-above image: detail of “Tissues” by Caitlin G. Mccollum
“You match the paintings,” said the girl behind the bar as she handed me a beer.
But, I realized she was talking about my shirt and tie. That night, I was wearing my usual red tie and white shirt combo that I do when I go to these things. It agitates me when someone asks me why I’m dressed up. Really, that’s what you want to talk about? How about we talk about the artwork. I’m “dressed up” out of respect for the artist and their work. Sorry, maybe I’m old fashioned but flip-flops, shorts, and a T-shirt is what you wear when you’re either being domestic or lazy. It’s not what you wear to an art show. I know Austin is trying really hard to be “cool” like L.A.; but come on, in L.A. they at least wear designer flip-flops. If Austin is ever going to get serious about this art thing, it may need to start trying to generate a different clientele than the neoliberal lumberjack who’s into home brew, vinyl records, and concerned about why I’m wearing a tie. But the art world is a tricky place, and the upper-enders who have the cash and are looking for the next hot artist can be just as dangerous when they start to play favorites with whom they buy and sell out of their personal collections. Cash flow can kill an artist just as quickly as it can save him or her, and it can completely alter the gallery landscape in a split second.
Back at Pump Project, it was a pretty mellow night compared to some. And, that I think was a misfortune. As opposed to other nights when the place has been so packed I can barely hear myself think, I could actually hear the conversation I was having. Sometimes, I just smile and nod when someone is talking to me at these things, not because I agree with what they are saying, but because I can’t hear them. This however, was a show that deserved to drown out my audio receptors.
I made some off-handed joke about dressing that way on purpose, took my beer, and went back to looking at the paintings.
Seventeen in total line the walls. Humble in size, they are eleven by fourteen inches and use acrylic paint and varnish on synthetic paper. Caitlin explained to me that the recessed framing was both aesthetic and functional. Apparently, the works will stick to anything and need the extra inches between their surface and the glass in order to breathe. I like this idea of breathing paintings and the implicit act of living it brings to them.
There’s been a lot of talk and anxiety lately about the disembodiment of the body through technology. Hito Steyerl mentions it several times in his book The Wretched of The Screen, and it is central to Mark B.N. Hansen’s line of thought in his text New Philosophy for New Media. The general concern is that through technologies such as smart phones the screen mediates the human experience and as such, the body becomes a cyborg governed by external apparatuses. While this may sound like the work of science fiction, have you ever noticed how cell phones have changed the way people stand in public?
I see Caitlin’s paintings as engaging with this anxiety in their overt references to the human body through the traditional—and almost anti-technological—medium of painting. But those references are not pictorial. Instead, through palette and mark alone they push the delicacy of the human body to the forefront so as to remind their viewers of the inconsistencies of human experience. Here, the tension of subject-hood is meditated on. Here, the corpus is opened.
The opening of the body exposes its fragility. Reading these paintings as referencing the remains of such encounters I mentioned the term “abject” to Caitlin. She’d heard it before but wasn’t sold on the idea. I explained that it is more than just vomit and feces. Julia Kristeva defines the term as a psychically charged substance which exists somewhere between a person and a thing. It is at the same time alien and intimate to us. It exposes our fragility, and it reminds us of the weak division between what is inside and what is outside our body. Abjection is a condition in which subjecthood fidgets in a state of anxiety.
Utilizing a “specific color symbology as a means to interpret diseases of the brain and internal organs,” and wishing “to represent the quiet panic of the disordered mind and the beautiful decay of the diseased body,” these paintings illuminate Kristeva’s concerns. Blots and smears of reds, pinks, and beige reveal both the alien and the intimate, and the subtle delicateness of the vessel that is the human body.
And apparently, this kind of work makes some people uneasy or bored. I noticed that more people were standing outside Pump drinking the free beer than inside looking at the paintings. I wandered out of the gallery and into the crowd, catching the eye of one of these art-viewers-from-afar. Walking up to him, I asked what he thought of the show.
“Seems kinda…” he paused looking at me like he was waiting for me to finish the sentence. I had a suspicion of where he was going with this, but I was going to make him say it.
“Kind of what? Red?”
“You know…” he paused again and looked back towards the open gallery door. I kept looking at him with a dumb expression on my face.
“You excited for the new Game of Thrones?” he suddenly asked.
“I can’t say I watch it,” I said.
This was so typical. Here we are at a show that had some very overt references to what it’s dealing with, and one of these “hip” Austinites is either too embarrassed or too insecure to talk about it. Was he afraid he was going to be offensive if he said “feminine, blood, menstruation?” God, I weep for the women’s lib movement sometimes, I really do.
Later that night I was at a house party watching old black and white movies on a make shift projector screen that had been tied up between two lampposts in the living room. We were watching the 1931 Frankenstein staring Boris Karloff as the monster. The sound was off, and different people were adding running commentary as the film played on.
I watched with a bit of sorrow as the monster lashed out at fire (that first technology gifted by Prometheus), unknowing drowned the young girl, and ultimately met his end. This is a movie where the villain isn’t really a villain. He’s more like a big anachronism that cannot adapt to the world he’s brought into despite his best attempts. He struggles with the world and its customs while being controlled by them—those apparatuses changing his mood and posture. This is a movie about failure, fragility, and the runaway of technology. Despite the monster’s colossal stature, his inability to comprehend his context make him as frail as a sick child or dying parent in the ICU. In that way, we can share a common ground with him. And again, the machines come into play as they control and expose that fragility.
Even further for the monster, he was the result of technology. He was the conclusion of Dr. Frankenstein’s desire to play god and to animate disembodied flesh into re-bodied animate. But he was a failure, and he showed us that once one is disembodied there is little hope for a successful reattachment. Like Caitlin’s paintings that rely on the push and pull of color, the monster appears as that nervous subject fidgeting in a state of constant anxiety, and the real horror he reveals is the precarious de-subjectification we face every day when we first wake up, turn to that glowing screen on our night stand, and swipe its smooth surface.
Posted 22nd April 2015 by Arnold, H.C.