If someone slips on a banana peel in a forest and no one sees it, does anyone laugh?
The current exhibition at Atlanta Contemporary Art Center walks us dangerously close to the banana peel. We are the sucker about to unwittingly step onto the banana peel, and the audience waits with bated breath for us to make that final descent into unavoidable disaster.
Pratfall Tramps is a sprawling group show, filling the galleries and spilling over into the accompanying Gilda Radner Research & Translation Center. Entering the galleries, the curtain is lifted, setting the stage and revealing the impetus that gathers the seemingly disparate works together.
Jamie Isenstein’s Inside Outside Backstage Vase welcomes visitors to the space. From a distance the vase fills with vibrant, fresh flowers, but something is off. Some of the flowers wilt, revealing the perfect false blossoms and crumbling real flowers. A comically large, teetering stack of pancakes obscures Sara Greenberger Rafferty’s Performance Document: Self Portrait With Pancakes.
Isenstein’s Sand Lamp is funny as theatre of the absurd is funny. The joy and lighthearted moments of our lives, sheathed in the mundane, ready-made lamp shade burst from the sand that seems to entrap us, yet we cannot realize our electric cord still snakes to find sustenance.
Mary Reid Kelley’s Sadie The Saddest Sadist builds from the same tradition. The audio fills the space, looping just often enough to unobtrusively juxtapose its songs, chants, snippets of speech with other works. The mounting layers resist translation, but they create a new way of viewing the works, a shifting, performative veneer over the entire gallery.
As the best comedy does, the works reveal larger issues at work in the world. Greenberger Rafferty’s Testing I (Whisk), Testing II (Baster), Testing III (Spoon), Testing IV (Shotgun Whisk), and Testing V (Scoop) anchor the exhibition, upending the tools of performance and standup comedy. It elevates Martha Rossler’s Semiotics of the Kitchen to the stage, making explicit Rossler’s performativity and revealing a silence doubly loud for the lack of amplification and absent performers.
Tammy Rae Carland’s series of acrylic ladders Pratfall Effect lead nowhere. The glass ceiling is not a fixed height. It is everywhere and nowhere.
If someone slips on a banana peel as daylight savings time begins, how long does it take for them to hit the ground?
Just as the individual works in Pratfall Tramps seem slightly off, the exhibition as a whole does not sit quite right within the gallery. This shifting in the exhibition, however, opens the curtain to an empty stage. We have already stepped on the banana peel, and the embarrassing, laughter-inducing fall is inevitable. We are continually reminded that the exhibition is funny or deals with comedy – the bananas, the artist bios, the accompanying quotes, the title of the show itself.
The curator, Rachel Reese, writes, “Pratfalls—bodily or object-based—are funny because they are a paradox. While suggesting lack of control, there is indeed complete and conscious control at play: in comedy, the performer can rewire failure as success.” Similarly, the quote from David Robbins’s On Concrete Comedy: An Alternative History of Twentieth-Century Comedy included on the title wall reads, in part, “Consider the fool. The fool is supposed to fail, that’s part of the fool’s function—his ‘project.’ And because it is to some degree his project, the fool in fact cannot fail.”
These statements foreclose our ability to interpret the work critically. The show prevents viewers from experiencing the humor in the work by insisting it is funny, that it is successful when it appears to fail. Even if we see the artworks or the artists’ “projects” as failing, seemingly out of place, or unsuccessful, we are told that is precisely when they work the best.
The insistence on comedy and the comedic connections underpinning the artists’ work disrupts the exhibition, jars us out of the moments the works immerse us within, lands us on our backs as everyone laughs. We do not need to be reminded how funny it is. The assertions and repetitions undercut the fact that it is a strong show that coheres on its own.
If I tell you someone slips on a banana peel, is it still funny?
