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John Waters’ ‘roommates’: Work on display at The Walker’s ‘Absentee Landlord’

I don’t know if most of us could get away with being Gedi Sibony. He tends to make little nothings out of almost nothing at all and then just lean them against a wall or leave them on the floor and, there, he’s done, it’s art.

I don’t know if most of us could get away with being Gedi Sibony. He tends to make little nothings out of almost nothing at all and then just lean them against a wall or leave them on the floor and, there, he’s done, it’s art. He has a piece called “untitled” from 2008 that is just a strip of yellow carpet with a few pieces of tape on it. He’s the sort of artist whom John Waters describes as creating the sort of stuff that causes you to go “Oh, come on!” This is the kind of aesthetic experience that delights Waters, so it’s no surprise that the very first piece on entering the exhibit he curated, “Absentee Landlord,” is a Sibony piece.

Specifically, it’s a piece called “The Middle of the World,” and it’s just some vertical blinds that have been dropped on the ground. Did Sibony make the blinds? No, according to his explanation on the MoMA website, he literally stole them from a vacant space across the hall from his studio. The only thing that make it art is that Sibony is specific about how he wants it laid on the floor, and the only thing that makes it unique is that Sibony stole it, and that precise theft cannot be duplicated. Is it art? Here’s a good rule of thumb: If it forces you to ask the question, it probably is art.

A video camera creeps into a deliberately incomplete exhibit by Fischli/Weiss
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
A video camera creeps into a deliberately incomplete exhibit by Fischli/Weiss

There is a risk, of course, of people just tripping over Sibony’s piece. Or, at least, there used to be that risk, until “Absentee Landlord” opened his past Saturday, and somebody immediately tripped over the piece. I was there to witness it. The person seemed unconcerned, as, after all, it’s just some tatty old vertical blinds, but a Walker guard seemed aghast. He stood with his hands on his head, face contorted into an expression of agony. And then somebody nearly stepped on another piece, by Paul Lee from 2008, untitled, but made from a bath towel. And, by made, I mean Lee put it on the floor and folded it.

This was too much. Moments later, both objects were surrounded by vinyl ropes, lowered to just inches off the ground. It’s one thing for somebody to deliberately smash “Piss Christ” — that’s a genuine act of outrage. But to have art accidentally trampled? But, then, when they’re just set on the ground, the Sibony and the Lee pieces don’t really look like art, and there is something puzzling and outrageous about them. The moment you put a rope around them, they become a protected thing. They now have a frame, of a sort, and now they are art, without a doubt, and it undermines their challenge. I will be curious if the rope remains throughout the exhibit. It was not put there by Waters, and I am not sure he would approve. He likes art that runs the risk of getting thrown out by the cleaning crew — in one corner of the exhibit is Robert Gober’s “Newspaper” from 1992, which looks exactly like a bundle of newspapers that has been tied with twine and set out to be collected by the garbage truck. (Unlike the Sibony and the Lee piece, these are not actual newspapers, but creations of the artist.) You put a rope around it, nobody will ever throw it out.

John Waters in front of "Silver Jackie with Pink Spot" by Jack Pierson
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
John Waters in front of “Silver Jackie with Pink Spot” by Jack Pierson

Waters’ curation is eclectic. He isn’t just interested in art that looks like everyday objects, or garbage, and, with “Absentee Landlord,” he has come up with a theme that allows him to assemble many of his favorite artists together in a gallery. His claim is that it’s inspired by his own experience in college, when computers would match ideal roommates, and they were never actually ideal. So he has put together pieces as though they were roommates, just to see how they’ll get along. This is a fiction, really, albeit an entertaining one. He asks how a photograph by Russ Meyer and a piece by Yves Klein get along, and so he places them near each other. Both liked nudes, and both were connected to exploitation filmmaking — Meyer made them, and early on they starred his wife, Eve, who is on display at the Walker nearly busting out of a tight-fitting sweater. Klein, meanwhile, was filmed creating “Suaire de Mondo Cane,” in which he painted nude women blue and had them press their bodies up against fabric, for the exploitation documentary “Mondo Cane.” It’s an interesting parallel, but it’s not as though the two pieces are going to climb off the wall and fistfight. If only!

