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May 15, 2004

Stray Show Assessment (sort of)

I'd meant to get to some Art Chicago and Stray Show highlights before the shows ended, but I've been slacking a bit on it. (Anyways, I didn't make it out to 1418 N. Kingsbury until Stray closing day last Sunday.) Nevertheless... Real Art Chicago highlights (as opposed to the preview rundown) should be forthcoming, but let's get this started with the Stray Show. (If you haven't yet, do read Caryn Coleman's overview at the Art Weblog.)

For starters (and only a year after the fact) an opening rant about Stray Show 2003 [If you'd like, you can skip this appetizer and head straight for the meat].

As much as some gallerists wish to eschew the "Stray" tag, many of the participants nonetheless seem to enjoy positioning themselves in opposition to the mainstream affair, hyping the show as young, hip and edgy alternative to Art Chicago, something for the outsiders. Frankly such claims to 'underground'-ness would be more compelling were the Stray Show not the step-child of an institutional market behemoth, and, moreover, any claims to 'freshness' might satisfy were the work actually as fresh as the hype is heavy. (But, of course, freshness as a virtue in art, even when achieved, is generally short-lived.)

The plain fact is I didn't see anything at the 2003 Stray Show that I really liked all that much. (While I'm as amused as anyone by it, I found myself quite disappointed when the true highlight of the show proved to be Jimi's jimmy.) My real quarrel, however, was with a more general attitude that was on display. And my negative reaction on this count was quite visceral.

As my memory banks have it (admittedly, my memory has, on occasion, proven an unfair mistress and so my generalizations may be unfair) the show was dominated by the curatorial equivalent of snapshot photography and post-it note conceptualism: an evident push-pin salon aesthetic that wears its casualness as a badge of radicality, but mostly serves to disengage and frustrate.
These were overwhelmingly manic, unfocused and crowded displays that offered, at a glance, all the signifiers of vitality and alterity—haphazard, borderline anti-aesthetic productions that seem to scream, 'we do institutional critique up hardcore.' And in the end, to put it crudely, the theatricality of display foregrounded itself at the expense of art and the artist. Mining the residue of fashionable postmodern thought, these tactics seemed designed to simply try patience and foil attempts to give the artwork the consideration it deserves. And, when the work itself more often than not proves to be of a lazy, throw-away variety that so well matches such a curatorial style, such effort on my part feels ultimately wasted.

It wouldn't have been so bad, I think, if it weren't for the apparent appeals to the notions of authenticity and vitality that always cling to the self-consciously 'underground', the oppositional pose that says, 'we're so much better than all those fetishists down at the Pier'. This is to say, I do not take issue with either such casual or brash approaches to art or display necessarily, but rather with the implicit ideology that promotes such schemes as inherently better, or at least freer, than sedate traditional forms, whether by virtue of some purported critique or pretense of subterfuge, or by dint of a deeper contemporary relevance.

Beyond the specificities of an homage to punk DiY raunch or the aesthetics of ephemera, this is merely the familiar contemporary iconoclasm that trades the fetishization of the well-formed image for the fetishization of display, the fetishization of the whole for that of the fragment (or of the 'moment' or 'gesture'). And, insofar as it offers forth political ambitions, it betrays a classic avant-garde idealism that rarely pans out: if only we could release our art from its frame or from the conventions of traditional display it could be free to wreak its revolutionary havoc all over your bourgeois ass. The diminished remains of '68, I suppose.

The desire behind this, it would seem, is to deny the basic similarity that exists between the Stray Show and Art Chicago. But this is also, as it turns out, to deny the real value of the show: namely, providing a venue for emerging galleries and alternative spaces, and underrepresented artists who might lose out in the marketplace of cash and clout, held in conjunction with, and hopefully benefiting from, the hype surrounding Art Chicago. (Whether this logic pans out, I'm in no position to judge. Still, kudos to Thomas Blackman for continuing to provide the venue. While I certainly don't have access to TBA's books, I'd feel safe assuming that the Stray Show is not the big cash cow of their various productions, either in terms of cash collected at the gate or in terms of exhibition fees. I'd frankly be surprised if they didn't lose a bit on this.) Yes, the artists at the Stray Show are younger, the galleries newer. There's no doubt that many of these represents art's future, if only by virtue of the calculus of age. But to declare it representative of some 'future wave' is to yoke it with far too heavy a burden. Bottom line: it's just another fucking art show, guys. (Of course, if this is the case, why is a totally separate show even necessary?)

