Monday, May 30, 2016

So That's a Thing? The Pleasures and Pains of Not Being in the Know

Phone Booth Koozie on St James Street, New Orleans
Never Trump Phone Booth Koozie, St James Street, New Orleans
Connie Shea at Ten Gallery, New Orleans
False Flags at Pelican Bomb, New Orleans

Craftivism. Yarn Bombing. Yeah, I missed that whole thing. So when I saw this Never Trump phone booth koozie on St James Street yesterday I looked at it in naive wonder. 

A couple of days earlier I was talking with the artist Connie Shea who was gallery sitting her show at Ten. I confessed to her that I often struggled with work described as fiber art. Part of my resistance to this show was the way these woven pieces seemed to unquestioningly adopt the language of the gallery, the wall, even the painter's stretcher, and even the picture frame.

Then I saw the phone booth wearing a political sweater. I stopped and looked at it curiously. I marveled at the fact that it was made at all, that it was anonymous; it was funny and bizarre. Not knowing that this existed in a context I considered and tried to interpret its elements: It covered a broken phone booth, it suggested the lines of communication might be down or obsolete. It was a thing made at home by hand, by a real individual. It's maker was most likely female; gender is playing a new role in this presidential race. It deployed the colors, stripes and stars of the American Flag, as if to say "Never Trump, but I am American, yes." I thought, Jeeze this thing is wonderfully absurd! And I "got it" in its absurdity. I get what it is, why it is, and where it is. And then, telling people about this phone booth I learned it was, as they say, a thing.

False Flags    at Pelican Bomb   Installation View
There is a reason Street Art is on the street, public art in the public space. There is a reason Political Art can struggle in the calm space of a gallery. But sometimes it's like tapas for thought, offering sampling of media connected by a concept. Two months ago, I went to the opening of Pelican Bomb's inaugural show, False Flags curated by Noah Simblist. I returned yesterday, the final day of the exhibition. This was a group show united by the nine artists' explorations of nationalism flags, both as an object and a concept. 

Unfortunately, someone had walked off with the gallery's last list of artists and works (the gallery attendant looked around but could not locate another one). Without the titles it was hard to enter some of the individual works and hard to view the works as individual. In a way this served the thesis; politics are not about the individual. Or, when they become about the individual (ahem) we are in trouble. The works offer cohesion not only in theme, but in palette, edges (all works are geometric), and scale. But much of this work about geopolitics (seen in my case, without names or titles) felt impersonal. Like the NPR effect, it was about all the right things but the content was sort of homogenized by the context. Or to return to the tapas metaphor, each serving was visually distinct, but I couldn't sense the maker or terroir behind them. I thought of Roberta Smith's comment in Interview Magazine about the totality of artwork, "it's political, it's pleasurable, and it's personal all at once. If you stress one over the other, things can get out of whack." I appreciate local opportunities to see new work and I'm curious to see more by these artists, if only online, to investigate where they are from, what else they make, and how these concepts play out in the rest of their work. 

Connie Shea    White #1    Ten Gallery
Some gestures seem inherently personal, like knitting. Some art forms seem to offer endless variation without becoming repetitive while others seem quickly tapped by use. Sometimes the gallery is the perfect space to share and distill ideas; sometimes ideas feel fresher in fresh air. What is fresh to one person (apparently living under a rock) will already be state to others. This article about subversive knitting in The New York Times (2011, in the Fashion and Style section, IMD) is interesting because it includes an apolitical origin story from a retail space in Houston, a terse statement from New York artist Agata Oleksiak a.k.a. Olek ("I don't yarn bomb, I make art.") and the inevitable absorption by Capitalism: a Toyota Prius wearing a Christmas Sweater knit by Magda Sayeg who according to the Times article and her own website, is widely considered the mother of yarn bombing.

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