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So, What Have You Been Up To?
Lola, Gabrielle, Katie, and Ben’s High School Reunion
By Tucker Neel
High School reunions are fascinating and kind of terrifying. These ritualized events punctuating American adulthood act as regressive time machines allowing one to return both physically and psychologically to an adolescent past. They hold the nostalgic promise of recreated memory and the elusive possibility to re-imagine what once was. At a reunion memories of the past can reveal themselves as quite unreliable because reminiscences are always fugitive, always retooling themselves to fit with an everchanging sense of self. This is why some people find themselves selectively recreating life stories or, in a Lacanian confabulation, making up outright lies when confronted wither their past. Remember Romy and Michelle saying they invented Post-its? As anyone who’s been to one knows, a reunion is often a treacherous exercise, filled with all the could-have-beens and buried hatchets unearthed and re-sharpened over too many gin and tonics. After a reunion one is left to wonder if we ever leave high school, or if we carry it with us, bearing its shape-shifting imprint forever.
Here in this gallery we have a small reunion of sorts, comprised of four Campbell Hall alumni: Lola Thompson ‘04, Gabrielle Ferrer ‘01, Katie Kline ‘01, and Ben Bigelow ‘04. Joined together by the graduation dates that will always follow their names in future school publications, these emerging artists present recent work in this newly minted gallery on a recently renovated campus. The inescapable frame of reference uniting these artists is indeed their position as subjects birthed from the very institution that houses their work-if only for the time being. One can expect this selection of artists can’t help but speak a shared language. If the works here could talk, they would probably speak of a shared productive anxiety that attends the life of an emerging artist. As you walk around in this space, imagine how the conversation unfolds. Although the works in this gallery utilize disparate media to create heterogeneous forms, they seem to me to attest to an overarching skeptical relationship to control, communication, and narrative. But remember, this is not just a reunion, it’s a testament to four devoted and emergent art practices that just happen to trace back to a common educational institution.
Many of the works in Fast Forward explore how we “read” images for underlying meaning. This is no better articulated than in Lola Thompson’s work. Thompson uses her paintings to re-imagine history or re-inscribe the present with a self-aware ridiculousness. If you’re wondering, the artist is totally in on the joke. Her paintings employ an immediately understandable form of representational illustration, often using simple outlines placed on the canvas as if traced from existing images. Painted with confident one-off brushstrokes in pure pigment colors, these images spring forth with spontaneity as if they were created minutes ago. Yet the works cannot be understood without their elaborate corresponding titles, which produce an almost didactic interplay between text and image. Titles like Walt Whitman and Leo Tolstoy demonstrate how to really bro down and Herm of Hermes Divining Locations Of Future Drone Strikes construct strange historical pairings in viewers’ minds alluding to absurd scenarios rich with contemporary urgency. In the tried and true Dada retooling of viewership, the audience “completes” Thompson’s work when they wrestle with what they see and what they are told to see. The story and image are nothing without the viewer. I would argue that this imagined and un-representable narrative in the viewer’s head is the actual subject in Thompson’s work.
Like the impossible stories in Thompson’s images, Gabrielle Ferrer’s work also references the unspeakable and unknowable space in between language and its pictorial representation. At first glance, Ferrer’s collections of bits of wire may seem inconsequential. However, these quirky lines reference symbols taken from the Lexicon of Comicana by Mort Walker, a book categorizing the symbols used in comic book illustrations to signify everything from curse words to the navigational route of a fly. Ferrer displays typologies of these line drawings referencing extrasensory information. The wire work on display also catalogs the line drawings that stand for movement around characters and the air they pass through and activate, which must be referenced in a comic strip in order to convey action, narrative, and humor. Ferrer’s curly Squeans imply intoxication. Her Swaloops indicate movement in a circular motion, like a golf swing or a spinning top. It’s no coincidence that these squeans, swaloops and spurls accompany unpleasant or out of control bodies in motion (spinning, fainting, inebriated, etc.), states one would find hard to articulate fully in words. It’s easier to convey these phenomena diagrammatically, even though as one knows, squiggly lines don’t actually appear above a drunk’s head. In literalizing these diagrams of movement and physical states, Ferrer’s work asks us to think about the limits of representation and how information is transmitted through extratextual means. Taking this into consideration these groupings read as a typology of experiences where description fails.
