after hell, made with Chitra Ganesh, seems to solidify this reading in its juxtaposition to Cupboard. We see a woman’s exposed back and then notice that her head is covered in stones. The back’s subtle movement shows she is breathing, but it seems only barely so. In contradistinction to the suspended cluster in Cupboard, the cluster of stones weighs the woman’s head to the ground, burying her.
Across town at The Low Museum, a potted plant in a virtual corporate office makes its way into actual space. In one instance, the potted plant is blocked from view by window blinds. A Starbucks cup is turned over in a virtual church. In an interplay of the virtual and actual, the digital and IRL, Cara Mayuski’s Area Moments confronts the viewer with a cheeky corporate (i.e., anonymous) visual language.
Commodities, if we’ve learned anything from Marx, have become virtual objects, divorced from the materials and labor that went into producing them. While Mayuski might not intend for this reading, (instead she focuses on the digital/IRL experience dichotomy), expanding the discussion of the virtual and actual makes for a compelling take on our everyday experience, with all of its social, political, and economic dimensions. She notes that in her research of spaces that have a “public or communal aspect to them,” she discovered that when she brought elements of these spaces together, they “created highly impersonal spaces that were culminations of mass produced and familiar elements.” 
Installation shot of Cara Mayuski’s “Area Moments.” From left to right: “Untitled (indoor plant II), “Origin,” and “Untitled (pool screensaver). 2014. Courtesy The Low Museum.
Using the overhead balcony walkway of the performance space, Erik Thurmond and Nicholas Goodly created a viewing experience reminiscent of a Roman gladiator spectacle in their new work Meh Meh; the audience watches from above, the dancers move in the pit. At first Thurmond and Goodly, the dancers, displayed feats of physical prowess, strength, and agility. During this time, the two of them circle the floor, make eye contact with the audience, and point up towards particular members of the audience. As a commentary on masculinity and desire, Meh Meh brings together physical competition and gay club cruising. Meh meh means kiss kiss. However, when Thurmond and Goodly say it, scream it, at each other, the affectionate tone drops out and a bellowing of “ME” takes its place.
Erik Thurmond (left) and Nicholas Goodly (right). Lighting by Kevin Byrd. Fiber art by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Audio by Ben Coleman. “Meh Meh.” 2014. Photo by Aubrey Longley-Cook. Courtesy the artists.
It seems important to mention where the piece premiered: the Druid Hills Baptist Church, a place that hosts the Pinch ’n’ Ouch Theatre, artist studios, and performances, notably that of Thurmond and Mary Grace Phillips. What are multiple levels of power plays here? Between the dancers? The dancers and the audience? Meh Meh and the church?
Meh Meh is a DIY and self-funded project that subverts many of the Atlanta arts funding institutions. It lies on the periphery of what is available to artists. Funny how this takes place in a church – the church standing in for one of the oldest economic and political institutions.
For Rich Gere, he started with a flashlight. He said that during the Millennium Juried Art Show (The Art Market Gallery in Knoxville, TN), he realized that “if the lights go out, we’re going to need light.” The flashlight: what you turn to in an emergency, a beacon of hope perhaps.
Gere says that this is all about the “management of power,” something that he has previously noted in interviews. This is apparent in the lightbulb of the flashlight’s beacon turned warning signal in the 2012 works We the People – Ideologies: four joules and We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts. Each Installed in a corner of Kibbee Gallery’s side gallery for his show Power Failure, the sculptures project audio at each other. For We the People – Ideologies: ten thousand watts, the audio is sourced from tape recordings of JFK’s and RFK’s conversations with the Ross Barnett, then governor of Mississippi, during the James Meredith Standoff. Also included are recordings of LBJ in conversation with James Meredith. For We the People – Ideologies: four joules, the audio is sourced from a 1929 recording of Charley Patton, a Mississippi Delta blues musician who was oftentimes barred from recording studios because of his race. The recording featured in the sculpture was made in Wisconsin, a place usually easier for black musicians to access.
Rich Gere. “Ideologies: ten thousand watts.” Part of “We the People.” 2012. Courtesy the artist. For video documentation, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Elv7BSmIs2A.
While the gallery installation wasn’t particularly compelling, I find the gestures towards both optimism (the flashlight as symbol) and despair or regret (the historical fact of JFK/RFK/LBJ/Patton) to be important. Issues of access and economies of power are still critical to examine in our supposedly post-race country, something that Gere describes. 
