Encoach @ Springsteen Gallery (Dickie/Varadi)

Kodi Fabricant

Install view

“Art is a terrible risk, and no one would do it if they didn’t believe in themselves. I’m not sure if I buy it, but the idea has been floated that we, who do this shit, hope that through this work we can maybe escape. Even if you have to hand in your meatsack at some point, your work will stand in for you later. It’s the deposit you put down. Pay the meat price and get in the art tube.” In Steve Kado’s short story accompanying Encoach, a two-person show featuring works by Keith J. Varadi and Georgia Dickie, he skeptically addresses motives for art making. Specifically, escapism and self-preservation become central themes.

A bird’s “hand” in the work, even hypothetically, is critical in creating meaningful dialogue around motive. The presence of bird labor displaces motive from self-aware artist to non-self-aware animal performing the same work. I am using this information to decode the significance of color-sorted pellets by canary and I think it’s safe to use the canary as a stand in for any bird or non-self-aware animal. Male bowerbirds build complex structures of various found objects and sticks, usually grouping disparate objects of like colors together in an effort to attract a mate.

Birds preserve their identity through population, while artists preserve identity through objectified perception (i.e. art). This interpretation poses new questions surrounding an artist’s motives, like “Who/What are they trying to attract through their work?” making attractiveness a key component on the path to self-preservation. For me, this is a much more interesting read than plain old bricolage. The canary is the strongest component of Dickie’s work, and I wish it were more explicit.

Steve Kado’s writing contains clues for decoding the work as well and clearly states his intentions for writing in the last couple lines, “Believe it or not, this piece started out as a reflection on the way primary accumulation and risk were interrelated. It was based very strongly on some ideas detected in the work. JSYK.” Just so you know: A casual way of presenting integral information.

Keith Varadi
Keith Varadi

Oh, Hell; Past Gone; Grim Ripper; First Sight of Water; Regal Funk; Steal Those Cuts; Menagerie, PST; Foie Gras; World Truth; Live Like This; Maiden Man; Self-Help Writ Wrong. These phrases decorate 5×7 cloth panels by Varadi. An insider told me they are all titles of his poems, a detail that is not explicit, although it may be assumed or known by the artist’s friends. I almost expected full poems to be shown, considering Varadi’s reputation as a poet. The pieces mimic hardbound book covers, and are of varying cloth and ink color combinations. The colors are similarly rich, vibrant, and seductive, willing a longer pause from the viewer. The selection of this swatch of colors reminds me of Jenny Holzer’s Inflammatory Essays (1979-82) in which Holzer uses backgrounds of varying colors with black text, creating a visually stimulating support system for her provocative content. Varadi’s titles range from provocative (Self-Help Writ Wrong) to dramatized romantic (First Sight of Water), to absurd (World Truth).

Dickie’s work is less literal. Near the back wall of the gallery, Pisetions (binders) stands displaying storage unit, metal, coral, wax, binders, rubber, and various found objects including some sort of midi splitter and chair parts. Not birdbrain bricolage, but regular. Objects are spatially redefined, perhaps for therapeutic purposes, but definitely not for attractiveness. Liminality exists between binder spiral spine and what looks like the molted shell of a 7 in. plasma ball. This piece did not captivate me in the same way as others by Dickie. The placement of the objects is too normalized, on display and restricted to even-numbered shelves. I over think the term “binder” in effort to read the piece. The shelving unit becomes a binder of objects, hollow glass balls become binders of air, electronic equipment becomes binder of signals, rubber becomes binder of tension, so on and so forth.

Georgia Dickie
Georgia Dickie

Adjacent is Declaration, a piece by Varadi, consisting of a narrow plinth covered in adhesive vinyl photographs, with a small bottle of crude oil placed on top, enclosed within an overturned pint glass. The photographs adhered to the plinth are snapshots reminiscent of nostalgic point-and-shoot collections. Most notably for me is an image of the word “PIG” with an X through it against a yellow wall. This type of image seems familiar, like I’ve seen this wall before or one like it, which I’m sure there are hundreds. The images seem to capture pauses in daily routine, and contain the motion found in street photography. There is an element of humor specific to the photographer, something that made them pause to chuckle to themselves. I read this as “Moments of Amusement decorate the sides of the structural support to the Eternal Rose of Industry.” Escapist antics are called out simply due to the fact that cars require gasoline to move. To get in your car and just go still requires a trip to Sunoco.

Turning to the wall we see Oasis, a Nevada license plate in a holder with state promotional text “I’d Rather Be Gambling In Las Vegas.” Through the lens of contemporary social media culture, this is a passé bottom-text meme. Again, escapism is on display.

