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Short-Lived Show Imaginatively Explores The Whats And Whys Of How We Know What It Is We Think We Know
TALKING 'BOUT MY GENUFLECTION: Installation view of the Jive Social Club's "Altar."

TALKING 'BOUT MY GENUFLECTION: Installation view of the Jive Social Club's "Altar."

Exchange: Baltimore, a joint exhibition between the Creative Alliance and the Washington Project for the Arts/Corcoran, opens Sept. 9 at the Warehouse Arts Complex in D.C. (1021 Seventh St. NW).

We once wondered what would replace postmodernism. It felt so comprehensive. Perhaps it was the Unabomber who unwittingly lit the charge, the lone subversive wishing to explode the system one institution at a time, conveyed along by his own literary omnibus-his social manifesto and his conviction in the dissident power of one.

Holy Crap! Believe on It, organized by the Jive Social Club in the galleries of the Creative Alliance at the Patterson, and which closed Sept. 2, does a superior job representing art's recent drift toward conceptual unabomberism. (The Jive Social Club was organized in 2004 as a collective of graphic artists, including Kelley Bell, Luci Morreale, Emily Wilson, Brenden Howell, Lisa Dietrich, and Creative Alliance artistic director Jed Dodds.) The fact that the included artists are principally graphic designers, many employed in advertising and marketing, has a not insignificant role in this revision. Trained to think calculatingly about the motives of desire-through the first-person singular to the second-person plural-they tend to acknowledge their audience's psyches more than artists of the past. This awareness dominates what their work ultimately incorporates. It's not just image-the voluptuous icon, the golden mean, the ecstatic vision, the sensual surface, things cubed, comprehension of oblivion, converse scale, social history-any longer. It's also strategy: offense and defense.

Holy Crap! is a great, fun show, offering some real wisdom here and there. It's a mentally stimulating show with a chapbook of beliefs as a guide through it. It reminds us about our new visual aesthetic, how satisfied it is to acquiesce to its own sensory competition, like an incredibly good meal in a squalid-looking restaurant, gummy from other diners' enjoyment.

But now, let us think, along with the show, about what we believe. An advance word of caution-the nihilist is in.

What about whiskers on kittens to start with? Rebecca Siegmund's paintings of kittens attempt to overturn that warm and fuzziest of favorite things. She's painted one with Pepto-Bismol octopus legs, another as a glutinous, purple lump on a moldy green platform. Siegmund professes an abiding faith in the repellent aura of cuteness. (It didn't work. Someone bought one of them anyway.)

What about evolution, death, religion, rock stars, the restorative power of incense, political leaders, weight loss, the Brownie code of honor, and the Big Kahuna, television? All of these influences gain attention from each artist in turn. Some might receive slightly trifling redress-inviting cultural irony, playful folly, appropriation of the devotional without the devotion, and justified contempt-to stand in for real belief. Some may make you smile the intuitive way one does when a subconscious realization surfaces. (Video must function on this level especially because pieces from Peter Quinn, Phil Davis, and Cathy Cook get you to that place.) Other works cautiously offer a poignant, personal glimpse into lost youth and innocence, when their makers' faith took a more unshakable form. One or two may shake you from your shoes.

Several of these works' "text-painting" passages retain genuine staying power. Among these is Marshall Clarke's parable of his dad's tool philosophy. His accompanying photograph is nice enough, but not nearly the illuminating work of art that his writing is.

Of all of the items in this thoroughly democratic show, of those with the strongest offense, defense, or pure visual fortitude, my critical heart goes to Julie Benoit's "It was just a piece of string." A moral work-made provisional by being written tentatively on the wall, mostly in pencil-it will be obliterated at exhibition's end. But its providence will live on, and you get to keep its gift because you had to work so hard to discern and earn it. It is essentially a multilayered story about finding a gold heart made up of string, treasuring it, and then losing it. Her mural's moral is familiar enough, and so it helps Benoit coax us through this beautiful exhaust-puff of magic narrative. Repeated phrases interstice and layer together in a manic meditation of tiny faint words. And even though the object of inspiration has to be forsaken in the end-alas, we're used to that-it conveys as trustworthy and fulfilling in its small lifetime, uncontingent, and meaningful. Believe in it, not on it.

A wooden desk separating two chairs sits in one nook of the installation, just beyond the group altar. It's what remains of John Berndt's staged performance piece, one of five performance sites from the Aug. 19 happening evening. It maintains the residual tension of an empty classroom or courtroom by virtue of the previously mentioned jotted notice on the wall-that "The Nihilist Is IN." Berndt is no longer present dressed in his what if you're wrong? T-shirt. There is now only you to select a chair, to opine, or to challenge or destabilize your own possibly evanescent opinions.★


Reprinted from The Baltimore City Paper