Tuesday, September 18, 2007
Review by Leah Modigliani, NY Critic and Artist
Future86 is an annual art event organized by artists Sharon Molloy and Suzanne Wright on their ten-acre parcel of land in the Catskills of New York. The event is named for the nearby New York State Route 17, a stretch of regional highway being upgraded to become (and eventually be renamed) Interstate 86.
For one day forty-three artists, most living in New York City or nearby displayed or performed a range of artworks including drawing, sculpture, prints, video and performance. Through their press release Molloy and Wright asserted their intention of establishing a "laboratory for artists to present work outside of the marketplace." This was paired with the pragmatic goal of raising money for the Organization for Women's Freedom in Iraq. Money was collected through strategically placed donation jars and by selling t-shirts and DVD's of artist's video work, which was screened at the site. Participating artists were invited from the organizer's extended social network but proposals were not solicited; artists were free to exhibit or perform anything within the constraints of a 24-hour time period with no available budget. The exhibition site consisted of an old Jewish motel with twelve small rooms sitting on the property, and the land itself.
Although the political motivations and values of the artist-organizers were made clear, no clear curatorial vision was evident. This was both an advantage and disadvantage in the experience of individual artworks, which seemed to take second stage to the social event itself. Artists and their hosts contributed huge amounts of food and drink, which never ran out, despite over one hundred guests. Music played all day and night as families, children, dogs and friends gathered and picnicked late into the night. In retrospect, it seemed that the overall theme of the event was the desire to assert artistic agency in the context of the domineering art market of the ever-present New York City.
In many works the artist's identity was presented as a contested field of experimentation and/or was self-consciously defined by comparison with other individuals or stereotypes. This is an identity politics that has evolved out of lessons learned in 1990s art-school education: popularity of identity politics at the time (e.g. 1993 Whitney Biennial), the establishment of late 70s appropriation art in the canon (Cindy Sherman, Richard Prince, etc), and an awareness of the limitations of Feminist essentialism. Now identity is recognized and experienced as complex, fluid, adaptable and unstable. The down side of this kind of artistic freedom is the potential for resulting artworks to come across as insincere or trendy. Artists' ability or inability to define themselves in relation to social or institutional networks was also a theme, which was generally reflected in the "escape from New York" feeling that permeated the day.
The humorous short video by Jibz Cameron and Hedia Maron titled appropriately The Quiet Storm dealt with these ideas. In it, Cameron acts out the internal monologue of a person racked with insecurity who becomes increasingly desperate by her inability to communicate "normally" with other people in her dense urban environment. By filming the actor's movements in front of a blue screen, and later layering these actions and narration over generic still shots taken from the internet, the artists created a compelling animation of everyday social dynamics. Gradually the lead character's responses to the clichéd interactions of her everyday life (meeting another woman on a street; speaking to a sandwich maker at the deli) become more extreme and neurotic, until she finally overcomes her fear of others (or herself) at the end. Although campy (the character wears a fringed Star Trek T-shirt), the video manages to capture the everyday insecurities of fitting in, going about your daily business, and ultimately triumphing in your social environment by simply asserting your will to speak and be heard.
The painting titled Oh My God I tried Painting Myself as Marlene Dietrich in a Touch of Evil and 'We' Turned into Peaches," Angela Dufresne directly comments on the troublesome task of identifying with and/or appropriating aspects of identity culled from pop culture. Here the process of appropriation only leads to confusion as you discover that what you thought you were making of yourself has been compromised and now there is someone entirely new to contend with. In the painting a woman washing dishes half-emerges from a brownish textured background of brushstrokes and drips; she is here and not here. Dufresne reiterates this theme in her video titled Opening, which was also screened. In this work she acts out the on-screen conversation between Gena Rowlands and Ben Gazzara in John Cassavetes film Opening Night (1977). In the original scene two characters argue over the aging actress's inability to commit to the role as given to her. This is partially because her real life has impinged on her art and she is struggling to find a balance in the two. In Dufresne's video the artist argues with herself in a bland hotel room using a split screen. Like the neurotic character in A Quiet Storm, the underlying tensions of being true to yourself are publicly revealed as private insecurities.
In a beautifully seductive, but ultimately less successful video by Abbey Williams, similar themes play out to different effect. In Kenneth Anger's original short film from 1949, Puce Moment, the decadence and indulgence available to one young woman of leisure is described through dreamy colorful shots of rich fabrics and dresses and her lounging around in a Hollywood Hills house - all set to the now-nostalgic and melancholy Jonathan Halper folk-rock soundtrack. As Halper sings, "Yes I am a hermit, and ecstasy is my game" the glamorous world of Anger's star is exposed as empty, indulgent and meaningless. Williams has re-created Anger's film shot by shot with herself in the leading role, and superimposed this on top of his original film. One recognizes thrift store clothes and a common latch hook rug in William's version, which updates the film to acknowledge the class distinction between a woman of leisure and one of working class. However this layering effect does not add significantly to the original work, and in fact just obscures the best, albeit nostalgic, aspects of the latter. The video's inability to transcend its source is dangerous because it suggests that the artists process is as empty and decadent as the character she is playing, which may in fact be the artists point, but doesn't do any favors for real working class artists.
