A show offering a wonderful variety of strong art, but grouped by an unnecessary theme
Reviewed by Kate Watson, Fri., Oct. 16, 2009
Lora Reynolds Gallery
through Oct. 31
"Contemporary Culture" is certainly a theme that immediately catches one's attention. These two words were probably chosen simply to give shape and coherence to an art show, but they lead the viewer (particularly me, dear reader) into a quagmire of ideas and feelings. If the mission of this exhibit at Lora Reynolds Gallery is, as stated, to reflect "upon the artist's role to visually convey events affecting today's society," then the viewer is inevitably led to reflect upon this moment. What is happening now? We're post-Bush. Post-"change." Post-"hope." The recession is supposedly over, somehow, according to the experts, but our troubles are, of course, far from over. So what do these artists have to say about the here and now? Frankly, it seems that the conversation happening in this exhibition is just as murky as I am.
By far, the most compelling work is Colby Bird's This Is This, a sculpture that explores random acts of violence and American gun culture via familiar modern-art tropes. But like this jumbled American moment we find ourselves in, this powerful work sits next to Jim Torok's taunting, cartoony paintings which exclaim slogans such as "You Should Be More Happy" and "Don't Think About It...." This Is This is an obvious homage visually to minimalist sculptor Dan Flavin, but it also references a powerful and cryptic moment in The Deer Hunter when Robert De Niro holds up a bullet midargument and says: "Stanley, see this? This is this. This ain't something else. This is this." In Bird's sculpture, a gun is screwed hastily with a piece of wood to the underside of a chair. You might miss this if it weren't for a set of smoke-and-mirrors-style effects that give you an eerie reflection of the object, cast through a piece of thick glass onto charcoaled newsprint. The piece is at once disturbing and discombobulating, tender and familiar. But what is the conversation happening between Bird and the seemingly happy-go-lucky yet disturbingly patronizing Torok, two artists who obviously have divergent takes on the here and now?
The only other pieces that seem to be truly examining "today's society" are Mads Lynnerup's drawings in the series Time Is Money, Money Is Time. I was turned off by the press release's cheesy contextualization of these pieces as examining the advertising clichés of "time" and "money" to provoke "thought about how over-emphasizing the worth of material goods and money can cause one to lose sight of what is truly valuable." Instead, I thought about the fact that Lynnerup (best known for his hilarious and intelligent video pieces) recently obtained a Master of Fine Arts from Columbia, which potentially left him with tens of thousands of dollars in student loans, and that he might have made these very sellable drawings to pay down that debt. It was quite funny to see these drawings directly behind the gallery desk, questioning the complex commercial structure that artists rely on to make a living.
Beyond these pieces, I found many references to the past and to art history specifically, and I couldn't help but wonder what this says about now. Don't get me wrong: Much of this work is very compelling. The almost holographic, double-layered canvas and silk paintings by Bradley McCallum and Jacqueline Tarry that examine iconic images from the civil rights movement moved me. Graham Dolphin's 56 Lennon Songs is a perfect example of his meticulously rendered pieces that showcase an obsessive fixation on the artist's hand: On a newspaper from the day that Lennon was shot, 56 song titles have been inked in perfect, almost invisible letters across the dead icon's image. And Lynnerup's strong Clock, an attempt by the artist to stand still for an entire day, only moving to change an analog board of numbers once a minute, speaks to early experiments in durational video art. Duration. The artist's hand. Iconic historic images. These works speak to the past, no? I cannot glean what they are saying about this complex moment, and I'm not sure the artists would want me to try.
My point? Curators (and gallerists sometimes) seek to make meaning of artists' work. They take works of art and try to create a cohesive conversation from them. It's true that there are a million ways to capture "the now." But it also seems like the artists in this show are speaking different languages. Perhaps skipping the theme would be more beneficial here. It would certainly allow me to enjoy the wonderful variety of strong pieces in "Contemporary Culture." Vintage De Niro is whispering in our ears: "This is just this. This ain't something else. This is this." And we shouldn't try to make it more complicated than that.