Anyways, this all begs the question: where do we stand this year? In many ways, it was more of the same. The busy display of Fresh Up Club's bright kitsch salon, for example, drew me in with high hopes, but I'd be hard pressed to say I liked, let alone remember, anything I saw; I had a similar reaction to General Store. But, generally speaking, it was a rather improved exhibition this go 'round. While the signal-to-noise ratio was often still out of control and a good deal of work was of the rough and ready variety Stray Show 2004 witnessed, at least to my eye, greater variety and depth across the board. And many of last year's Stray offenders, relocated in '04 to the Big Show, also offered up some pretty decent stuff down in Invitational row. Some even had, gasp, horror, framed works on display.

(Maybe I'm wrong, maybe this year's no different from last. Maybe it's just me that changed. But really, how likely is that?)

At any rate, my verdict: though I still had to dig through some noise and fluff, most of the work was reasonably good, some was pretty fantastic (some god-awful), with the real dazzlers (naturally) few and far between. So, without too much further bloviation, a fistful of Stray highlights:

Overheard at Fresh Up Club (Austin)

on the great model protopomo: "Yeah... Duchamp is happenin'"

and how 'bout that Joseph Beuys: "...with all the fat and the felt, he's way out there"

Matthew Suib at Vox Populi (Philly)

Matthew Suib: CockedIt's eyeline match run amok in Matthew Suib's "Cocked", a 10-minute remix of deadly stares, shifty eyes and itchy trigger fingers culled from spaghetti western gunfights. For something as straightforwardly monotonous as this, Suib's video displays a rather sensitive (though limited) development from start to end: the various stages of the showdowns, in all their surprising nuance, are represented by discrete clusters of related shots, both highlighting the sameness of these films as well as illuminating their quiet differences—including, for example, a strikingly subtle series of shots depicting moments where the slightest change in the squint of the actors eyes seems to denote a dramatic shift from a detached alertness to a frightened horror. Again, this is, not surprisingly, a drawn-out and monotonous piece—the only bit of dialogue in the piece is a brief exchange of "Hey"... "Hey"—and, perhaps somewhat surprisingly, offers little by way of climax or payoff for all the built up tension (the climax is there, but it remains minimal), but I still found it quite satisfying in the end.

Hideyuki Sawayanagi at Hiromi Yoshii (Tokyo)

To describe Hideyuki Sawayanagi's "Self-contained" is to ruin the surprise that, in part, makes it so wonderful. Nonetheless, a description is all I offer. This is one pristine mirrored object, at first resembling nothing more than a silver Minimalist box. Close inspection reveals a tiny bit of text engraved at its center: "i love me." The moment you get close enough to read this, however, a bright flash bulb fires from behind what turns out to be a 2-way mirror. As you back away, eyes adjusting, you notice an afterimage etched in blue on your retina: "i love me, too."

Czech and Slovak Staged Photography (Brooklyn)

Vaclav Jirasek: MothThe most cohesive display (though this does not necessarily mean, I hasten to add, the best) was to be found in Anne Arden McDonald's half of a booth split with False Front (Manhattan). This is naturally due to her restricted focus as a dealer/curator of staged and performance-based photography from Slovakia and the Czech Republic. Apparently staged photography in general is a primary interest for McDonald, who found a rather considerable concentration of practitioners of the genre in the former Czechoslovakia. From her website:

Staged photography is born out of boredom or dissatisfaction with the world. The photographer wants to see the world as a place where anything is possible—a place full of more beauty, more meaning, more play, more symbolism. In the face of Communism, these Czech and Slovak artists were escapists and surrealists—dreaming themselves into other realities and making photographic documents of them. Some of them say they are making pataphysical theatre—theatre of the absurd performed for the camera.
Pavel Pecha: My Intuitive Theatre

Daniel Barrow at ThreeWalls (Chicago)

I have to fess up about cheating a bit on this one. ThreeWalls (not to be confused with Three Walls from San Antonio) was showing some work of their artists-in-residence, including a video of a Daniel Barrow performance (a live animation using overhead transparencies). I inquired specifically about a Barrow piece from their early 2004 Middlemanagement-curated exhibit (their inaugural exhibition?), "We Need to Talk: Uneasy Props and Propositions". The fella manning the booth was kind enough to throw on that very DVD for me, so what follows is more of a belated salute to the highlight from that show.