By Kevin Blake
Suddenly, and with little warning, the sun came out. After months of winter grey, the yellows pierced the clouds, warming surfaces in its reach. I was lost in a hardwood puddle of twilight orange on the gleaming floors at Corbett vs Dempsey when it came to me. The sunset squeezed through the blinds and the small rectangular allowance at the base of the window, drawing highlights of its manufactured geometry across the deck of the gallery. It was, as Agnes Martin describes, a “moment of perfection.” To her, a moment of perfection occurs at the moment of recognizing its existence. Perfection does not happen in the eyes. We do not stumble upon it. It happens in the mind–its always there–waiting for you to recognize it.
In this moment, it was apparent to me that somehow light is perfect. It is a blanket in the cold. A guide in the dark. A beacon in the void. We attempt to reflect, refract, and reproduce light to our affection. It is a shared physical reality, only partially explainable with measurement. More importantly, light is a force of nature that we have created metaphors, myths, and legends for, in an attempt to describe its unnameable qualities–its attributes that make it inherently perfect. Much like the light, the echo claims similar traits. It is a phenomena of our tangible universe that, beyond its quantifications and practical applications, we are left with the residue of myth–an intangible substance that occupies real space in our minds.
In her most recent exhibition at Corbett vs. Dempsey, Jackie Saccoccio delivers “Echo”–a series of abstract portraits whose titles steep them in populated discourses, that are merely auxiliaries in arriving at a singular and psychological entanglement between the artist, the viewer, and the work.
When I try to imagine my last experience of an echo, the place I imagine is not likely to be the actual place of observation. Instead, I reproduce a space in my mind in which I know an echo would exist. A canyon. A vast expanse. Mountains. Water. It is idealized. It is perfect. I recall the dynamic quality of the experience–I remember how special of an anomaly an echo is, and I repeat an indistinct noise over and over to hear myself projecting into the infinite space where echoes occur. A similar facade monopolizes my mind when I think of a portrait. The image I concoct is one built from history–a resonance of the renaissance. I expect the form to be central and I expect it to be human. I expect the figure to be the display, as well as the model from which an idea is propagated.
While the infrastructure of renaissance portraiture may exist in Saccoccio’s paintings, the centralized figure remains only as the most distant resounding of an echo. As the portraits recede into the deep spaces Saccoccio creates through perspectival maneuvers and layers of controlled spills, new possibilities emerge.
In Square in the Hole, the artist leaves little trace to the portrait. While a figure might be unearthed from the light wash of brown ground hovering in the depths of the painting, my eyes are drawn into the green jet streams blasting into the corner at top right, and the more subtle version of itself that brings the eye in the opposite direction on the other side of the painting. Those finishing moves–executed with some sort of straight edge or squeegee, are the major forces in this piece. These lines do more of the heavy lifting than any other part of the painting. They are the conceptual foundation of the title–directing the eyes to the round hole that the title suggests the square painting is trying to fit into, as well as a hint into the density of these works as a whole.
To me, Square in the Hole, was the blueprint for the exhibition. It alluded to the role of the titles within the physical and conceptual spaces manifesting on the canvases. What I initially saw as a physical engagement with the various properties of paint–getting lost in tracing each step in the process and spinning them around in my mind as I followed the trajectory of the curated spills–I could now understand as a guided experience. The artist knew where I would go with my eyes and my mind, and the painting is designed this way. The titles simply gave me the necessary nudge into this read of the work.
To me, these paintings are simultaneous self-portraits–as maker, viewer and sitter. I could see the artist stepping in and out of these roles to make aesthetic decisions–wrestling with these large objects in the studio while grappling with a psychological understanding of what an abstract image is and how it functions within a world of language systems that play vital roles in projecting this knowledge.
The more time I spent with this work, the more my experience felt like a dialogue, rather than an individually perceived moment. I felt as if I was being told–through the images–that the way I think about and process an image is echoing throughout the paintings as a precondition of the language systems that govern our perceptions.
I left the exhibition thinking about the residue of myth–the power of language. I left thinking that my experiences of physical space and thus, images, are just as crucially dictated by language as they are by the primary areas of physics–the areas that would explain, with language and diagrams to boot, how an echo works.