A recurring vibe in both Varadi and Dickie’s work is a sentimental recognition of a fragmented object or place. This is clear in the centrally placed work Today Was a Rare Day (Many Minutes of Fun) by Dickie. Materials include metal birdcage perches, swing, blood, auxiliary cables, photographs, discarded canary feathers, doorknob, resurrection plant, and a disposable coffee cup. I research “resurrection plant” and find it resembles a brittle bird’s nest when dehydrated, but comes to life as a green fern when placed in water. Work that requires research creates an aura of depth both captivating and alienating. It attracts a type of viewer who is eager and has access to resources outside the gallery. The other kind of viewer dismisses the work as difficult or not of their taste.

Keith Varadi
Keith Varadi

After the opening, an artist friend of mine revealed her momentary panic when she thought she had absentmindedly rested her own coffee cup on top of the sculpture. I’m unsure how to appropriately define that sensation, but I believe it’s related to what Kado approaches when he writes, “So we aren’t changing individual identities in different contexts, but those contexts themselves define sets of behaviors and attitudes that are exchanged within, and all of those relationships are trans-individual.” Whose coffee cup is resting on the artwork? Is it the artworks? Does it belong to the artist who made the work? Or does it belong to the artist who left her studio to attend an art opening? Is it the gallerist’s? Did someone leave it there during the install, and it just stuck? Once again, Dickie makes us question possession.

springsteen-install-encoach

Investigating self-preservation and escapism as motives for making art leads to some tricky conclusions. One idea is that artists preserve their identities post-mortem through work that is attractive enough to be cared for long term, that is, work attractive on multiple dimensions (visually, conceptually, socially, etc.) But being able to escape the normalities of daily routine enough to feel inspired involves an element of risk taking, which is contrary to self-preservation. Is it possible for an artist to create work that does not require an ounce of risk-taking, although the creation of art in itself is a risk?

Encoach is a great show for a viewer who likes to dig. The work can speak for itself, but it speaks tangentially. It lingers and leaves you asking questions with no discernible answers. One question I can’t seem to shake is “What happened to the canary?”

Encoach ran from September 10 through October 8, 2016 at Springsteen Gallery, 502 W. Franklin Street, Baltimore, MD. Images courtesy of Springsteen.

Pinpointing Metaphor: The Squinter’s Watch @ Springsteen Gallery

Bailey Sheehan

To point is to leap from one thing to an unrelated other.

In Modern Athens, the vehicles of mass transportation are called metaphorai. To go to work or come home, one takes a “metaphor”— a bus or a train.

The gesture of “pointing,” similar to the metaphor, is manipulative; a tool used most by memesters who post captioned/captionless imagery (that I am supposed to ‘get’). The highlighting of the rift between thing and expectation is, for some, a method to be utilized for subversion—a simultaneous appeal to and embarrassing of a mass-subjectivity we often confuse as ‘the personal’. The contemporary artist points in a similar way. Or, in the exact same way (Puppies Puppies, Scariest Bug Ever, Goth Shakira).

Colin Foster presents a body of work at Springsteen Gallery on West Franklin Street; the exhibition attempts to point toward some thing as well. The objects, however, exhibit surreality because of the ignorance they express toward their own trajectories as affect-producing things. With this, while the work exhibits interesting manipulation of materials and showcases Foster’s mastery as a maker, I am going to focus on the conceptual backing of the exhibition and some of its possible shortcomings.

The “point” is a formula for art showing where its efficacy is evident, though still holed—work that is supposedly visceral, or based in the presence of a conceptual spectre that is somehow inarticulable though is cogent enough to be modularly not only understood but praised by a group of likeminded people. Take for example, a piece entitled “The Self-Aware Slug” consisting of a linux computer, custom software (a computer repeatedly beating solitaire), and vinyl: there I experience a rift between what has been denoted as “the idea” and what the object is actually doing (or the acknowledged awareness that the object will do something). Here the artwork is first a conceptual poem, and second an object.

THE SELF AWARE SLUG, COLIN FOSTER

The “point” becomes worrisome when, within the rift between the expected and the actual, a recognition of something that would otherwise compromise the idea is displaced by that same idea. Perhaps it is a matter of not being given enough information, however, when I say that this exhibition is about a ‘thing,’ it is because, for me to go ahead and then guess or assume what this thing may be would further regulate that which I am suggesting this exhibition is abusing. And that is something a viewer may need to question more, to which role am I fulfilling? Am I a decider or a regulator?

Adrian Piper in “The Logic of Modernism” wrote about the malleability of the “aberration” that was Greenbergian formalism similarly.

Relative to these lines of continuity, the peculiarly American variety of modernism known as Greenbergian formalism is an aberration. Characterized by its repudiation of content in general and explicitly political subject matter in particular, Greenbergian formalism gained currency as an opportunistic ideological evasion of the threat of cold war McCarthyite censorship and red-baiting in the fifties.

