I’ve attended a few group art shows in the past week, and I want to discuss them over the next few days. But, as this is the first time I am doing so in this column, I also want to discuss the difficulty in doing so, which is this: When you see two or three dozen pieces, and you have a few hundred words, all you can do is mention a few that immediately jumped out at you. But that’s not the way I buy art, because the experience of looking at a piece of art for an instant is very different from the experience of living with one. You’ll find yourself immediately attracted to one or two pieces, but then, a few days later, they won’t do much for you, while something quite unexpected in now tickling your curiosity.
John Waters discusses his art collection in his recent book “Role Models,” and he calls his collection his “roommates.” He likes art that is confrontational, in a way — “ready to fight,” he calls it, in that it’s the sort of stuff people can’t believe anybody would take seriously as art, like the obsessive, illegible graphomania of Cy Twombly. But, when you’ve lived with a piece for a while, no matter how outrageous, you develop a great familiarity with the work, and a new appreciation for it. Work like Twombly’s can reveal unexpected depths, while work that was more immediately appealing can sometimes start feeling shallow and uninteresting. Look at the “50/50” show currently at The Walker, where patrons picked certain pieces of art to display, and curators picked the rest. The patrons picked many very fine pieces, but the curators picked some very unexpected ones. When you spend a lot of time with art, you find yourself feeling great affection for subtleties, and find yourself wanting to share pieces that are worthwhile, but may be overlooked unless somebody is willing to take the time with them.
But it’s not so when you’re offering a quick survey of a group show. And so it is that I will be mentioning a few pieces here, and they’re what struck me immediately, and it’s likely I have overlooked something that I would have fallen passionately in love with, given more time. So, with that caveat, let’s begin.
There’s a an annual showcase of student art at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery, called “NAGAS,” short for North American Graduate Art Survey. (The opening reception is this Friday.) I rather like student art, which often has a sort of punk rock up the establishment quality to it, or is somehow thoroughly influenced by one specific movement of the past, and it’s usually something terribly obscure. So you get both the shock of the new and the shock of the forgotten, and both are quite enjoyable.
It probably says something about me that one of the first pieces to jump out at me is a series of two photographs by Leah Grimaldi of the Vermont College of Fine Arts, titled, respectively, “Party” and “Party’s Over.” Both have the odd angles and somewhat overexposed quality of the infinite number of semi-anonymous party photographs you find at online gossip sites, where somebody with a too-bright flash has gone into a too-dark room to artlessly grab images of girls dancing, and couples embracing, and people vomiting. The first picture in the series shows a scantily clad woman doubled over, as though her heel had broken and she is pulling herself up off the floor.
The second shows the legs of a woman with silver stockings, bending over to scoop something up with her purse. Both are perfect facsimiles of party photos, but for one thing: There are strange, protozoa-like shapes in both photos, perhaps knitted like children’s stuffed dolls, perhaps made out of sticks and vegetables (it is very hard to tell). They appear dumped down the first woman’s dress and puddle the floor like spilled beer or stomach bile in the second, filling the woman’s purse as though she had been sick in it. It’s not a party until somebody spills their nighmarish single-celled organisms!
Similarly prankish is a pair of pieces by Lindsey Beal of the University of Iowa, both from a series called “Reproduction.” Beal has created what looks to be samples of wallpaper, decorated, as wallpaper is, with brightly colored abstract images. But, on closer inspection, the images aren’t abstract at all — they are cervical caps and diaphragms. When I visited the Museum of Sex in New York, they had dozens of pieces like this, including dresses made out of condoms and sculptures made out of sex toys, and it’s nice to know that from New York to Iowa people are looking at the humanity’s latex erotic inventions and thinking, say, I wonder what this might look like on my wall?
There’s a piece by California College of the Arts’ Noah Krell that has a sort of timeless quality to it. It’s a video called “To Move a Body (Piggyback),” and consists, very simply, of a primly dressed young woman carrying a neatly dressed young man on her back. They wander around an urban environment, seemingly for hours, with the young woman looking exhausted and the young man being no help at all. This is the sort of piece you could imagine anybody having done at any time — it’s so straightforward in its conception and execution. It’s also irresistible, especially when you start imaging what was going through the young woman’s mind. I imagine her thinking, “This is a lot more work than I expected … how long am I going to have to carry him? … I think I sprained something … why did I agree to this? … It’s not like this is for Janet Biggs … it’s just a student piece!”
I found myself rather struck with a cotton, wire and iron hook construction by Rachel Mica Weiss of the San Francisco Art Institute that she has titled, unnervingly, “Orifice.” It looks like a burlap sack that somebody has posed like a caterpillar rearing up. It’s at least as tall as an average human, and one supposes the opening to the sack is something like the creature’s mouth, or the orifice in question. It seems to be shambling forward like some swamp creature from an ’80s horror film. I don’t know what Ms. Weiss actually intended to convey with the piece — one supposes it could also look like a rough cowl and robe that a monk might wear, or even a burlap sack in the midst of tumbling to the ground. Art creates unexpected associations, depending on the viewer. Me, I see horror movies.
The final piece I want to mention is unexpectedly spooky without seeming to reference horror films at all. Created by April Dean of the Novia Scotia College of Art and Design and named “Gestalt,” it seems, on first blush, to be a simplified black and white image of two furry mittens. But Dean projects a second image of the mittens atop the first, this one in motion, so, on the illustration, the hairs on the glove twitch as though wind were blowing across them. The painting is haunted by a wind we can’t feel, but can see, and when did wall paintings start moving on their own? Briefly, you get the sense that any of the pieces in the gallery might become animated, and who knows, perhaps they might. If it happens, I recommend steering clear of the burlap caterpillar.