If Ferrer’s work touches on the inability of embodied reality to be represented with language, then Ben Bigelow’s video, The Grid, creates a similar critique of the limits of control and order. In The Grid stable objects, language, and systems of representation are always in flux. Bigelow eschews standard narrative in favor of isolated vignettes and an accumulation of scenes that always seem to portend impending discombobulation. The work, and its attendant title, point to the importance of the grid, a good ol’ staple of Cartesian rationalism allowing one to organize and observe facts against a plane of scientific order. But in Bigelow’s world this order always teeters on the precipice of destruction. The video is filled with arranged scenes that look out of control: a wildly spinning plate, a scattered mess of lined notebook paper, jumbles of numbers or unintelligible assemblies of letters. Each of these scenarios resolves itself back into a state of order and legibility, usually with the help of an omnipotent hand just off-screen, which swipes, grabs, and compresses unwieldy objects like a user would interact with a touch screen tablet. In this digital world entropy and disorder are refigured and made to behave. But in the end real control is unattainable. In one shot a pulsating burst of color gradients seems to suck in an almost indecipherable mass of letters reading, “TAKE CONTROL.” Yet the arrangement of letters and the way their rapidity and brevity deny legibility ironically implies that such a statement is impossible. Control is implied in Bigelow’s work only to be dismantled when the camera cuts away. Each scene gives way to another out of control situation, as if the process were destined to repeat itself again and again (the video is, after all, on loop).
Katie Kline’s images also evoke a distrust of narrative, resolution, and the expectations that come with representation. At first glance her images frustrate with their familiarity and surface banality. Kline’s photographs read as passing glances or frames taken in-between more dramatic shots. One finds that Kline’s photos often imply hidden action lurking just out of sight. In Spill a feathery coagulation of paint occupies the corner between a sidewalk and a stark white wall like a truncated acrylic estuary, a record of out-of-control action cut off by routine property maintenance. In Frame a pink square painted on a brick wall becomes a monochromatic backdrop awaiting a passing subject who never comes. In light of the ubiquity of picture sharing platforms like Instagram and Facebook, one might want to dismiss Kline’s work as circumstantially fortuitous, as if she were stumbling around, camera in hand. This would be a mistake. While her photographic practice does indeed implicitly reference a fascination with infinite personal documentation, a voracious way of owning the fugitive world one inhabits, Kline’s work really is about photography. Her images sit comfortably in an art historical trajectory stretching from Cartier-Bresson to William Eggleston, to Wolfgang Tillmans. Like these photographers before her, Kline proposes a surprising and engrossing way of looking for hidden treasures in daily life, using framing and light to focus attention on what might otherwise be overlooked.
Two of the artists in this show will probably return for their approaching ten-year reunion in 2014. The other two artists will have their fifteen-year reunion in 2016. In light of this exhibition, it’s worth wondering what these milestones will bring. One could easily say that any high school reunion is a leap (or a return?) into a psychic breach filled with suspect appearances, where the veracity of shared experiences and their representations are thrown into question. In this way the work in Fast Forward seems quite appropriate for what lies ahead. As the work in the gallery attests, what we see may not be what really exists and what we say may never approximate reality. Like the nervous conversations at an awkward high school reunion, our understanding of our positions in the present are always conditionally dependent on a framing and reframing of the past, which is always slipping away and changing into something else once it is remembered.
Tucker Neel is an artist, designer, curator, and writer in Los Angeles. He is also the founder and director of 323 Projects, an alternative art venue accessible 24/7 by calling (323) 843-4652.
By Tucker Neel
While discussing Jean Genet’s identification with a tube of Vaseline as a sign of the outlaw homosexual’s place in a hostile straight world, the historian and cultural critic Dick Hebdige notes, “Like Genet also, we are intrigued by the most mundane objects – a safety pin, a pointed shoe, a motor cycle – which, none the less, like the tube of Vaseline, take on a symbolic dimension, becoming a form of stigmata, tokens of a self-imposed exile”. In a manner similar to Genet, Martin Durazo pays close attention to the trappings of subculture. He trades in the objects we use to signal our allegiance to, and place in the margins of society. Depending on your position within the cultural strata, an object as mundane as a handkerchief in Durazo’s work can signal working class affiliations, or extreme SM sex play – or both. A small installation of mirrors can stand for modernist design or a cocaine platter – or both. Yet with his work, Durazo always demands that viewers investigate their own place in meaning construction, actively engage in a play of semiotics, and understand how the choices we make may or may not be our own.
Yet, Durazo does not simply combine objects hoping for meaning to resolve itself. Instead, he makes informed and researched decisions in order to address complex and frustrating issues, from legal and illegal drug trades, to prisons, psychedelic substances, pornography, altered states of mind, and extreme sub-cultural affiliations. These are subjects many who see his work realize exist, but would rather not engage – at least in a “proper” public setting.