This work is manipulative and can be manipulated because it is evading the responsibility of being a producer and is instead reliant on a conceptual spectre of sorts. It is evasive in its withholding of information that would otherwise allow a viewer to discern if the work is engaging in responsible production. Responsible production is a method of art showing or viewing that is aware, though not in full knowing, of an object’s trajectory as a producer. As the object is shown and seen it is multiplied and reproduced the same as a meme, each time altered, each recreation with its own condition of existence. The responsibly produced artwork does not have to be explicitly based in and around political subject matter, rather, there is a certain political action that accompanies this responsibility taken by both artist and viewer.

The sensual object and I cannot meet inside of me. Instead, our encounter occurs on the interior of the relation between me and the real tree (which must be indirect, but there is no need to complicate things here). When the tree and I somehow form a link, we become a new object; every relation forms a new real object. (Graham Harman)

With the initial object’s relational reproduction alongside a conversation being had by Graham Harman or even Tristan Garcia, it would not be so bizarre to talk about these sculptures similar to the way someone like Hito Steyerl or Steven Shaviro would discuss media or film. Film and music videos, like other media works, are also machines for generating affect, and for capitalising upon, or extracting value from, this affect. Would it follow if we take a text such as Steyerl’s In Defense of the Poor Image and switch out “poor image” with “sculpture featured on art viewer?”

The sculpture featured on art viewer is no longer about the real thing—the originary original. Instead, it is about its own real conditions of existence: about swarm circulation, digital dispersion, fractured and flexible temporalities. It is about defiance and appropriation just as it is about conformism and exploitation.

I bring this all up, because at The Squinter’s Watch, it is clear that the work is about this one thing, a notion that is ideally inarticulable, though still maintains a modular registration transpersonally, defended only by a few encapsulating words I wish not name but will (hiking, gaming, solemnity). The work may in actuality be evasive; the work may in fact be displacing some other thing behind a screen of familiarities, (modular hanging of wall-based works, an interesting manipulation of material, depictions of a feeling or lifestyle). This is most likely not an intention of the work, however, it evidences the fragility, or weak integrity of a bridge (or “point”). A lack of any supplemental artist statement and or formal press release only helps to create a conceptual shroud. The work may then be mutated somewhere in the process of reproduction and dissemination (being featured on art viewer, being posted to instagram, a promotion on facebook, a rearticulation of the exhibition with a friend over coffee, maybe possibly even seeing the work in situ), which in turn would, in a worst case scenario allow, the possible continued fetishization of blue-collar aesthetics or, say a weird strain of heteronormativity at the fault of the originary original. Even though the work may not be necessarily about that, that same fetishization then is further co-opted into a contemporary arts canon.

Daniel Penny in a New Inquiry essay entitled The Irrelevant and the Contemporary: Why is Poetry #Trending in Contemporary Art penned: To go the way of the Bernadette Corporation and attempt to make poetry more commodified, more in line with contemporary art’s market logic and formalist preoccupations is a mistake. Poetry’s slowness, difficulty, irrelevance — these qualities must be made into virtues. If we circle back to Agamben, poets who are out of step with the time are the most contemporary of all.

I feel almost as though Penny’s accusation and rightful assertion that the Bernadette Corporation’s poetry is “more in line with contemporary art’s market logic,” is somehow skewed by the same idealism that conceptually sponsors this show. The dichotomization between the work and that which may compromise it is clear in art that decides it would rather discuss things supposedly beyond the cusp of any articulation (viscerality, the spectre, etc), or beyond the commensurability of an economic sphere. Although ‘‘the essence of culture is discrimination,’’ as Igor Kopytoff has put it, the market turns art into a homogeneous commodity whose value is in no sense unique. (Olav Velthuis “The Symbolic Meaning of Prices Constructing the Value of Contemporary Art in Amsterdam and New York Galleries”.) The work in this show seems to be instituting this same dichotomization, or at the very least it is trying to sweep some of the contextual parameters that may compromise the work, under the rug. The term post-object (seemingly endorsed by Penny) here only sounds to me as an evasive maneuver as to avoid responsibility for any ‘negative production’ of the sculpture as object. Or, it is to convince me that that aspect of the work simply does not matter.

Maybe the work needs to be contaminated in order to allow for the safer dispersing and fracturing of the art. The Bernadette Corporation, Christopher Ho, Nandi Loaf, or even Puppies Puppies are all great examples of artists who allow the contamination of their own work. Further, if the work allows itself to be contaminated or compromised, it will also gift a viewer with the ability to place more trust in the hands of the artist himself. With this in mind, if, while the work is dispersing (not only digitally, but through the subsequent reproduction of relation), the work is manipulated to be a propagator of something bad, it is not the responsibility of the author himself.

Images courtesy of Springsteen Gallery. The Squinter’s Watch is on view from July 9 through August 13, 2016.