Postmodern Boutique 

"Materiality" at J Crist

The group show on display at J Crist Gallery through June 2 is an art exhibit with post-modernist leanings disguised as a boutique. Among the articles on display, you will find spoons, slippers, tiny dolls, soaps, rose petals, beads, sewn silk, books and an elegant set of cuffs. The title of the show is "Materiality," a reference to the unusual materials the artists have chosen as media for their work.

click to enlarge Lys Beckman's pussy willow cuffs.
  • Lys Beckman's pussy willow cuffs.

While it is true that used bar soap, human hair and waxed rose petals aren't exactly what you think of when you think of art supplies, it wasn't the unusual nature of the media in the show that struck me. Contemporary art is awash with found materials. The quality most present with regard to the show's materiality was its strong domestic associations. In one way or another, almost everything in the show is created or has associations to something you might find in a home, or something you might buy in a boutique for a home. And while, in good post-modernist fashion, one senses attempts to mix the personal with the political with the aesthetic with the philosophical with the spiritual with the commonplace with the social with the cultural, I enjoyed the pieces in this show more for their charm and wit and interest than for any of their--let's say, MFA qualities. Is this a way of saying it didn't strike me as "important art"? In a sense, yes. The idea that art needs to have ties to "advanced" critical thinking in order to be important is a prejudice I don't have. In fact, art may have closer ties to things like delight, awe and wonder than it ever will to conceptual schematics or critical theory. It may be the case that art is better suited to the mystery of life and the presence of a well-crafted thing than to the quasi-scientific constructs of the postmodernist project. I enjoyed the show and left it without feeling like I'd been initiated into any advanced relationships with the genetic structure of Western perception. (I am using the term postmodern and the acronym MFA to denote a very specific genre of art that is prevalent now in university art departments, in which visual art often serves as a kind of caption to some inferred mass of cultural criticism or social theory.)

Take Diane Jacobs piece, The Hairy Times, as an example. Made from shredded New York and Los Angeles Times newspapers, as well as human hair, it is essentially the paper you left on your kitchen table this morning, stripped of its clothes. Jacobs has just exposed its moldering mammalian skin, in which some less than human life form sprouts a layer of black hairs. The piece works for me like a political cartoon, the hair adding an eerie illustrational effect, but Jacobs has more of an MFA relationship to hair than that. She states: "The historical and contemporary implications of hair contextualize the meaning of my work." In 1993, she shaved her head and found the experience liberating. No longer was she tied to the identity associated with her hair type. She became intrigued by the relationship we as a society have to our hair and she writes that she then "became focused on saving my hair and rolling it into balls." (Sounds like a fun way to spend a summer.) After several years of hair collecting and hair rolling, she mounted an installation dedicated to the cultural and visceral reactions we have to hair. The pieces she has included in "Materiality" are baldly political and because I try never to think about hair for a time span longer than the longest haircut I've ever had, I appreciate the change of subject matter. While she states that the pieces shown here use hair to explore the contradictions and controversies inherent in our current political climate, I appreciated them less as hair-driven intellectual explorations and more as pithy and visceral political cartoons.

Also included in the show is internationally renowned artist Ann Hamilton. She has been the recipient of a MacArthur award and in 1999, was selected to represent the United States at the Venice Biennial. While she is best known for her hugely ambitious installations wherein entire architectural spaces are transformed into artworks in which the viewer becomes enveloped, she also creates objects and pictures on their own. Included in "Materiality" are some spoon sculptures, some photographs and a video.

It was Hamilton's Gemini edition "mouth prints," in which she uses her mouth as a camera, that served as the inspiration for this group show. From a series called "Face to Face," the photographs are large scale black and white prints in which a ghostly portrait hovers inside an almond shaped wedge of daylight suspended in a dark field. The portraits are put into a perspective when one learns that Hamilton is holding a very small pinhole camera in her mouth which is dropped open slightly and facing her subjects in close proximity. In order for the exposures to work, the participants were required to spend extended periods of time in this face to face posture. Using her mouth as a camera Hamilton was experimenting with exchanging one sensory organ for another. She characterizes it this way: "So to sometimes invert the location of one sense organ for another part of the body, those kind of dislocations or slippages is one way then we come to see something differently." Reading Hamilton's comments on her work, one sense's an effort to distill events or experiences or ideas to their very abstract fundaments. The tone is part poetry and part science. Hamilton seems to be searching for an art in which one experiences a metaphor from the inside out.

Amy Westover has contributed some small slivers of well-used soap upon which her own image has been printed. The images seem to haunt the worn soap in a way that made me think of the Shroud of Turin, as if the soaps simply picked up her image from an accumulated knowledge of it. The intended message may be more closely aligned to the politics of the body than that, but it made me think about all the ways the world might be making a record of our passages. I might also mention that as tactile little objects, they made me really want to just pick them up.

Maybe it's because of the mood the show put me in, but for me the most appealing pieces were Lys Beckman's, in particular, her paper shoes. Gallery owner Jacqueline Crist introduced the works by telling a story about the inspiration for Beckman's elegant cuffs she made using pussy willows. Simply put, there was a time when was poor and had a strong desire to be surrounded by finery. The solution was to make something fine that she could wear from what was at hand. I'm not sure if the delicate slippers she crafted out of paper came out of the same desire, but they certainly have charm. Looking at them, one wonders in what kind of world they would work. Certainly it wouldn't be as rude, as full of gravity, as drenched in sweat or as infernally serious. In a word, that world would be more delightful.

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