Imperfect Tools for Navigation
AMERICAN MEDIUM | JANUARY 10 - FEBRUARY 4, 2018
Curated by High-Tide
Curated by the Philadelphia-based artist-run space High-Tide gallery and hosted by American Medium, Imperfect Tools for Navigation showcases the work of three intermedia artists working in disparate formats; Devin Morris shows photography and collage, James Bouché employs digital fabrication methods, and Jared Rush Jackson works with video. These artists confuse existing genres—editorial photography, metal music, commercial art direction—by fraying the edges of their corresponding formal vernaculars. Apparel becomes drape, which in turn becomes a kind of topography. A graphic tee becomes an encryption technology. Branded logos are used to complicate, rather than epitomize identity.
Devin Morris’s photographs—self-described as at least partially inspired by “his later experiences navigating the world as a black queer man”—are of young black men against improvised backdrops of stretched fabric. One stands, arms raised in a boxer’s stance, wearing a white cropped tunic. There’s an allusion to the vernacular of editorial photography, insofar as the textiles contour, complicate, and contextualize the silhouette of the figure; that said, there are no brands here. The form of the fold—mobilized by Gilles Deleuze as a model for imagining and critiquing the process of subject-production—competes with the models as the focus of the images. Morris regards fabric as a vessel for memory; to me, drapery in its manifold forms—veils, curtains, rags, flags, tents—can constitute a terrain upon which racial insiders versus outsiders are disputed. Geographer Arun Saldanha’s framing of race as a machinic assemblage comes to mind; Saldanha writes in Reontologising race: the machinic geography of phenotype, “race should not be eliminated, but proliferated, its many energies directed at multiplying racial differences so as to render them joyfully cacophonic.” In Rahm 1, the model, wearing tight red pants and an oversized golden shawl, leans on a wooden staff; the slightly refractive garment proliferates, potentially forever in an irreducible aggregate of forms upon forms.
The fold reemerges in James Bouché’s Where the Veil is Thin, a wall-vinyl translation of the edge contour of a gossamer fabric. The defining characteristics of the imagined cloth—its translucency, its motion, and its sheen—are reduced and fixed as pure line. Bouché applies a similar treatment in Don’t Piss on My Leg, in which a piece of acrylic is laser-cut and etched to resemble a T-shirt featuring an indecipherable metal logo. In his essay on metal logos, “Crypto Logo Jihad,” Daniel van der Velden, co-founder of the design/research studio Metahaven, traces the fraught emergence of the illegible metal logo, from the typography of the Third Reich to its subsumption into the style of hard rock, before evolving into the spiky, intricate forms that are sometimes caricatured today. Van der Velden also draws a correspondence between the logo-as-password and contemporary forms of encryption like CAPTCHA. A digital object of sorts, Don’t Piss on My Leg is a surrogate for another kind of encrypted object: the T-shirt with its specialized insider ciphers of a particular subculture.
Typographic logos also make an appearance in Jared Rush Jackson’s two video works, titled Carbon and Granite respectively. Spinning outlined wordmarks are plotted along the outside of a circle; one reads SPIRAL LIKE BLACK HAIR, the other REPEAT UNTIL FADE. These slogans are overlaid on top of a screen capture video of a user zooming and scrolling around black-and-white Photoshop documents, one labeled hair_study_006.jpg the other cryptically titled 010513.psd. The images, themselves abstractions of hair and other organic matter, are periodically interrupted by other collaged video elements—a detail of what looks like the collar of a leather jacket, a sad-face drawn on the signature line of an iPad check-out app, maybe a scanned wallet. Like Morris’s- work, the piece stylistically draws from the vernacular of commercial design (the collage work of Brooklyn-based designer/artist Hassan Rahim comes to mind). Instead of communicating one thing (a brand identity) there’s a kind of proliferation of symbols and linguistic association; REPEAT UNTIL FADE might refer to the audio of Carbon—a repeated loop of what sounds like someone clicking play on a short MIDI loop on a computer—or to black hairstyles, or to both (à la the prolific genre-defying musician Dean Blunt’s Skin Fade Album). Meanwhile, the voiceover to Granite—an indignant repetition of two voices saying “yes” and “no” at the same time—speaks to a sort of stasis. Viewing and hearing Granite invokes a similar feeling to taking an automated peripheral visual field test; the eye’s focus stays central while various stimuli test the integrity of peripheral vision with varying visual and auditory intensities.
Prolonged interrogation reveals that the works in Imperfect Tools For Navigation do not just operate in service of wayfinding, as the press release explicates, but as spaces to be navigated themselves. Bouché’s Where the Veil Is Thin exemplifies this spatializing tendency; in an economical manner, it effectively imposes dimensionality on the gallery wall. Despite consisting of only planar works, Imperfect Tools For Navigation should be understood as a series of imagined spaces constituted through Jackson’s layered topographies, Morris’ placeless tapestry forts, and Bouché’s surrogate gestures. Within each space, recognizable genres are stretched, inverted, exaggerated, and confused.
Vijay Masharani (b. 1995) is an artist and writer. He lives and works in Queens.