Eunice Kim and Joe Bradley
Joy to the Max
We have mice
From Tara Donovan’s Styrofoam cups to Scott Hug’s bedroom installation, the banal materials of everyday life appear everywhere as art these days. Sometimes transformed into large abstract gestures and sometimes only slightly altered like the doodles of a bored teenager, quotidian stuff is being fused with installation and sculptural practice by a lot of younger artists. But where artists like Banks Violette, Cady Noland, and Daniel Reich’s stable maintain a distinction between the art object (salable and discrete) and the space of presentation, two recent shows move to blur the boundaries. Eunice Kim's and Joe Bradley’s collaborative domestic environmental installation "Joy to the Max" and Ward Shelley’s live-in installation at Pierogi We have mice both fuse the everyday as embodied by ordinary materials, with a theatrical quality that recalls the rich complexities of arte povera artists— like Jannis Kounellis, who once turned a gallery into a stable with live horses, and Pino Pascali, whose “Little Theater” literally turned art into a stage— in a challenge to the viewer to see beyond objects.
Walking into Eunice Kim's and Joe Bradley’s collaborative installation, my first instinct was that I had made a mistake; that somehow I had walked into a storefront that someone had appropriated for domestic purposes, not the small East Village gallery that a friend recommended. There’s no sign for the ATM Gallery: no letters etched in glass and no immaculately embossed placard, just the generic ATM machine mounted in the gallery’s storefront, the proceeds of which help fund the small funky space on Avenue B. The front room was filled with domestic debris. Not the kind of junk you find at a flea market, but the kind of junk that some people might call trash. Big squares of cardboard lined the walls; an uneven rectangle of gray industrial carpeting with fraying edges sort of covered the floor, which was piled high with broken chairs and bisected by strings hung from the ceiling with a purple and brown piñata and a soft purple ornament. There were cigarette butts and pistachio shells collected in neat little piles.
In the gallery’s larger backroom, the color scheme shifted from drab browns and grays to primary reds and blues, and the junk accumulations were more varied. Drooping tinsel in red, gold, and silver hung over a pathetic little Christmas tree with a pile of dead needles scattered around, while collage doodles of tinsel and paper cut outs adorned the walls. One day that I stopped by, there were candles lit, empty wine bottles sitting in a useless fireplace, crushed better cans lay in a little heap, a hot plate and a big pot filthy from a popping corn experiment gone wrong gave off a pungent scent, and a bunch of guys sat around drinking beers. Another day, one young man ate greasy smelling takeout and pointed me toward a cardboard box sat on the floor full of key chains with the message “please take one” scrawled in black magic marker. Although the back wall read “Don’t Let the Good Times Get You Down” which led one critic to call the show “the morning after a Christmas from hell or maybe a crime scene,” the place looked more like the home of a struggling artist, the battleground between found art supplies and social idleness; the attempt to wrest joy from the messy struggle to make art in a urban environment that is not always hospitable.
As in much contemporary installation art from Jessica Stockholder to Pipilotti Rist, "Joy to the Max" has more to do with painting than with sculpture. On one level, references to painting abound. A blue monochrome canvas presided over the scene, echoed by an allover red painting hung askance and smeared with black soot that mirrored the red union suit hung on a clothesline. Best of all was the roll of toilet paper mounted knee high on one wall, which worked both as an allusion to Richter and to the material reality of consumption. On another level, the scene is illusionistic and the artists ask you to buy into their make believe world of detritus. In "Joy to the Max," the aesthetic of pathetic beauty becomes a stage set or an environment in which the viewer experiences the space rather than the objects within it.
The use of space for living and working is also at the heart of "We Have Mice," a month long “residency” by Ward Shelley at Pierogi. A fusion of performance and installation, Shelley has been living inside the walls of the gallery for a month, and slowly transforming the space from the inside out. At first glance, the gallery appears almost empty save for an oddly perched armchair and makeshift milk crate ottoman facing away from a cluster of TVs perched up near the ceiling around a wooden beam in a Matthew Barney-esque arrangement. The monitors alternate between pre-recorded footage of Shelley working in the gallery and the live surveillance feed of the installation space, which is a Shelley trademark. Watching the odd, sort of boring videos, I started to notice other signs of his infestation: sections of the wall cut out and glued back with yellowish goo oozing from the seams, little pieces of paper stuck to tongue depressors that said things like “Self-criticism just isn’t sexy. I don’t know why.” Combing the walls of the gallery for further “signs” of life and art was both surprising and amusing, both humbly earnest and searching.
During January, I obsessively logged onto Pierogi’s website to “watch” Shelley’s installation progress, particularly at odd hours like early in the morning and late at night, but really nothing much happened. Aside from getting a good look at the cramped living quarters that Shelley constructed, mostly I just found more aphorisms. On January 23, the t-shirt for the day read: “It is not so good for the world that you are rich.” An index card by a TV monitor inside the wall reads “Eating is always in fashion,” while a placard in Shelley’s lair says, “I won’t eat much.” The contrast between the junk aesthetic inside the walls, cluttered spaces filled with Shelley’s equipment and weird constructed figures of foam and wire, and the empty, but infiltrated space of the gallery hints questions about the limits of domestic and commercial space, the relationship between living and working, while the literalness of the installation space and the aphorisms seems appropriately small.
At a moment when artists are capitalizing on the everyday, both "We Have Mice" and "Joy to the Max" consider the economics of space through its transformation into art. Both installations explore art as experience, not of objects, but of the condition of artistic practice cohabitating with domestic experience in an urban environment that may appear not to have room for art, but which actually provides inspiration in its limitations. Their materials are systems, chaotic, dirty, and solipsistic, but incessantly joyful.