Refusals and Competition
I’d like to end with gestures of refusal: Two of the works in the Simone Leigh’s Gone South show make reference to Southern spiritual traditions while rendering their intended functions obsolete. Her sculpture Jug, made from lizella clay that is found and produced locally, references face jugs, whose American history originates in 19th century slavery, are meant to ward off evil spirits. Her sculptural installation Tree also makes reference to the warding off of spirits; the collection of glass bottles is reminiscent of the Southern, particularly Louisianian, practice of making bottle trees, another product of the Transatlantic Slave Trade. The bottle tree captures evil spirits in the upside-down-hanging bottles, keeping living inhabitants safe. However, these works of Leigh’s do not perform the task they are meant to. Jug is not adorned with a face that will scare the spirit. Tree’s bottles and jars hang right-side-up; only upside-down bottles are successful at trapping what should be trapped.
Simone Leigh. Detail of “Tree.” 2014. Courtesy ACAC.
In terms of the constellation of sources and symbols in Gone South — the cowrie shell, which is made from molds of watermelons, the mammy skirt, the plantain in wedgewood blue, the face jug, the bottle tree — Leigh’s simultaneous use and abuse of these symbols yields a potent historical/cultural/post/colonial mélange. This interplay, one that also incited Frantz Fanon’s Black Skin, White Masks, forces us to pay attention to the intricacies of what we decide to use as visual markers.
I have to admit that each of these shows needs more words. Each taken on their own would provide multiple other readings and engagements. In a self-conscious disclosure of power, what I claim here institutes a precarious authority.
Though these shows don’t necessarily speak the same language or even share the same discourse, I find it intriguing that multiple shows within a brief span of time all examine some discourse of power that suggest underlying economies of desire and material resources. This may seem like a vague topic, and in a sense it really is. However, in an attempt to identify a guiding thread that might indicate some sort of collective unconscious, this is where I’ve arrived. Considering the limitations that constrain Atlantan artists and art institutions, a problem that is not atypical for artists and organizations in the US, it seems to me that these works make apparent the overarching economic, and therefore social, infrastructures which limit. Many artists in Atlanta are both energized by what appears as endless possibilities, yet frustrated by certain constraints, namely, I would say, competition amongst artists for a limited pool of resources; the “winner” is usually easy to predict and tends to stay the same.
Why do HAGs have such a bad rap? We don’t know, but we’re glad that Portland-based artist, Jenny Vu has decided to rehabilitate them. Her ongoing series H.A.G.S. (Have a Great Summer) depicts summer and it’s most devout fans at their best and most ridiculous. There will be farmer’s tans.
Vu writes, “Currently i’ve been thinking a lot about SUMMER (duh), being a HAG/becoming a hag/the power of the hag/destroying the negative connotation surrounding the “HAG”.Enjoy!”
Because really, if you’re not on Facebook and the phone while eating watermelon and putting a bird on it, then you’re not doing it right. You can see more of Jenny Vu’s work on her Tumblr.
A Multi-tasking HAG.
Work hard and play hard this summer, art babes!
Get Real or Get Out.
British Artist to Re-imagine Chicago Underground
Chicago History Nerds Rejoice!
Vertical Gallery in Ukrainian Village is drilling down with the debut US solo show from Xenz. The London-based graffiti artist has taken a shine to images of Chicago from the 1800’s and early 1900’s and the organized crime that was spawned by the network of subterranean alleyways that were created as the city became more, well, vertical at the turn of the 20th century.
Work by Xenz.
We’re not really sure why a London-er is so keen on the history of Chicago, but he couldn’t have picked a city with richer history to dive into. Xenz’s exhibition is based on the book “The Outfit,” by Gus Russo, in which he describes pre-fire Chicago and its rat-filled underworld.
Grime-y Chicago history? That’s right up our seedy underground prohibition-era alleyway. “Building the Dream” will feature an opening reception with the artist on July 5th from 6-10PM and will run through July 26th. Vertical Gallery is located at 1016 N Western Avenue.
The Weatherman Report
For Chicago IL
Lianghong Feng, Abstract 45-10, 2010. Oil on canvas, 47 × 39 in.
Ever dreamed of having your own ACRE glow-in-the-dark cup? Dreams can come true!
Just don’t get got.
