Tuesday, August 24, 2010
Mind's Eye Witness
Using your memory is the only prerequisite for engaging with the group show, “You Were There,” at Rachel Uffner’s LES gallery this July and August. Curator Thomas Duncan selected two artworks each by artists Rita Ackermann, Justin Adian, Joe Bradley, Sarah Braman, Sara Greenberger Rafferty and Josh Smith: one from five years ago and a current piece for comparison. In keeping with the solipsistic effects of this summer’s heat wave, a reading of the evolution from the earlier work to the latter – a pin-ball like exercise when you take the show as a whole -- is meant to tease a parallel personal retrospection out of the viewer. “Where was I five years ago? How have I changed? What have I learned?”
Smith’s self-consciously painterly paintings are the only two pieces by the same artist shown side-by-side on the same wall, and so they serve as a key for reading the rest of the show: then versus now. His work also sets the overall stylistic tone: what is the least effort that can be made and yet still say something? Iterations and suggestions of the human form inhabit Rafferty’s, Ackermann’s and Bradley’s work; the other artists dwell more in an abstract realm. On the walls encircling Braman’s earnest set of knee-high, tumbling cube sculptures hang three pairs of paintings by Smith, Bradley, and Adian. Rafferty’s comedic and Ackerman’s popular fable work spar at the door and at the far end of the gallery. Scanning the show, you might be able to conclude, for example that Smith now voices his concerns more directly; or Braman has found more permanence and Bradley has learned to trust the human touch.
Five years is a meaningful span, Duncan told me, because it is long enough to remember and yet not too long to forget. The past is a construct formulated through the rolling lens of the present. Different distances at different speeds traveled within the same time span. We can know that for these particular artists the last five years have taken them from the early stages of their art careers to the next milestone (although Ackermann has had a bit of a head start.) The audience will have their own five years to dig into – wherever it may sit on their life’s number line -- and Duncan proposes that the fruits of the show lie in mirroring these impressions back on the show’s six youthful fictions.
The curator has successfully orchestrated the idea of multiple personal stories into the experience of reading the show. The under-built, barely held-together aesthetic heightens the fascination and reinforces the link to fleeting qualities associated with memory. Relinquishing to a purely formal reading reveals attractive cross-artist coincidences of color, form, and finish as the show’s visual underpinning. The pleasure of the making these surprising material connections has the feeling of a personal epiphany. This aspect of experiencing the show is more credible than any interpretation of a specific artist’s recent personal awakening, especially as it might relate to one of our own.
Any references to national or world events that have affected the artists’ or our own individual experiences over the last five years are underplayed here. They are perceptible, however, in the ways they have been integrated into the recent changes in our own lives and revealed in our own personal meditations on measuring how far we’ve come, successes and failures, beginnings and endings. This may explain the overall transient, purposeful lack-of-commitment attitude of the work. It matches the feeling of flux and instability of our times. In this regard, time and perhaps personal memory is evoked by “You Were There.”
The Rachel Uffner Gallery is a typical LES space -- for the time being, anyway. It is a small storefront with scuffed plywood floors and remnants of the old, decorative, red and white tile “welcome mat” still evident outside the front door. It opened in 2008 – midway through the show’s conceptual time frame. More polished – and distancing -- white cube galleries are getting increasingly easier to come by in her neighborhood. Maybe only within the artworld is this evolution dependable.
The already precious feeling of the space reinforces Duncan’s idea for the show. We can imagine a time in the near future, when the LES will be unrecognizable, Uffner will have moved to larger quarters, and the picture of an intimate, roughly finished interior filled with mid-summer afternoon sunlight will mark a lost moment. This palpable nostalgia for our own recent past is encouraged in “You Were There.” Beyond the artwork shown, Rachel Uffner’s gallery itself becomes fused with the show’s premise. Against a backdrop of change, what you can count on is the value of experiencing art.
Above installation image of the exhibition "You Were There," at Rachel Uffner Gallery with artwork by (from left to right) Joe Bradley, Rita Ackermann, Sarah Braman and Sara Greenberger Rafferty courtesy of Rachel Uffner Gallery.