Outpostby William Powhida
Curated by Ada Chisholm
Smack Mellon Gallery
As the title implies, the artists in Outpost are looking for new territory in contemporary art. Largely made up of videos, performances, and installations, the unexpected use of technology is another dominant theme in this exploratory show at Smack Mellon, an artist’s outpost in DUMBO. While the exhibit succeeds in tapping a vein of new works, the obvious premise is less interesting than the dialogue among the works.
Cory Arcangel and Jason Mombert both deploy irony to explore how artists can use the dominant language of contemporary art to express themselves in ways that are sincere, devoid of the nihilistic cynicism common in much postmodern artwork. This isn’t wholly apparent in Arcangel’s video installation, “Data Diaries,” where text files are run through Quicktime to create colorful, abstract video footage. Arcangel’s most compelling piece was his Powerpoint and electric guitar performance at the exhibit’s opening, where he gave a self-reflexive, deadpan presentation on Eddie Van Halen’s guitar soloing techniques. Arcangel was so completely absorbed in the subject he performed three specific Van Halen solos, offering the crowd his bloody finger tips as evidence of his hard work mastering the solos. Any sense of smirking irony was banished, though Arcangel used preemptive humor to deflect the audience from sensing the absurdity of the performance. Mombert’s piece consists of a pink room that is equal parts altar and party den, housing a video installation emblazoned with the title “New Sincerity.” Twin white televisions present what looks like a video of an art school party, except for a central figure dressed in a white suit serving champagne and pop tarts. Each partygoer then demonstrates some talent until they smash their champagne bottles on the cult-like leader. Mombert’s claim to sincerity is not quite as obvious as Arcangel’s because he applies his irony liberally; balloons, a faux wood floor, and a slowed down hip-hop soundtrack negate any sincere gestures between the characters. Mombert takes reality TV, cults, hip-hop, video, and performance art, and tosses them into a blender with little narrative structure. Both Mombert and Arcangel are trying to invent a new sincerity out of constructive irony, but Mombert’s sense of the absurd is darker and more nihilistic than Arcangel’s. The fact that neither artist presents overblown, mythic nonsense in their attempts at sincere expression is in itself refreshing.
More traditional video and installation dominates much of the show, although eTeams’s interactive desert scene uses new technology in a hip step-up from the digital put-your-face-here T-shirt booths that have replaced airbrush shops in malls across America. Greg Simsic’s video installation sprawls across several television screens piled on top of folding tables and presents what may be the artist’s daydream of perpetual motion. The low-tech presentation works in favor of the even lower-tech moments caught on tape: a bouncing ball, a snaking water hose, a spinning chair, a falling piece of wood. All of the events and some still shots have the appearance of being linked together through quick editing, and the rapid-fire sequence creates an almost romantic illusion out of extremely banal events. Less original still in the context of an experimental show is Amy Barkow’s video of the empty space behind one of the gallery walls. In “Sculpture for a Corner” the space is shown on small monitor to the right of the empty hole where one can also look into the empty space. There is little mystery involved, and the piece is strongly reminiscent of Nauman’s famous “see the back of your head” video. Chad Silver’s video, “Untitled (Bedroom),” on the other hand, is a funny tour of the artist’s messy lair in search of interesting characters, although it was a little hard to hear the running commentary from the television that was inexplicably smoking.
Lynn Sullivan’s monochrome sculptures of a cellar door, “Gravely Wondering,” and an empty billboard space, “Listen to the Universe,” attempt to confuse reality with artifice. The cellar door is utterly out of place, and while it doesn’t actually open, it succeeds in evoking a suburban sense of security. The empty billboard serves as a negative space for projection, creating an introspective minimalism that is also present in Barkow’s video installation. Clare Churchhouse’s mixed media wall installation, “Spaces that People Inhabit (In Plan),” addresses architecture and space, but is an odd selection for the show, since her work largely consists of wall drawings. Churchhouse admirably pushes drawing into architectural and sculptural installation in ways similar to Diana Cooper’s imaginative sculptural worlds. Her internal systems—pipes, electricity, numbers, nature—create an interconnectivity that has an analog symmetry with Simsic’s video work. Both works suggest causal relationships in the carefully fabricated, closed environment of the artists’ imagination.
With Outpost, Smack Mellon continues its history of showing interesting contemporary art through Chilsom’s noble if almost impossible curatorial ambition of finding work that exists on the fringes of accepted artistic practice. Every artist in the show displays thoughtful and intelligent connections with contemporary art history, and the exhibit avoids any hint of trying to achieve newness by appropriating an “outsider art” label. This is a show of young, emerging artists to watch, to see how far they will take their ideas into unfamiliar territory.