Art and Arnold

More or Less: crowded borders at MASS Gallery’s Ultraviolet

In the late hours of some spring night in 2002, a collection of students attending the Rinehart School of Sculpture at Maryland Institute College of Art decided it would be a good idea to mount a group show. I know this because I was at the party where this plan was hatched. It was around 1 A.M. We were all a little drunk, and the idea just seemed to fall from the sky. Over the next several hours, I helped students pull different works from the their studios and set them up in a large center courtyard they used for group critiques. On Monday morning however, the show was dismantled. The reason for this was that according to the faculty it appeared rushed, crowded, and generally disorganized. This is not necessarily a bad thing, but it was not the look the school was going for when several investors were on their way through later in the week. Also, the random artworks got in the way of the janitor who needed to clean the floor. Standing in the middle of MASS Gallery’s latest show Ultraviolet, I was reminded of that late night so many years ago. Not because I was involved in the mounting of the exhibition, but because I think I felt a little of what the faculty felt on Monday morning.

I’ve found that group exhibitions work well when the intersections between the different artworks occur along either overt similarities or deep seeded conceptualism. But, when they are asked to meet somewhere in the aesthetic field between these two extremes, the results can fall short. This is largely due to the ambiguousness of that terrain. With the liberation of the art object from the limits prescribed by history, the polyphony of discursive acts, objects, and gestures now considered art is a tricky bog to navigate. This is neither a good thing nor a bad thing. It is just how it is.

Ultraviolet gets lost in this bog.

In an apparent move to draw together several themes that have been sweeping through the east Austin galleries lately: the industrial object aesthetic as previously exhibited at Pump Project with Adam Crosson’s Soft Wax or the sonic-and-spatial experience of the body in space currently being considered at Big Medium with Greg Pond and Jesse Cahn’s Flat Earth Folded, Ultraviolet presents themes that are familiar.

I realized this after I cleared the beer line that was mobbing the small porch where two servers kept pumping plastic cup after plastic cup full of whatever was in the keg. It was your typical refreshment scene at an art show: a crowd invested in drinking—mostly—for free and talking about the latest trending topics while milling around and bumping into each other. After my two-dollar deposit into the servers’ donation jar and maneuvering my way around a group of young socials who were busy discussing what brand of hair conditioner worked best for humidity, I took my tour of the gallery.

Here again were the florescent tubes that Crosson rather boldly employed. Except, instead of taking the risk Crosson did—regardless of whether or not he succeeded or failed at least he took a chance—Schmidt plays it much more conservatively with several small works that are crowded along one side of the gallery and feel as though they are split between attempts at the intimate or the mystic. That uncertainty appears to manifest in the pieces themselves. In particular, one work that incorporates five pink/purple tubes left several of us scratching our heads wondering about the differences in their color. They are just similar yet different enough to look like they were thrown together in the last minute. Talking with one person about it, she was convinced that the tubes had been custom made. Really? I hope not. If Schmidt had intended for subtle variations between them, they needed to be nudged just a little more in that direction. And, if he intended for complete uniformity, there is no excuse for our questions.

Or, if you want to give your ears a ring, step into Masch’s sonic chamber. Dark, crowded, and hot, the space is occupied by the various speaker systems and projectors comprising the work. Low bass rumples from the subwoofers sporadically causing the projections to shiver on the wall. Yet, unlike Flat Earth Folded that invites you to move around the gallery and draw audio-spatial comparisons, this piece runs its course and runs you out after only a few minutes. It’s uncomfortable in the small, muggy room, and the rumblings quickly become repetitious. I overheard one viewer say to another, “Oh, I get it … that’s cool … I guess.” They left almost immediately, and I followed. We already understood that a booming bass in an enclosed space makes things vibrate.

Back in the main gallery, Yoes’s piece takes up only half of the space. Made up of a large, irregularly shaped sculptural component and a video projection resembling a re-designed Pac-Man game, this work felt more considered than the other ones. There is a nice comparison at work between the imposing structure and the changing animation projected on its façade that compelled me to watch the video play through its loop several times. But unfortunately, sculpture is that thing you backup into when you are trying to look at a painting or step around on your way to the beer line. And I saw the latter happen several times that night. This work needed the entire space of the main gallery to itself. The projection would be able to breathe more, and the asymmetry and size of the sculpture would be better juxtaposed against the gallery box. Instead, the work is crammed, and its sensitivity to Minimalist ideas and aesthetics gets lost.

-Amy Yoes work, currently on exhibition at MASS Gallery
Overall, overcrowding is the consistent problem of Ultraviolet. MASS was ambitious in what it attempted to accomplish, but it bit off more than it could properly display. If I had been behind the curator desk on this, I would have cut one of the artists and put the remaining ones in either the small or large space exclusively. Who I would have cut I don’t know. However, with the over packed gallery the nuances of Yoes, Schmidt, and Masch’s aesthetics are not able to emerge. Instead, the show feels like it is trying to overcompensate for something. There is an authenticity that it lacks, and it feels as though it is trying to be an art show and not just being an art show. Curators need to be careful about this. Sometimes, saturation is the right move—take a look at grayDUCK’s Holy Fool currently on exhibition for example—but more often than not it strangles the necessitated space of art. Yet, I’m not claiming that every painting requires an entire wall all to itself, or that every work of sculpture demands a warehouse sized viewing venue. But instead, I am trying to point out that there is a delicate balance constantly at work between the artwork and its frame—that thing that presents it to the viewer. The two interconnect and simultaneously limit and liberate each other. This is the logic of the parergon that Jacques Derrida defines as,
[a] parergon comes against, beside, and in addition to the ergon, the work done [fait], the fact [le fait], the work, but it does not fall to one side, it touches and cooperates within the operation, from a certain outside. Neither simply outside nor simply inside. Like an accessory that one is obliged to welcome on the border, on board [au bord, à bord]. It is first of all the on (the) bo(a)rd(er) [Il est ď abord ľ à-bord].[1]
This is something we were oblivious of those many years ago in Baltimore. For us, the large space of Rinehart demanded to be filled. But in retrospect, I realize that we were overcompensating for our insecurities about our work. And, in trying too hard we put together something that was a watered-down version of what we were probably capable of.

[1] Jacques Derrida, The Truth in Painting.
Posted 5th April 2015 by Arnold, H.C.

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This entry was posted on February 11, 2016 by .
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