Some artists' works alluded to tensions that exist between institutionalized forms of social behavior and individual desire or impulse. Suzanne Wright' large colored pencil drawing titled Westminster Panties places the inside of female genitalia at the gateway to organized religion; in this six foot drawing we look down the nave of Westminster Abbey to the altar, which peeps out from behind a pair of pink and purple panties which are being lewdly pulled up by the woman's hand. This witty adoption of the often criticized "central-core" imagery on 1970s feminism is revitalized by the use of architectural imagery and photo-realistic rendering, suggesting that institutionalized forms of space and technology contribute to gendered identity as much as biology. Wright had two other smaller pieces on exhibit (referencing the George Washington Bridge and Hoover Dam), but the use of magazine collage, while potentially lucrative as source material, did not resonate as greatly as the commitment to content implied by the scale and craft of the larger drawing.
Molecular science, black holes, and physical matter are the themes of a circular painting by Sharon Molloy called Ripple Effect. Composed of hundreds of small dots, pulsing rings of bright colors seem to wave outward - suggesting that the particular is always contingent on and constitutive of the collective. Molloy's abstract work reminds one of Seurat's sincere attempts at uniting the disciplines of science and art through what was then the burgeoning field of color theory in the late nineteenth century. However, rather than being a passive and unified reflection of this dynamic, the complementary and sometimes garishly colored marks work together to make themselves known as individuals.
In a peculiar performance work by Tim Davis, the confrontation between the institutionalized art world and artist was made explicit as Davis slowly burned an edition of photographs over the course of the day. The image being burned was a portrait of a tabletop tape dispenser with attendant associations of a routine 9-5 day-job of stapling and sorting. Since Davis is more established in the art world than some other artists showing here (he works with many galleries who sell his work internationally) this action can be considered a deliberate challenge to market forces.
A collaborative group of artists calling themselves CÜLT installed a display on one wall in one of the ground floors rooms. Delicate pencil drawings of roots crossbred with human genitalia (on hotel notepaper), magazine clippings (of Britney Spears making out with a plant), paintings of plant-man hybrids, a video, and CÜLT rules ("you can't leave the cult without a really good reason"), educated viewers to the aims and goals of the group. Amongst other things these were to achieve "hydro purification through perverse osmosis" and to practice daily yoga and good listening. In general, the project pointed to issues of losing touch with the land, the dangers of genetic engineering, the acceptance or rejection of a sheep/herd mentality and the possibilities of gender-neutrality. More importantly, the motives of CÜLT were presented as potentially interesting but purposefully vague, leaving one the dubious option of accepting experience without understanding it. Somewhat a spoof of currently trendy relational aesthetics, CÜLT showed the bargain inherent in much contemporary art; to accept art as unlimited experience is to simultaneously acknowledge the fragmentation of understanding. The use of an umlaut in the title seemed to bolster this content, suggesting a kind of globally understood "internationalism" independent of language.
Few works in Future86 related to the site, but some that did were elegant and effective. Lisa Perez's installation Settle Down, consisting of small white paper cutouts applied at right angles to a wall that was also painted white, alluded to the kind of organized entropy best recognized in natural processes. The small mountain-like ridges cast shadows on the wall that looked like tree lines, and also referenced the resurrected and reattached form of paint chips chipped off old wooden surfaces. In this rural context, the work and its title alluded to the comforts of a life unencumbered by the distractions of the city, a life in which many small moments of beauty may be noticed.
Maria Lorenz contributed a series of prints made from woodcuts she had made of a man in a rowboat, a schooner, and water patterns. At the center of several prints pinned next to and on top of each other was a man, printed in red, with his back to us floating in the air above an implied rowboat. This image seemed to function as an allegory for introspection and/or longing. The thinness of the paper and the sea theme contrasted to the earth-bound station she set up inside an old wooden shack standing elsewhere on theproperty. There she left a number of her woodcuts and an assortment of colored conté crayons for people to make their own rubbings of her work. Visitors could then pin the collaborative works up inside the shack. With these two installations of essentially the same images, Lorenz was able to create a number of suggestive contradictions: aloneness/community, reality/imagination, action/inaction, single authorship / collaboration.
Time and space did not permit mention of the many other artists who participated in Future86. Lately much writing has been dedicated to looking critically at the global art market and New York's central position in it. The sighting of the event in the Catskills recalls a rich tradition of culture in that area and serves as a reminder that art outside New York does happen and is sometimes the richer because of it. While those in favor of a strong art market argue that it provides financial opportunities for more artists than ever before, others argue that this has been at the expense of diversity. If nothing else, pro-market discussions inevitably center on painting and/or the personalities of artists themselves, which should alone bolster the anti-market argument. Despite the dominance of the art market, non-commercial spaces continue to be founded by cultural workers who have a vested interest in creating a diverse art scene. In this regard the diversity and energy of Future86 should be encouraged and commended. With luck, fundraising efforts will pay off, and next year's event will be able to accommodate artists as residents for a longer period of time before the exhibition, which is the organizers' goal. Projects like this are worthy of support because they provide a forum where individuals' creative agency meets with community in dialogue to create a space outside of the relentless exchange-values of the marketplace. As citizens continue to orient themselves, or be oriented, towards consumerism, these spaces become increasingly rare and valuable.