Spot On: Ro-DEE-o/Ro-DAY-o

By Patrick Collier

It may be a coincidence of timing, but at least three galleries in town have exhibits with a San Francisco connection. Jaik Faulk, previously of Portland, now lives there and is showing at Nationale. Modou Dieng and San Francisco-based Jesse Siegel have co-curated “Spatial Personality” at Worksound, which includes both Portland and SF artists. And Rocksbox Contemporary is celebrating its fifth year with a group show consisting entirely of San Francisco  Art Institute graduates. Is there a common thread to be found among these exhibits, something more specific than a shared geographic location? A culture that becomes identifiable and apparent?

Before I attempt answers to those questions, I want to add an additional complication to the inquiry that will further insure that few, if any, get satisfactorily addressed.

It’s rodeo season in Oregon, and down in my neck of the woods the Santiam Stampede is part of the circuit. The cowboy competitors come to town for some bronc bustin’ and bull ridin’ and belt-buckle wearin’. Ranchers, farmers and townies alike come to watch, many  in their own western get-up, even if it’s just pulled out of the closet this one time of the year. More than a spectator sport or competition, it’s a celebration of a culture.

Jaik Faulk, “In His Hair”/Courtesy Nationale

I saw the Stampede organizers (my barber runs the event) setting up the stock pens as I drove north to Portland this week and thought how nice it might be to include in this column some of what stirs the hearts and minds, and bruises the loins of my neighbors. (Next month is the big tractor pull.) The trick, of course, is bringing this around to parallel the rounds I make looking at art. How can these two worlds mesh?

Jaik Faulk’s small paintings at Nationale made my overall thematic task a little easier, as his exhibit is titled “Hello Darlin’,” a line pulled straight out of a Country and Western ballad; and as we all know, cowboys love C&W music.

You’re not going to take that bait, are you?

Then let’s turn the assumption on its head a bit, because I’m not a cowboy and I happen to like a lot of C&W, especially the old-timers like Johnny Cash, George Jones, Hank Williams, Sr., and Patsy Kline. I also adore alt.country performers like Freakwater, Handsome Family and Bonnie “Prince” Billy. However, I can’t stand much of the new shit-kickin’-proud-to-be-simple-folk-flag-wavin’, heart-tuggin’ and mind-numbing crap that passes for much of C&W these days. If I let all but the first of these preferences be known at the local watering hole, I might find myself the focus of some self-fulfilling (for all parties involved) whoop-ass, especially from that guy in the sleeveless plaid down at the end of the bar drinking a Busch Light tall boy.

I should know better than to bait.

Faulk doesn’t buy it either. Taking his cues from 1970s Western wear fashions, the stylings of “Midnight Cowboy,” perhaps Jared French,* and more recently, “Brokeback Mountain,”  (I’m about due for a haircut. I’ll have to ask my barber what he thinks of the IGRA.) Faulk’s paintings portray a gentler side of the cowboy, not afraid to wear feathers in his hat or polyester, flower-print shirts.

Much of this fashion sense is inspired not from the round-up as much as the juke box. These paintings are accordingly luscious and I can’t help but think of Bobby Bare, Merle Haggard, and a host of other musicians before and after who have attempted to signal that they are bigger than the lives they sang about by dressing large for the stage. Prototypical yet with panache. It’s a C&W tradition that began in the film industry and really became big when the screen got small with television, but I wouldn’t describe Faulk’s work as nostalgic as much as highlighting the glamour of the mythic cowboy’s life, which in turn causes those so inclined to that fantasy to adopt the attire.

We all do it to some point, dress to impress, create an image. That guy drinking the Busch beer? He’s been scanning the bar for forty-five minutes. Does he think showing off his biceps is glamorous? He’s caught me looking at him a few times now, so what if I were to go over and ask him what he thought he was trying to accomplish?  Dare we anticipate a particular response? If not fisticuffs, then perhaps his own jump to a conclusion about me?

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David O. Johnson, “WHITES”/Courtesy Rocksbox

The director of Rocksbox, Patrick Rock, is a man who likes a good fight. Consistently aggressive in his curatorial aesthetic, he’s made sure  his fifth anniversary exhibition is no different. Heck, even the title for the exhibit, “Son of a Son Son of a Son Born on the Fourth of July” is in-your-face Americana looking for any line in the sand. Rock has invited four 2003 MFA graduates of the New Genres Department at the San Francisco Art Institute (also Rock’s and Dieng’s alma mater) to display their takes on aspects of American culture.

In the front room you’ll find a huge slab of bologna (Brian Wasson’s “Bologna”) and multiples of an over-sized Bill Ripken baseball card (Joshua Pieper’s “FUCK FACE”). The upstairs gallery is filled with office-style “Water Coolers” by Ian Treasure, all set to burp and bubble the way they do when used. You can almost hear the fatuous, inconsequential opinions on sports and politics of those standing around them.

And speaking of an unabashed sense of entitlement, it is David O. Johnson’s “WHITES” that brings it home. Huge neon letters spell out the word while what seems to be an over-abundance of transformers hum merrily along. This piece is as hilarious as it is just plain wrong. And the fact that it is installed way off by itself in the back room lends a criticality to the placement that cannot be overlooked.

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Julia Sackett, “Family Album”/Courtesy Worksound

In a recent article for NPR, the philosopher Alva Noë writes, “The very idea of authenticity — this is what lies behind talk of particularity — is bogus.”** Whether or not we like it or care to admit it,  various and divergent influences abound in the identities we construct and call “self.” We are not automatically self-limiting to a given milieu or predisposition. It seems to me that this also applies to any specific culture. Even so, this overwhelming hybridization may be too much for some to fully embrace as the actualized self. Nevertheless, there is seepage that must be accounted for, or why else would the homosexual jibes be so prevalent in my monthly poker game?

Imagine a world without such discomfort in the complexity of one’s own skin. Threats of difference would dissolve into elements of sameness, and the superfluous preconceptions dismissed to expose our humanity. Idealistic as this may be, it is also why I responded so strongly to Julia Sackett’s “Family Album” at Worksound.

Using cast acrylic and an acrylic transfer process, Sackett creates discrete sculptures that are stand-ins for such everyday items as a cigar box containing memorabilia, magazines, keys, baseball cards, polaroids, cigarettes and matchbooks, and a photo album. The viewer is encouraged to touch, hold or turn pages. The tactility of these items is surprising, and a bit unsettling, for the smooth, gelatinous texture and the flexibility of the acrylic instantly reminds me of flesh. In fact, this sensation is so strong that I cannot remember any of the photos. Granted, the photos may to some degree help define Sackett as a person who belongs to a group, yet what matters is that this collection of artifacts is instead a piece of art that represents a life I can almost feel, and therefore feel for, without having ever met the person.

Does it matter that these artists have a San Francisco connection? Is there an overall aesthetic or agenda? Only in that they are somehow brought together through the predilections of others to share their art with us here in Portland, and that gesture of goodwill renders obsolete the question of homogeneity. Of course.

Notes

* Tip o’ the ten-gallon to art historian and critic Sue Taylor for pointing me in the direction of French.

** Snap of the fedora to political scientist Jim Johnson.

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