As soon as I saw an image online of Jonathan Berger’s installation, “A Future Life,” at Adams and Ollman, I wanted to write about the work. More precisely, seeing the plinths, the floor and wall panel were built with small cubes of charcoal, set off a cascade of memories from my young adulthood and family history, and I wanted to tell those stories. The art struck a nerve; and no doubt I was not the only one (nor the only art writer) to be so moved.
Preliminary information about an exhibit will do that for me. It doesn’t happen often, yet a photo, a well-written press release or an intriguing title for an exhibit will not only get me in the door but create the kind of sparks that have me composing sentences on my drive to and from the city. This week it happened twice, the second time was the exhibition title, “The Emotional Life of Objects,” for a group show at Bullseye Projects.
It was 1980. I was in graduate school and had begun hanging out with a new group I had met during summer semester, all younger than me by four or five years and seemingly driven by the complementary mottos, “Fuck art, let’s dance,” and “Make your own party.” While not conducive to my graduate studies, I was nevertheless fairly swept up into their.. .well, let’s just say I enthusiastically attended a lot of dance parties.
One of those parties was billed as a Decadance, and attendees were expected to come wearing either lingerie or underwear. It was held in the basement of a house, whose I don’t remember. Nor do I recall what I wore aside from the handkerchief I always carried to mop sweat at these shindigs. Toward the end of the night I had to blow my nose, only to then find the handkerchief spotted with coal-black wetness.
The explanation was simple. Before forced-air heat, many a southern Illinois home had coal furnaces. My grandparents heated with coal well into the 1970s. In fact, my grandpa worked in a coal mine when he was 14. I don’t know if they ever determined if it was the coal dust or asbestos from later jobs that caused him to have part of his right lung removed later in life. I cannot speak for the other party-goers, but I saw the Decadance as a response to the general feeling that a lot of us faced similar dim prospects; the coal dust was just the metaphorical icing on that cake.
All of this before actually seeing Berger’s installation and his charcoal cubes.
The room is black. Certainly, anything made with charcoal is dark, yet the walls and ceiling are painted black as well. Light comes from the overhead fluorescent fixtures and the large front windows, but the blackness of the room sucks the light away. I initially spent a good amount of time looking at the floor. Understandably, I wanted to get some idea of the resiliency and integrity of the thousands of pieces of charcoal I was walking on. Most appeared intact, nor did there seem to be an accumulation of dust, either between the cubes or floating in the air. I could then get on with the entirety of the room.
The plinthes and wall panel blend with act as a continuation of the floor, or vice versa, yet, aside from materiality, they function in a very traditional manner, that is, as platforms for discrete objects. A small tin replica of a century plant (Agave Americana) sits on one pedestal, and a large sphere made of putty rests on another. What appears to be a collapsed house made of little joined squares of tin rests on another, and near the top of the wall panel are two familiarly-stylized hearts of different sizes, their tips touching.
In the PR for this exhibit, Berger said his purpose was to create the visual equivalent of a pop song, and the four objects presented within their environment are quite suitable. All are imbued with a degree of nostalgia and/or romance. The century plant has a long life, blooms once and then dies; the sphere reads as a dead planet, whether a distant one or the future of our own (charcoal, carbon, greenhouse gases, etc.); the house, if it has collapsed, did so from a force that blew off the roof while flipping over the front portion so the door opening faces out (an oversight?); and finally, one of the hearts is upside down. Yes, I hear that song, but if he is singing about “a future life,” it is a very grim one.
Back when I was hanging with those young art rapscallions, we formed a loose group of poets and musicians who performed in the local bars. Punk was fading, New Wave had a head of steam, and No Wave was not-so-quietly building upon its subculture status. Not content to be left-out or seen as watered-down Midwestern versions of those scenes, we tagged ourselves Bye-Bye Wave. The thinking was that when the end times (by our own collective hands) arrived, the east and west coasts would go first, and whether or not the middle of the country was saved, we would at least be afforded time to say our good-byes.
It would be fair to say that attitude has never quite left me, so influencing my read of Berger’s work. Even the two hearts take on an ominous air. Does the larger one on top bleed to create the smaller of the two? Do their unequal sizes represent a relationship of power and competing passions where the larger dominates? In the best love songs, hearts are broken. As for the sphere made of putty, it suggests universal and geometric perfection, something beyond our real-world realizations. Amy Adams, the gallerist, calls it a globe, and why not? We can be very specific with names for the other items. Add to that the sphere’s uneven, fingerprinted surface that one sees upon close inspection, the human touch makes it a once-inhabited world. And as such, it becomes the centerpiece for the feeling of imminent peril.
Basic truth: Successful art objects initiate a response in the viewer. I mention this only because an understanding so fundamental seems to be missing in the title for Bullseye Gallery’s current offering, “The Emotional Life of Objects.” The preposition is all wrong, for it suggests an anthropomorphism, perhaps forgivable when applied to pets or even plants, but not to the inanimate world. Even if we were to apply an object-oriented ontology and pretend that was the title’s intent, it is over-reaching, and in the context of this exhibit, suspect. Perhaps “The Emotional Life of Object-Making” would be more appropriate, if still a little clumsy and obvious. Or, if one were trying to add meaning through a romance surrounding the objects presented (not unlike Berger), then I would go with “The Emotional Life from Objects.”