Waters has been calling the art he collects his “roommates” for a while now — there’s an entire chapter of that title in his book “Role Models,” and the chapter is mostly a list of artists he likes and why he likes them. If you’ve read the book, “Absentee Landlord” is quite a treat, as Waters has assembled quite a few of the artists he writes about, and even the specific pieces he writes about. He’s awfully fond of the Swiss artists Peter Fischli and David Weiss, whose art often displays a puzzling deadpan wit — in the book, he excitedly describes the photographs “Carpet Shop” and “Swiss Alps,” which recreate the subject named in the titles with lunch meat, in the former, and some pillows and a pan of water in the latter. And there they are in “Absentee Landlord,” and they are just as serenely dingbatish, and therefore delightful, as he describes them.

At one point, Waters writes, “I remember entering Sonnabend Gallery in 1994, seeing that the new Fischli/Weiss show was still being installed, and, like many other gallery-goers, almost leaving. But suddenly I realized the lumber on the floor, the paint cans, the cleaning supplies, the hammers and other tools, were all Fischli/Weiss sculpture.” And there it is, at the Walker, the same piece, a gallery space with the entry taped over, cluttered with the supplies intended to create an exhibition, but with no art hung on the walls. Waters shies away from saying that art such as this is intended as a joke, but however it is meant, it’s hilarious, and becomes funnier the more you think about it.

I’ll close by mentioning three more pieces that show the range of work on display. The first is a piece by Mike Kelley, and it’s no surprise to see Kelley on display here. After all, he’s the first artist mentioned in the “Roommates” chapter of “Role Models,” and Waters writes of him that he makes “pitiful seem sexy.” Kelley has done a whole series on repressed memories, mostly representing a junior high school. The piece on display here is a hand-drawn map of a school, the sort of thing you might expect to find folded up in a tween’s pants or backpack, except here it has been blown up to the size of a large painting. Various places in the school have been noted in pencil, handwritten with bad handwriting. So there is the secretary’s office, and the lunch room. But, then, up north is a whole area labeled “swamp gas rednecks.” A spot in the lunch room is marked “upskirts.” Just south of the school are “hillbillies,” and west of the school is “nothing.” This isn’t just a school map, it’s a topography of fear and shame, a look at the worst junior high ever.

And “Absentee Landlord” also has the worst disco ever, a piece called “Silver Jackie with Pink Spot,” created by Jack Pierson in 1991. It’s a black wooden structure, like the corner of a room, hung with silver mylar curtains, with its floor covered in cigarette butts. And this too has appeared in Waters’ writing — Pierson is the subject of some discussion in “Art — A Sex Book.”

Finally, there are two pieces that initially puzzled me. They are simple abstract works, one consisting of several objects drawn in charcoal, and, while they are quite nice, they didn’t strike me as being challenging or witty in the way the rest of the exhibition is. That is, until I realized who the artist was: Lee Lozano, whom Waters has a perverse fascination with. Lozano’s work veered toward conceptual art later in her career, and culminated in a stunning, almost impossible-to-understand decision that was meant as a critique of sexism: Lozano decided to stop talking to other women. She intended for this to last for one month, but, for whatever reason, extended the project indefinitely. Eventually, she went 27 years without uttering a single word to another woman, and the piece was only interrupted by her death.

One expects the Lozano pieces in “Absentee Landlord” are there as a sort of proxy, as it would be impossible to represent Lozano refusing to talk to another woman. Although this is the closest the exhibit comes to representing Waters’ theme — the pieces seem out of place, refusing to be a part of the exhibit, refusing to interact with it at all. Just like Lozano. Just like a bad roommate.