We would say that the benefit season is winding down, but with CAC’s Starving Artist photobooth images just hitting Facebook and the 2014 MoCP Fine Print Release party popping off at Untitled tonight, that would be straight up untrue. It’s an artist eat artist world out there guys. Here are some non-party related opportunities to give and get that ca$h and make your art world a better place.
If you’re a fan of What’s the T? (and if not, what are you doing here!?), that pretty much makes you a default fan of ACRE (that glorious artist residency where WTT? was first conceived). But even if you’re not a T fan and you live in Chicago, you’ve probably been privy to no less than a billion* fantastic exhibitions, concerts, screenings, block parties, Halloween shindigs, etc. ACRE gives us all so much throughout the year, now it’s time to reach deep down into your heart wallet, and give back to them.
My video co-stars & 2014 incoming residents, Diana Harper & Danny Giles. Click above to see the real thing.
If giving money isn’t your thing, why not try to get some? Before you resort to spanging on the street, why not do us all a favor and hit up the Propeller Fund Info Session next Wednesday, July 2nd at Threewalls. If group info sessions are also not your thing (man, so picky!) you can schedule a one-on-one info session with a Threewalls staff member. There’s 50 G’s up for grabs here artists! Don’t sleep!
Finally! We’re pleased to present a for real ‘Who wore it better?’ Alison Reimus at Gallerista‘s first installment of SOLO @ CIRCA, featuring Reimus’ work OR MZH at the opening of the Whitney Biennial.
Calling all undergrads! Learn more then you ever could at school by interning at LVL3.
It is summer already, and I am on early vacation, driving through the West, living some version of the American dream involving fast cars, tops down, endless sunsets, and the long slow rise of mountains from the two-dimensionality of plains.
I map my understanding of city landscapes through walking. I slowly gather the layers of lived urban experience as I travel through neighborhoods – the clanking of dishes being washed through open windows, the constellation of droning lawnmowers growing and shrinking, the blue flicker of late night televisions. My map of the urban landscape, however, is limited by my physical access. The boundaries between public and private realms are complex, but they correspond to the physical limits of my body as it encounters walls, fences, and manhole covers. My mind is only as free as my body as I move through urban space.
I have spent more time in a car in the past week than I have in years, reveling in the freedom of landscapes unfolding over miles and the understandings of skyscapes not possible from tree- and building-confined urbanity. Driving frees my mind to expand outside of the physical container of my body as it rushes along the highways. I imagine climbing the mountains, walking along wooded ridges, foraging with the bison, antelope, and bears whizzing by. Driving long distances is exhausting because your mind roams far and wide among the vast landscapes you survey. Your body is stiff from the disjunction between the exploration the mind has envisioned and the cramped position the body has rested in.
The wilderness I have explored combines the walking of the urban environment and the freeing vision of driving. I have been walking on groomed, maintained trails that wind through pine cathedrals, disclose the beauty of windswept meadows, and open to vistas of glaciated mountains. My mind expands to place me within all of these inaccessible locations. I clamber over rocky cliffs, descend cascading waterfalls, creep along animal paths far above the tree line, but my body is confined to the explicitly manmade paths carved from the landscape to preserve the wilderness. My mind is freed, as my body is confined. My understanding of the world expands as I navigate the limited and controlled space of physical interaction with the wilderness.
These different modes of exploration pull me back to the art landscapes through which I have passed. Summer brings vacations as much as it brings art fairs, open studio tours, and outdoor arts festivals. My mind has been so occupied with landscape, with the sublimity of natural beauty that I cannot bridge the gap between it and the recent open studio tours in Minneapolis and Saint Paul and the multiple arts walks I have happened upon during this vacation. I struggle to know how to site the vast array of work I have seen; the excellent studios I revisited and the galleries and storefronts full of horse paintings struggle to coexist with the moose calves nuzzling against their mother as they stumble along the stream and the mountain peaks breaking through mist to catch the first rays of daylight. By leaving my normal life behind, I am reminded that I need new and different ways of learning, of experiencing the world that expose the mental and physical constraints of my normal life, that replace the known experiences and people that populate my days with the possibilities of the futures I do not know how to envision. I hope we can all get away, rejuvenate our minds and our bodies even if we cannot leave town. Change your world by experiencing something new, something unexpected, something beyond what is in front of our eyes every day. Let’s all leave the art world for a moment; it will look radically different when we return.