Visual Art 7-19-2003

Art Review: Focus Group; Open Forum: Encampment, at Soap Factory

Michael Fallon roams through the vast and aromatic spaces of the Soap Factory, describing two innovative and engaging shows, which run through August 24.


Sometimes, when the reverie strikes me, I like to think of the recent history of art as a great grudge-match between two wrestling wunderkinder. Ladies and gentleman, tonight’s main event in the center ring is a battle for the WCAF (World Conceptual Art Federation) Heavyweight Championship!  In this corner, dressed in fur-bedecked tights of various fractured colors, and standing in at about 476 pounds, it’s the Champion Chessplayer, the Marauding Mustache, the Death-Dealing Doyen of Dada–Marcel Duchamp! And in this corner, the challenger,  dressed in grey felt loincloth and weighing in at just under 150 pounds, it’s the Golden-Faced Green Party Golden Boy, the Pummeling Planter of Trees, the Little Lord Fauntleroy of Lard — Joseph Beuys!

But seriously. For most of the latter part of the last century–with the egregious exception of the mid-1990s, when artists got all fascinated by the artist gazing out at them in the mirror–the influence of these two artists was unmistakable. The wordsmithy, game-playing, found-object absurdist conceptualism of the French Duchamp inspired a good cross-section of the crowd; while the shamanistic, deep-as-the-ocean art-is-life, life-is-art happenings of the German Beuys inspired most of the rest. This ongoing dichotomy informs the battle royal that has ensued in the current show at No Name Exhibitions. That is, two mutually opposed group exhibitions vie for our attention in the sprawling space of the Soap Factory-with each faction of artists utilizing the moves and strategies taught to them by their great forebears. In one of the three main galleries of the Soap Factory runs the show “Focus Group”; in the other two main galleries is “Open Forum: Encampment.” (Please note: There’s more going on at the Soap Factory than is possible to discuss in one review; I’ll mention them in passing: two solo shows in the two Project Rooms–a zine-line publication by Rob Halverson and eroticish watercolor paintings by Tracy Nakayama–and two video projections in the Video Rooms, by Phil Docken and Deco Dawson. But for the sake of simplicity-and sanity, I’m going to stick to the two main events here.)

Starting with the Duchampian “Focus Group”: This show–curated by Eric Heist and including the artists Tana Hargest, Perry Hoberman, George Kimmerling, David Opdyke, Jacqueline Salloum, Omer Fast, and Peter Scott–is on the whole a too-clever-by-half ironic and satirical look at the stuff of modern life. Like Duchamp, who famously placed a urinal in a show and drew a moustache on a reproduction of the Mona Lisa, these artists cast an insouciant eye over the crap of contemporary life–namely, corporate brand identities, information systems and infographics, and popular media personalities. David Opdyke’s “Vote Your Subconscious,” for instance, is a collection of images that use a grid of 36 national electoral maps. The makeup of the maps–whether or not the states voted red or blue, Democrat or Republican–is not as important as the fact that the grids combine into the composite image of a common brand logo — for McDonald’s, 7UP, Target, and so on. George Kimmerling’s “New Homes for America,” meanwhile,  presents fictional real-estate circulars that pinpoint the locations of sex offenders. Tana Hargest’s “Bitter Nigger” installation includes advertisements selling ironic versions of “blackness.” And so on with the rest.

As with Duchamp, whom I have never much favored as an artist, most of these works can be summed up as a single thought. In Opdyke’s work, elections are corrupted by America’s corporate culture. In Kimmerling’s, Megan’s laws, under which sex offender addresses are made public for life, are unfair. Some of the thoughts are more clever than others, but still they amount mostly to one-liners, and as such are not very interesting. Perhaps the only exception is Omer Fast’s “CNN Concatenation,” a video piece in which a series of CNN anchors and commentators supply one-word quick-takes that stream into oddly fascinating, if ultimately cloying, messages. Here’s what I heard while I stood transfixed in front of the rapid-fire flow of ever-changing talking heads: “If… you… could… rise… above… all… the… junk…. you… would… lead… a… more… meaningful… life.” Sure. Great. Nice message, Omer. Um, what am I supposed to do with it?

“Open Forum: Encampment,” meanwhile, is not the hit-you-in-the-face, tongue-in-cheek romp of “Focus Group.” Instead, it’s a subdued affair of art as ideas-to-change-the-world and of life lived in the gallery. These guys — curator Todd Bockley, and artists Richard Saxton, Matt Ullrich, Stephen Powell, Francois Medion, Jim Northrup (Raymond Grayhair), and Lisa Northrup — are, like Beuys, artist shamans, intent on making the world a better, more sustainable place to live. (Beuys once ran for the German parliament as the Green Party candidate and mounted a tree-planting project, among numerous other political acts.) What this amounts to at the Soap Factory is a kind of art-village. There are tents mounted on platforms in the gallery for artist living space. Sinks are attached by a tangle of pipes to a mossy plastic pool of plants and an ad hoc natural water purifying system utilizing Mississippi river rocks and sand. A cluttered roundtable platform allows artists and visitors to sit and discuss issues, and next to the table rests a bicycle with a trailer equipped with a watering drum and tools for city landscape maintenance.  A traditional Anishinabe wigwam built from found materials (vinyl billboard ads and bent wooden  poles) is another central gathering point in a nearby gallery. A kind of “georama”/camera obscura mirrored device through which a visitor can view a glimpse of the eternal outdoors by peering into a hole in the floor of a back space is the village’s way of seeing the outside world.

According to curatorial information for this show, the event “began with the idea of bringing together individuals who had a sincere desire to sustainably improve their surroundings; and has been allowed to naturally evolve through this interaction.” It’s of course a fine line between something being “art” and something being simply “activism.” One could argue that these “art works” presented here by these “artists” are anything but; that is, one could if it weren’t for the model of art as political action long ago presented by Joseph Beuys. As Beuys said in 1985, “Art that cannot shape society and therefore also cannot penetrate to the heart of questions of society . . . is no art.” I, for one, can’t really argue with that view; and, I have to say, the conglomeration of things in “Open Forum: Encampment” –the water system, the plants in tubs, the well-meaning artists, the gathering spots — on the whole amounts to a welcoming, appealing gathering place. Yes, this is the art of ideas, but they are ideas that I happen to enjoy grappling with. So to me it’s good stuff — while I can pretty much take or leave the lightweight fluff of “Focus Group.”