While he is no stranger to hanging isolated works on gallery walls, Durazo also constructs complex installations that look like impromptu house parties, teenage drug dens, or DIY pharmacies. Durazo’s 2010 Pain Management 100 exhibition transformed the gallery into a site for symposia, naps, raves, workshops, and the occasional drinking session. Somewhere in between, Durazo created “art”: paintings, sculptures, videos, and installations informed by these investigative interactions. The resulting conglomeration of transitory works address questions of just what kind of altered states compliment and facilitate their own appropriate environments, and vice versa. Using materials as diverse as black lights, fountains, masks, magnifying glasses, and a wealth of illicit paraphernalia, the artist charted the porous line delineating, and connecting, the legal pharmaceutical drug trade with its criminal counterpart. Through his ongoing interest in the people impacted by the drug war, Durazo poses a contemporary, yet timeless drama, highlighting the aesthetics of the modern scapegoat who, like the ancient Greek pharmakos, is cast aside into wilderness and isolation (or prison or underground economies) as a way for society to cleanse itself, maintain its own sense of righteous solidarity and cohesiveness in the face of immeasurable complexity and instability.
With his latest ongoing project, “Plata o Plomo,” Durazo continues this investigation, articulating the problematic choices one must make when inhabiting shifting positions of agency. “Plata o plomo” translates to “silver or lead,” a question posed by drug cartels demanding cooperation from legal and political figures involved in the war on drugs. This question asks one to chose between a bribe – monetary rewards from illicit and illegal drug trades, and lead – from a bullet. Durazo sometimes directly references popular images from the drug war in this recent work, whether with a transparency of a hanged victim dangling from an overpass, or copied images of traffickers worshiping Santa Muerte (the Saint of Death), or surveillance footage of famous pageant queens caught transporting drugs across the border. Though he does employ these readable signs, the artist’s work gets at his subject more tangentially, through the juxtaposition of incongruous materials and suggestive pairings.
Often, Durazo employs reflection as a device to engage the viewer and bring up questions of identity and allegiance. In one signature piece, “PLOMO,” the artist places two large mirrors atop one another, spray-painting the word “PLOMO” on protective plastic covering the bottom mirror. Like it’s fun house cousins, the top mirror bends and bows awkwardly, producing a skewed reflection of the viewer and the gallery, as if to call attention to one’s own complicity, or inspire a moment of self-acknowledgement. The bottom “PLOMO” mirror, in a state of opaque protection, registers as death and the absence of light. It’s an alarming work, eloquently summing up the artist’s engagement with the troubling subject of impossible choices, the struggle to reconcile ones self-image when confronted with Faustian choices – a bribe or a bullet, existence in service of something you don’t believe in, or nonexistence and exile into oblivion.
 Dick Hebdige, Subculture: The Meaning of Style, (1979; reprint, New York: Routledge, 2001), 2.
Martin Durazo’s art practice makes use of what he calls the “aesthetic of the illicit.” His work excavates the visual topography of sin, the signs of outlaw culture, the illegal and gluttonously dangerous, basically the social signifiers proper society frowns upon. Durazo has turned galleries into all night raves, made overtly libidinous videos, and fashioned installations resembling meth labs and drug nests. Throughout all of this he has dissected and re-imagined the objects and images that define the boundaries of culture, making art that continuously signals the existence of a transient bacchanalian periphery.
For this exhibition at Rio Hondo College, Durazo investigates the so-called “war on drugs,” specifically the various economies, shows of force, and acts of violence employed by Narco cartels along the US/Mexico border. The title of this exhibition, “Plata o Plomo,” takes its conceptual and historical inspiration from the question posed by these drug cartels to lawyers, judges, elected officials, and police whose job it is to stem the drug trade. “Plata o plomo” translates to “silver or lead,” metaphorically signifying a bribe for cooperation, or a bullet for resistance. While the exhibition incorporates ephemera surrounding the drug trade, like transparencies of victims of Narco violence and bombshell beauty queen traffickers, the exhibition as a whole remains much less obvious. There are no simple, prescribed ways to read the works in the gallery.
Durazo’s work doesn’t simply paint a picture of deviance, giving you a fully resolved image on which to project your own sensational desires, like so many beer commercials or porno pop-up ads. Instead, he creates complex aggregate propositions, strange and often experimental or unresolved scenarios that seem in process, like collages working themselves out. These kinds of works are perfectly articulated in the artist’s ongoing use of silver insulation sheets pockmarked with information like reflective bulletin boards, presenting disparate yet related ephemera that ask visitors to question how they create meaning. While presenting these self-reflective environments, Durazo proposes that we examine our own choices and how we label our own boundaries separating propriety from perversion, freaks from norms, straights from queers, the illegal from the legal.
Tucker Neel is an artist, writer, and curator in Los Angeles. He is also the director of 323 Projects, a telephone-based gallery that can be reached anytime by calling (323) 843-4652.