On ViewDerek Eller
July 7 – 31, 2020
A group of apes is called a shrewdness; a group of camels a caravan; a group of crows a murder; unfortunately, we have no such fun collective nouns to describe groups of paintings and sculptures—an exhibition? A suite? The group of works at the center of this exhibition is called Wolf Tones II. It sprawls out in the middle of the gallery, almost consisting of too many parts to list effectively. An attempt: fleets of wooden and painted knives, like schools of anchovy on shards of glass. Legions of canvases stand upright on thread spools like meerkats at attention (a mob of meerkats). A drum stand serves as a pedestal under a ceramic blob cast from clay and wrapped in fabrics and rubber bands with little metal stubs like legs. Painted oil drums and a long metal crane leans nearby. Colorful patchwork accumulations of yarn, fabric, clay sculptures, knits, and gauzy strips rest on the floor. Like the lid of a Michaels craft store joyously cracked open.
The show is a collaboration between artists Nancy Shaver, Max Goldfarb, and Sterrett Smith. In their artist statement, they suggest that this collection of objects convenes like an “exquisitely discordant" set of sounds, known as a wolf tone to musicians. It is telling that the most immediate means of writing about these works is as pseudo-animate beings, like animals or critters with their own volition. This makes their arrangement even more peculiar, as if we were walking into an elaborate set-design for an arts and crafts watering hole. This mild animism is not-so-subtly referenced by the presence of several Buddhist figurines, two of which are intact, one of which is decapitated on its side. These religious figurines nod to other modes of engaging with objects—totems, icons, altars—to suggest that maybe art objects are not so distinct.
Hung on the wall opposite to Wolf Tones II is a constellation of quilted paintings, arranged as if mid-run in a game of Tetris. They sit comfortably between painting and sculpture. Mostly blue, for E.G. (2020) plays humorously with this ambiguity, looking like a painting and also a bookcase of paint colors. On its right side, you can see that the shelves are wooden paint boxes stacked one on top of the other, the “B.P.S. Paints” label visible. In case you had any delusions about what you were looking at (“What you see is what you see”), they’re boxes of paint…in boxes of paint. This kind of visual punning lends an irreverence and a light heartedness to the show, which has a frenetic, convivial energy.
I associate many of the objects in this show with a certain cultural whiteness, something I can only couch in personal terms growing up as an immigrant going up to my white friends’ fancy houses. It’s where things were for display but not for use (I have several Buddha statues in my house, but that’s because I’m Theravada Buddhist and my parents give them offerings): Arts and crafts, Buddha statues (used a-religiously), floral wallpaper, “formal” living rooms rigidly set up but that we never use, art for art’s sake, long necklaces, flowy dresses, NPR, shore houses, lake houses, Connecticut, Easter…in another view, the show is like stumbling into the artfully arranged flotsam on the shore of that cultural milieu.
What sort of abundance am I being presented with? Am I shopping? Am I hoarding? In the context of an art gallery, the rigid formal constraints curtail the otherwise wild variety between the works. It comes off as a restrained mania. With all the other associations, I felt like I was back in the “living rooms we never use.” Amongst the crowds of objects, I thought about the way my parents have hoarded since they arrived in America. Hoarding, depending on who you ask, might fill you with claustrophobia or comfort. It’s a way to ward off a future of uncertainty, to prepare for every situation. Not-hoarding means a certain faith in the stability of your wellbeing into the future, that things will be alright—you can throw that plastic bag out because there will always be another. This text, prompted by this show, is maybe also another form of hoarding: a beautiful collaboration, a Monstrous Beauty, wry visual puns, “living rooms we never use,” a litany of cultural whiteness, a pride of lions, an art exhibition.