Daniel Barrow: Hillbilly ColourThe video, "Catalog of the Original Trading Cards," is simply a presentation of Barrow's hand-drawn trading cards of the same name, featuring voiceover narration of the text on the cards' versos as well as a fine Casio soundtrack. I find the piece utterly charming. With a clear dandy/queer/kitsch/tragic-outsider theme, the cards feature the likenesses and stories of Dismal Desmond, Scott Thorson, Margaret Keane, Rip Taylor, Wayland Flowers, Charles Nelson Reilly, Liz Renay, Bunny Roger, Kristy McNichol, Little Miss No Name, and Quentin Crisp, and the video is quite fitting. While a tad depressing at points in its brushes with tragedy and death, I'm still not sure what this was doing in a show devoted to "permagoth".

Kim Collmer at Mule (Chicago)

Kim Collmer: Stars of the LidIt's hard to know what to make of Kim Collmer's stop-action animations ("Stars of the Lid", "Mercury Moon", "Warm Jets"), and this, I think, is part of their magic. Featuring glittering, undulating sculptural worlds, overwhelmingly blue, these videos evoke vaguely sci-fi spacescapes. They are also somewhat low-fi, but made with a charmingly evident dedication.

Benjamin Moreau at No Fun (Chicago)

Superheroes and comic books are apparently all the rage. My favorite Stray Show inclusion in this motif were Benjamin Moreau's caped, masked self-portrait (I'm assuming) drawings, e.g., "The Invincible Ben Springs into Action."


Rebecca Wescott: PortraitTrack House: a VW van filled with suckers; guess the number of suckers, win it all.

Sixspace: Richard Colman's fantastic paintings; (overheard at sixspace: someone asking Caryn why she wasn't posting more often)

Telegraph: Haley Bates' funnel-spoon hybrids—dynamic and dialogic objects.

Marc Dennis: Jesus Fucking ChristNew Image Art: Rebecca Wescott's loose portrait paintings and Jim Houser's cartoonish, folksy panels.

ZieherSmith: Javier Pinon's spare "Centaur" collages and cowboy-minotaur cage matches in graphite on canvas banners; Marc Dennis' "Jesus Fucking Christ."

Fahrenheit: "from the collection of Peregrine Honig," a pair of dead fawns; quoth the gallerista, wearily anticipating the obvious: "Yes they're real... yes they're dead."

"Stray Show Assessment (sort of)"
Posted by Dan at 03:40 AM


Referenced in this post:

7a*11d: Daniel Barrow
Anne Arden McDonald
Art Chicago
Art Weblog
Art Weblog: The Stray Show Overview
Behind the Candelabra: My Life With Liberace—Scott Thorson with Alex Thorleifson
CBGB's 313 Gallery: Jim Houser
CNN: Larry King Live—Interview with Scott Thorson
Charles Nelson Reilly Fan Site
Charles Pierce and Wayland Flowers
Crisperanto: The Quentin Crisp Archives
Cynthia P Caster: Jimi Hendrix's Member
Czech and Slovak Staged Photographs
Derek's Dismal Desmond Collection
Dismal Desmond—1926
EBay: Dolls—Little Miss No Name
Fahrenheit Gallery
False Front
GLBTQ: Wayland Flowers
Guardian: Gay ban to end next month—Andy McSmith
Haley Bates and Thomas Lauerman
Hiromi Yoshii
IMDB: Liz Renay
Iconoduel: Rough Guide to Art Chicago 2004
Keane Eyes Gallery
Kim Collmer
Kristy McNichol Fan Site
Kristy McNichol en ik
Marc Dennis
Margaret Keane: My Life as a Famous Artist
Match Game: Charles Nelson Reilly
Melanie's TV Zone: The History of (Wo)man—A Brief History of Trannies
Mr. Breakfast: Breakfasts with Rip Taylor—Nicholas Koyla
New Image Art: Rebecca Wescott and Jim Houser
New Territories 2003: Hideyuki Sawayanagi
No Fun
No Fun: Benjamin Moreau
Other Gallery: Daniel Barrow
Panel-house: We Need to Talk: Uneasy Props and Propositions @ ThreeWalls
Philadelphia Art Alliance: ReVisionist Cinema/Triple Feature—Matthew Suib
Plush: Jim Houser
Quentin Crisp: The Naked Civil Servant
Retro Toys: Little Miss No Name
Rip Taylor.com
Stray Show
Stray Show: Telegraph
Stray Show: Three Walls (San Antonio)
Stray Show: Track House
The Ballad of Little Miss No Name
Velvet Hammer Burlesque: Liz Renay
Vox Populi
Vox Populi: Matthew Suib Bio
Vox Populi: Matthew Suib Images
Weird eBay Finds: Creepy Dolls—Little Miss No Name
White Columns: Kim Collmer
Wikipedia: Charles Nelson Reilly