If the echo is a metaphor for the psychology of understanding language systems–it is a perfect one. The further you track it, the more distant it becomes.
I met Janice Guy for an interview in her gallery of which she is a director and founder, Murray Guy. In the back room of her gallery, a hand-tinted self-portrait of Janice rests in a matt slightly too large for the print, which has been cut and recut to fit the photograph for an upcoming exhibition. In the midst of preparing work for a show after more than thirty years of hiatus, I sat down to talk to Janice about her exhibited photographs, resurfaced from negatives forgotten and in storage since the early 1980s. This interview takes place shortly after Janice’s second solo exhibition of her own photographs in New York, Janice with Camera, at Cleopatra’s.
Erin: I was familiar with your show from 2008 at White Columns, and then also your most recent one at Cleopatra’s –
Janice: 2008. That was the White Room show, the little solo show.
E: But both the photographs from White Room and the photographs from Cleopatra’s came from the same time period and series?
J: It is only one time period. They’re all between ’76 and 1980 really. Let’s say ’75 to 1980.
E: But then you stopped making photographs –
J: And then I stopped making art. All my photographs were done in Germany. I had gone to Germany with a grant for one year, to go to the Kunstakademie Dusseldorf and I stayed there for five years.
E: Bernd and Hilla Becher were closely associated with the Akademie, right, and with that kind of objective viewpoint, was your work appreciated at school – your self-portraits?
Mirror, 1978, vintage silver-gelatin print. Image courtesy of Janice Guy.
J: I was friends with the Bechers’ students. I made friends with the Bechers. And then eventually I became a student of theirs. It did worry me that they would consider my work not part of their –
J: But that was not the case. They never expected any of their students to be emulating them, even though at the very beginning it certainly looked like that. When I was studying in the Akademie everybody was working in black and white, quite small. I was the one making the larger pictures. Actually, one of my biggest influences at the time was not a professor at the Akademie, or artists, but Konrad Fischer, who had a gallery …. and who had started off as an artist himself. Through Konrad Fischer, I was seeing the work of, and meeting artists like Lawrence Weiner, Bruce Nauman and Gilbert and George.
E: So that energy was motivating for you to continue making work at that time…
J: It wasn’t until much later that I started thinking doing a gallery could be really exciting.
E: When you were approached to show your photographs from the late 70s, why were you interested in showing them again?
J: I hadn’t thought about my photographs for a long time. Matthew Higgs asked me about them – I think it was 2007 – he was working with Marilyn Minter and Fabienne Stephan on a show at White Columns of work by gallerists who started off as artists. Matthew knew that I had studied in Dusseldorf, but he had no idea what I did, we hadn’t really talk about it.
E: You hadn’t shown the work to anyone?
J: Matthew was the first person here in New York I showed it to. I wouldn’t have been offended if he had told me never to show it to anyone again! But he immediately put me in the show – “Early Years” – and offered me a solo show.
E: Do you feel like you’re looking at a different person when you’re looking at those photographs?
J: I have a distance from the work as art, because I’m no longer working as an artist. And a certain distance from that body. It was a long time ago. I started using my own body initially because I was the handiest model.
E: Sometimes when you use other people, it becomes distracting from what you might want, because then you start becoming a director. It’s also a question of using yourself because you want to use yourself.
J: At the time I was making my photographs, in Germany, Selbstdarstellung (self-representation) was a feminist statement. This is me, this is my body, I represent it. I found it interesting that the brilliant young women running Cleopatra’s were all born after my photographs were made. They are a generation younger than me. They don’t have these issues. They don’t have to specify “we’re women doing this project”. I don’t think that those photographs are narcissistic.
E: And it’s also more of a working body.
J: Definitely. I am both the subject and the object of the photographs. And I appear to be photographing the viewer.
E: It’s also an estranged self-viewing.
J: The camera always functions as a mask.
Shadow, 1978, silver-gelatin print. Image courtesy of Janice Guy.