It’s a pity, really, for this group show does have a thesis that does not run too far afield of its misnaming. There is a primacy to the objects, slightly askance in their representation of familiar (real?) objects, which is what makes them art; however, fabricated as art objects, their agency lies elsewhere, and to suggest otherwise does both the artist and audience some disservice. (Not that I can’t get past the title, and no doubt more than one reader must think I have made too much of it already. I will save you from a discussion of late capitalism.)
There are three artists in this exhibit: Silvia Levenson, Dante Marioni and Heidi Schwegler. The bulk of the pieces are Levenson’s and Schwegler’s, with 13 and 18 pieces respectively. All of Levenson’s work is glass, as are most of Schwegler’s, a prevalence one would expect in a gallery dedicated to that medium. In that those two artists have a total of 31 pieces, Marioni’s few art works in a back corner take a decided back seat, almost as if he was an afterthought or there were considerations beyond the curatorial to include his work.
Unfortunately, the gallery’s chosen presentation style hinders the kind of attention an audience would benefit from for better appreciation. For instance, I am aware that much of Levenson’s work has a strong political content. The work chosen for this exhibit represents several periods in her career, but is so densely displayed that consideration of any given piece is interrupted by two or three other pieces in one’s field of vision. Too small for a mini-retrospective, it comes across as hodge-podge.This problem is further compounded by no clear demarcation between the artists. Closer to a visit to the Made in Oregon store, the atmosphere within the gallery seemed geared to moving product.
Even so, I would expect myself to rise above such bulwarks for the artists’ sake. Levenson and Schwegler complement each other quite well. They both exhibit a wryness in their work, and, as one might gather from the show title, their work represents a range of emotions. I have written at length about Heidi Schwegler’s art, and I would encourage you to read my review of her recent exhibit at The Art Gym rather than repeat myself here. Anyway, if I stick with Silvia Levenson’s portion of the exhibit, I will not be led too far from my purpose.
The wit announces itself immediately: Right inside the front door of Bullseye sits a large glass wedding cake topped off with a glass hand grenade. Titled, “Until Death Do Us Part II,” the piece’s tenor sets the tone for much of Levenson’s work, including two more works using the cake and grenade motif. Other works employ the dualism of utility items made nonfunctional, or with the aid of words etched into the glass, suggest dis-illusion. Several are from her series “Pursuit of Happiness,” which includes a piece with the same title. It is a metal structure that calls to mind a medicine cabinet, and it is filled with small bottles. Another piece, “Anti-aging,” pairs a toy dinosaur with a bottle etched with those words. Similarly, a group of five solid glass forms that are meant to look like items found on a vanity, are arranged so that the word on each contributes a word for the title, “Reality is merely an illusion.” And again, a set of three glass cups from her series “A Subject to Avoid” compose the statement “Something ain’t right,” with the last one sporting a broken handle.
We can make fairly accurate guesses at the emotions represented in Levenson’s work. Anger. Melancholy. Grief. Betrayal. Does she need to be more specific? How about the causes? In that things are already pretty well spelled out for us, I think not, for it is more often the case that true emotional cause and effect remain buried in near-imperceptible, complex, interrelated… things. Correspondingly, art objects as outlets, so to speak, are not always an easy read, and this is a good thing. The level of ambiguity made manifest in their creation is often what gives them one aspect of their energy, the other being in the viewing. These are the relationships with an object in which a question of onerousness— whether it belong to the artist or the audience —ultimately resides, and they need not align or be known to each other.
No doubt there is a dynamic that occurs between viewers and any work of art we approach. Regardless of whether the art is abstract, minimal, figurative, etc., a monologue goes on in our heads as a response to what we are seeing and is somewhat directed by the narrative qualities the art object contains. The more elements we recognize within the work, the more pre-developed and guided the narrative will be. And should the work contain words, then all the more so.
Why lay out these fundamentals of how art “works?” You hopefully will pardon my indulgence for I am trying to better understand the differing ways I felt while viewing the two artists I have discussed. Both seem to deal with some rather heavy issues, yet I don’t believe Berger’s somewhat apocalyptic vision contrasted against Levenson’s dark tales is enough of a difference; neither artist’s level of craft comes into question or play; and while I have taken Bullseye to task for displaying way too many pieces, bringing their exhibit more in line with Berger’s sparseness would not make an effective difference. What is it, then?
I think I know, but to illustrate my point, I will have to backpedal on my decision to exclude Heidi Schwegler from the discussion. Consider her “Something’s Wrong” cast glass replicas of misshapen and discarded gloves. I have a shelf in my barn that has a pile of gloves that either became too tattered to offer protection, or at some point they slipped from my pocket and were left in the field, only to be discovered a few seasons later. My memory/history (in all of its imperfection), while relevant as an initial point of entry to the work, does not do full justice to the inclusion of her creation in my experience. We assume some personal history is behind the decision to cast the glove, and yes, the casting gives a bulkiness to the sculpture that suggests the mangled distress of a real gloved hand, yet the piece does not rely on us to know her history in order for the piece to resonate with discomfort (as it is with a good number of her pieces in this show).
We empathize while an element of mystery separately endures. Catharsis is delayed yet still needed, and so we search for it; indeed, something in our relationship to such things may have been altered as either taken away and/or replaced. This includes how we view our own histories. We leave the gallery and the art follows us out the door (figuratively speaking). I would put to you that this is a motivator in the highest order, because then one has to make accommodations for the change. Memories are superseded by the potential for future resolve. This is the hallmark of art’s resiliency.