If you’ve been in a museum and seen someone sigh and move off quickly from a text-heavy or narrative-based artwork, then you probably understand the self-deprecating humor behind Western Exhibitions’ current group show, “People don’t like to read art.”
Showing sixteen artists that incorporate text into their work, many of the artists seem to purposely resist the quick look common to museum visits or gallery hopping, forcing the viewer to spend some time with the work. Some of the works require interaction, like turning pages, bringing one further into a sense of intimacy with the art.
Andy Moore. John's Luv. 2003-2010. Mixed media. Image courtesy of the artist and Western Exhibitions.
It’s impossible not to feel a connection while leafing through Andy Moore’s thick book, John’s Luv (2003-2010), a definite highlight of the exhibition and a work that could easily take hours exploring. The book itself defies the category "artist's book," which still seems too reproducible for this unique multi-media endeavor. Every page is illuminated in a variety of styles and media, which unexpectedly recalls the work of William Blake. Bandaged with tape and subjected to revisions upon revisions, like memory itself, the book chronicles John’s life and his attempts come to grips with the biggest questions in life: God, death, relationships to loved ones and the community, art and how to live in a conscious way. The narrative is so honest, so personal (see above image) that it is hard to tell where John leaves off and Moore begins, which is a part of the point.
Rachel E. Foster. This Print . . . . Embossed paper print. Edition of three. Image courtesy of the artist and Western Exhibitions.
Rachel E. Foster, a San Francisco-based artist, shows two intriguing works that look at language itself. Surprisingly, she was one of the few artists to go that route. This Print . . . is an embossed print of Braille script, paradoxically enclosed within a glass frame rendering it unreadable to everyone except those who can read Braille by sight. Isolating the text within a frame isolates the use value from the exhibition value, making the object aesthetic rather than informational to most viewers.
Foster’s The Speech That Was Never Read (2010) is a video of text that scrolls upwards like a teleprompter. The text itself is taken from a never-read speech written by William Safire for Richard M. Nixon in the event of a disaster on the Apollo 11 mission that took Neil Armstrong and Edwin “Buzz” Aldrin to the moon. Looking back at a history that never was, one is grateful that we remember “One small step for man,” rather than Nixon’s speech which is rife in cliché: “in their sacrifice, they bind more tightly the brotherhood of man;” “These two men are laying down their lives in mankind's most noble goal: the search for truth and understanding.” Language forms history, and we are better off that Armstrong’s words formed ours.
Since this exhibition was announced, I had been anticipating seeing a new chapter from Deb Sokolow’s epic project. Chapter 5. They meant for it to fail (2011) is the newest installment in Sokolow’s book-that-will-never-exist, which details a vast conspiracy that sweeps from why more restaurants don’t serve noodles in brown sauce, to international-style architecture, to the Denver International Airport. Chapter 5 focuses on the Denver International Airport and an episode where the new baggage claim system was demonstrated for the press. Described in Sokolow’s signature sense of humor, the baggage system apparently malfunctioned and caught on fire in front of the precise people you would want to impress. The result of this debacle was that more money was funneled into the airport to “fix” the problem, but really it went into an underground bunker built for the New World Order, leading into other chapters that Sokolow has already created. I asked Sokolow at the opening about the relation of the six smaller works accompany Chapter 5 to the larger project, but she is waiting to see how or if they are connected. It struck me that just as I was searching out connections between artworks, so conspiracy theorists were searching out connections between events. Are art critics and art historians conspiracy theorists? It does not seem to be a big stretch.
Pulling from his daily drawing blog Coco River Fudge Street, David Leggett presented four drawings, all 2011. Between presenting his own current drawings, Leggett posts “embarrassing old drawings” every Friday, and takes requests, posting the drawings every Tuesday, a project which I have participated in. The request drawings have the tendency to get a bit weird, as in Martin Heidegger and Walter Benjamin grudge match, which features Benjamin shooting bees out of his mouth and Heidegger with laser eyes. That’s what I attribute Bathroom Sink to, which reads, “Bigfoot holding a 1970’s vagina.”
David Leggett. List Show. 2011. Image courtesy of the artist and Western Exhibitions.
Leggett’s List Show details “things I don’t understand,” which includes at the top “Richard Tuttle” and “stripe paintings,” along with “Ke$ha,” “twitter,” “public art,” and “taking america back.” Count me in for also not understanding Ke$ha. Also a list, Where They Do That At requests more of things already at a surfeit: “There needs to be more rap videos in clubs, alcohol, bitches and money. Chicago needs to show more German male inspired art and friend shows.” Both lists come from an obvious insider, though delivered in a crude and crass fashion, knowingly conflating traditional high and low categories yielding works that feel a lot like life.
“People don’t like to read art” is exactly the kind of interesting and fun group show that makes one anticipate the summer. The topic is focused and relevant, the artists are well-selected, and the each artist has enough space. While it would seem that some galleries are taking the summer off, Western Exhibitions is proving that whatever they show is not to be missed.
-Abraham Ritchie, Senior Editor ArtSlant: Chicago
Abraham Ritchie is an art critic living and working in Chicago.