E: Ones where you have your eyes closed, with shadows over your face, but you seem to be looking into the sun also…
J: I’m looking into the sun and the shadow of the hand-held camera with my finger on the shutter release, falls over my face … like a mask. You do see my face the most where I’m photographing with my back to the mirror. I’m in front of the mirror. But I don’t see what I’m photographing.
E: It’s more of a peripheral point of view. And can you remember what you were thinking as you were taking them?
J: It was a long time ago and I can’t remember much about my intentions. People have asked me about certain decisions. For example, that in many of the photographs I am wearing only a wristwatch.
E: The wristwatch seemed a part of the portrait. That it must have been something that you wore all of the time.
J: I did wear it all the time. I didn’t even have to take off in the shower. It was definitely something that seemed to be part of me.
E: And was there a reason that you liked to tint the silver gelatin print rather than to make a color photograph?
Untitled, 1979, vintage silver-gelatin print (unique), hand-tinted. Image courtesy of Janice Guy.
J: I secretly envied painters. I thought it must be very beautiful to apply color to a surface. And I liked the out-dated look.
E: How was it to stand in your exhibition as an artist and not a gallerist? Or did you feel still like a gallerist standing in your own exhibition?
J: I certainly didn’t feel like a gallerist standing in my own exhibition, and I’m not sure how much I felt like an artist. The question that everybody asked me was ‘Are you going to start photographing again? Are you going to start making art again?’ And I would love to but I have no idea where to start.
E: It’s a long blind process.
J: This attention has certainly given me a desire not exactly to start again but just to have the pleasure of making pictures again.
E: I hope that you do.
J: I hope I do too.
Work by Marzena Abrahamik.
Johalla Projects is located at 1821 W. Hubbard St. Reception Friday, 7-10pm.
Work by Joshua McGarvey.
Defibrillator Gallery is located at 1463 W. Chicago Ave. Reception Saturday, 7pm.
Work by Scott Horsley.
Bert Green Fine Art is located at 8 S. Michigan Ave. Reception Saturday, 5-8pm.
Video work by Ferrari.
Aspect/Ratio is located at 119 N. Peoria St. Reception Friday, 5-8pm.
Work by Eric Saudi.
4th Ward Project Space is located at 5338 S. Kimbark Ave. Reception Sunday, 4-7pm.
March 11, 2015 · Print This Article
Five Steps to Hell with Poverty at DFBRL8R featured the work of Thomas Friel and Dao Nguyen, both alumni of the 2013 ACRE Residency. ACRE is an organization that runs a yearly summer residency in Steuben, WI and a project space in Chicago, but also frequently works with other spaces to provide opportunities for its alumni, such as in this case with Defibrillator.
The show’s title is a fitting combination of the two artist’s aesthetics: “Five Steps to…” evokes Nguyen’s methodical but extremely cryptic approach, a fascination with open-ended sequences that must be carefully decoded. “…to Hell with Poverty”, taken from the title of Friel’s most recent iteration of his “Sentient Avatars of Astral Collapse” project, encapsulates his aggressive engagement with performative capitalism. The closing event on February 28 included a “performative artist talk” by Friel and a “performative lecture” by Nguyen. Perhaps more interesting than either on its own was the contrast between the two interpretations of the performative lecture as a form.
Tom Friel’s talk began as fairly standard artist talk fare, such as a discussion of his chosen media (“I refuse to choose one medium over another. I love painting, I love video, I love making sound and music, and I don’t want to just work within one”). He spoke before his area of the gallery, which was more like a set than an installation—a bit like if Pee-Wee’s Playhouse were sponsored by a questionable credit card company. This is in keeping with his assertion that, while many of them are made by hand and have aesthetic resonance as stand-alone objects, he thinks of his objects more as props than sculptural works. He moved through a slideshow featuring various elements of his work, describing his interest in avatars as a way of navigating a “border between the digital world and the real world”.
