Couldn't Get Ahead
IAS, LondonFrieze, Issue 23, Jul-Aug 1995
'In nineteen sixty Pollock told Greenberg how much he liked Take Five jazzman Dave Brubeck. Greenberg organised a lunch that ended up in unexpected acrimony. Much later the same happened. Greenberg introduced Mike Kelley to his hero Mark E. Smith of the Fall. Smith shouted at Kelley don't patronise me you fucking arty tosser'. Well, that's Bob & Roberta Smith's version of events, written in green, pink and orange lettering and pasted onto a white wooden board. Unexpected Acrimony (Text) (1995) sets the tone of irreverence, towards both the art object and the art world, which continues healthily throughout the exhibition. Art jokes abound in the Smiths' work:
'I asked J. Beuys if he had updated his computer.
Yeah, he said, "Ja, I painted it blue". You told me already.'
This mocking is a freeing - the title is Emancipate (1995) - and not a hatred of art. It's just that if you talk about art every day, then you can't always do so in a hushed voice. An irreverent attitude toward institutions is equally evident in the work of the three Americans that Adam McEwen has invited to mix it up with the Brits.
Georgina Starr's new work, Visit to a Small Planet (1995), is concerned with personal experiences, memories and fantasies as opposed to the more social concerns of the other artists. Starr's link with the other exhibitors is her willingness to go out and solve problems for herself, undaunted by a lack of the right equipment. Indeed, not having the right equipment can often produce interesting results: Starr has made her own chroma key special effects by painting both herself and her backdrop a particularly ludicrous blue. In the final photographs, she abandons the video effect of invisibility, preferring the sight of her blue face, looking like it thinks that it can't be seen, poking out from under an orange helmet.
In Abandoned House #7 (1995), Sam Durant takes the iconic Californian Dream House - low, minimal, glass and concrete West Coast Bauhaus circa 1960 - and turns it into an architect's model constructed from foam board, cardboard and plexiglass. Standing atop four doweling rods, it is nearly elegant when seen from a distance. Close-up, you can see that both the 'concrete' and 'glass' walls have been riddled with mock bullet holes. Durant shows us that he respects 'Good Craft' as much as he respects 'Good Design' by the use of some truly crap modelling techniques - both the house, and the Modernist fantasy that created it are in a state of some abandon.
More low-tech institutional critique can be found in Proposal for Alternative Seating in Airplanes (1995) a collection of photocopied plan-views of the Boeing 767-200 luxury liner, collaged with new seating arrangements by Andrea Bowers. Instead of the rigidly laid out class system, why not try the scattered Pillows or Beanbag chairs? My favourite is the Swivel chairs layout in which the Standard Class seats are arranged facing inward in five circles, and the five First Class passengers are confined to swivel chairs at the centre of each circle. When faced with multinationals like Boeing, what can you do but put together little photocopies of dissent? It may not alter the status quo, but it makes you feel a whole lot better.
Of course, if you have the means, you may find it more effective to take direct action, like Robert Gunderman. Reproduced in the catalogue is a copy of a fax, which describes the work Why Aren't Ill-Mannered Dealers (Directors) Beaten, or Even Killed? (1992), sent to Herb Schwartz, director of the Bess Cutler Gallery. Gunderman alleges that he was treated badly by the gallery and goes on to propose, in great detail, an artwork that involves shooting Schwartz in the head on June 11th, 1992. Gunderman had previously spent two years in the US Army as a small-arms expert, and rather enjoyed the knowledge that Schwartz was aware of this. When the appointed day arrived, so did Gunderman. So did the police. When Gunderman mounted the roof of the gallery opposite and began announcing, with the aid of a megaphone, just what he thought of Schwartz, the police ended the performance by placing a restraining order on him. The completion of the work, involving varnishing the remains of Schwartz' head to the wall and documenting it, has not yet been carried out.
Another Gunderman work reproduced in the catalogue - which also includes a CD featuring work by the artists - shows one of the flyposters that he placed around the streets of Los Angeles. It reads: 'Lost. Desire to participate. Goes by the name of 'Compromise'. If found please call: Bob 213 661-9813'. This shows his characteristic refusal to play the game that, if you're male, white and lucky, wins you the American Dream. This is a prize already won by the large businessman in Gunderman's photograph Happy Man (1996) - yes, Gunderman dates his work a year in advance. You get the impression that delivering small projectiles into this face would make Bob a happy man.
This is art as a survival tactic; self-defence against the crap pouring out of the mass communication media every day. It would be interesting to know what Gunderman would have made of the government official on television today, expressing dismay that anyone could bomb Oklahoma as it was an 'innocent state'. I would fear for the TV set. The feel of this show is very much that of artists doing whatever they want to do, for no other reason than that they want to do it - need to do it. Like the garage bands that many of these artists belong to, if there's interest in what they do, then that's great; but if not, it won't stop them. They use whatever is around to put their point across, and rawness is part of that message. But how long until art like Robert Gunderman's is institutionalised by, say, a Benetton ad? Maybe the newspaper clipping in Bob and Roberta Smith's Emancipate has the answer: 'In ten years' time you'll know'.
text copyright david barrett
images copyright the artists