We received an overview of the bizarre cast of characters inhabiting his work, including a “lovable terrorist”, “a spiritual hypeman”, and “a Veggie Tales zombie”. At one point a large, piñata-like dollar sign hanging from the ceiling caught the projector’s light to perfectly obscure a character’s face, in a serendipitous illustration of the way capitalism’s shadow seems perpetually present in his practice. At the end of the slideshow, the talk started to take a turn.
He alternated between a sort of sermon, spreading the good word of “Divine Market Capitalism” (“Capitalism cannot be regulated because it is through capitalism that we exist!”), and efforts to sell us various products: a carbonated milk drink, a publication, t-shirts, and best of all, for three dollars we can purchase a poisonous Pop-Tart that is our key to transcending life’s toils. Critiquing capitalism can be low-hanging fruit, especially if one is both overt in that critique and still trying to make a buck or two. But humor, charisma, clever writing, well-executed shifts from sermon to sales pitch, and a well-honed visual aesthetic all make Friel’s approach work, perhaps to greater success in this talk than in some of the pieces he discussed within it.
Friel did not include an opportunity for questions, and I personally did not have any. If I were to sit down and chat with him, I’m sure I’d have plenty to talk with him about (our mutual love for green screens that stay green, does he know Kjellgren Alkire, etc.), but my initial response to his talk was I get it, and I think I like it.
Unlike Friel’s trajectory from standard to surreal, Dao Nguyen’s talk was challenging from nearly the beginning. She opened with the vaguely scientific “I will be presenting research into some discoveries that I’ve made”, complete with a slideshow controlled via iPhone. She then proceeded to present “exhibits” 1 through 5, a sequence matching the series of prints hung on the west wall of the gallery. Each stage of the lecture featured the two texts included in the print (one taken from an actual book in the public library, one ostensibly decoded from a found letter), an additional text by Nguyen, and a task.
In contrast to the “buy this physical object!” solidity of the first lecture, here we were given very little concrete information to work with. The text read haltingly by Nguyen between the quotations and tasks did not illuminate the mystery of her project, but further shrouded it: “a letter / an insertion / instructions / a provocation / who is me and who is you / encoded markings”. We were forced to come to our own conclusions about the meaning of these assemblages of texts and their accompanying ritualistic actions.
When asked what books she had excerpted from, Nguyen gave a coy “I’m sure anyone with an internet connection can probably figure it out”. I, of course, was unable to resist. The most telling text choice and the most compelling task were both within exhibit 3. The central print includes text from the Jorge Luis Borges short story “The Library of Babel”:
“To locate book A, consult first book B which indicates A’s position; to locate book B, consult first a book C, and so on to infinity… In adventures such as these, I have squandered and wasted my years. It does not seem unlikely to me that there is a total book on some shelf of the universe”
She performed the task for this section with a library copy of Labyrinths —an English language collection of Borges works, including “The Library of Babel”—affixed to her back with bright pink tape. She brought out an assortment of objects: a penny on a string, attached to a notebook, attached to a roll of bright orange tape, which was attached to the floor. She then dragged the notebook across the floor by pressing her forehead against the penny on the floor and crawling backwards, revealing text on the tape as it unspooled. When she stood, the shape of the coin was boldly imprinted on her skin, like it was some occult Ash Wednesday.
Nguyen closed her lecture with a five-minute Q&A, a timer ticking down on the projection screen, and what followed was even more stilted than the standard awkwardness. Her reticence, both in the construction of the performance and her answers to questions, made asking feel like some violation of terms. Most of the questions I had—did you write these letters? what do you feel this is an investigation of? what do you mean by decoding? what is this work about for you?—seemed too crass to be spoken.
Friel’s persona, Friel’s politics, are readily apparent. He is literally yelling them at you from the two-step distance of satire. Friel wants us to hear him loud and clear, or at least loud. Nguyen speaks as if she would rather not, as if she would rather slip us a note under the door, or perhaps hide it somewhere in our homes where we might never find it. The pairing of these two artists, presenting radically different iterations of the same form in a single evening, provided a thought-provoking illustration of the variety possible within the performative lecture.