This text is by Sarah Rose Sharp in her capacity and does not, necessarily, reflect the views of different infinite mile contributors, infinite mile co-founders, the authors' employers and/or other affiliations.
|On Critical Synthesis & Breakdown
A Case of the Septembers
Sarah Rose Sharp
I was supposed to write this essay on “The Art of the Art Show.” I pitched it with an idea in mind, but I forgot one important thing: it’s September. And September, in case you don’t spend time in the art world, is the official kick-off to the art season, and therefore a never-ending clown car of activity. My body hurts, my brain hurts, and I have only the dimmest memory of a structured existence to fall back on. At the best of times, art is a powerful mechanism by which I learn to cope with the world, but like all coping mechanisms, engaging with it too much leads to some kind of breakdown. September has been a lot about breakdown for me.
I guess I should say, while ‘breakdown’ has a generally negative connotation, I prefer to see it as useful information from my brain that I have had enough of something. Likewise, although the association with hoarding (in clinical terms) is almost unanimously negative, there are ways in which it can be quite optimistic and beautiful. One of those ways was captured concisely in Ray Johnson: The Bob Boxes, put together by Gallery Coordinator Jonathan Rajewski for the Valade Family Gallery on the College for Creative Studies campus. Ray Johnson was a fairly controversial art world character, notoriously thorny and remote, but very much engaged and influential to the Pop Art movement. He was a collage artist, but also considered to be a pioneer of mail art, and the “Bob Boxes” are thirteen packages assembled by Johnson and gifted to Robert “Bob” Warner, one of his most dedicated correspondents from the late 1980s until Johnson’s death in 1995. The tendency to hoard is evident in both Johnson—who found a great deal of the contents from this particular box washed up on a Long Island beach where he would take his daily “prison walk”—and in Warner, who has not only held these boxes in trust for nearly 30 years, but carries on his own work in an apartment thick with what he describes as “floor paper.”
“It’s about a foot and half deep,” Warner said, during a phone interview I conducted as background for an article for Art in America. “Year after year and layer after layer of correspondence that I’m interested in... There are things that I find that maybe I’ll use in a collage someday—I just lay it all down. So it’s not wallpaper; it’s floor paper.” It strikes me that society has a way of recognizing genius in retrospect; in real time, it often looks like insanity. In a sense, how could it be otherwise? To innovate, one must reject common societal precepts, and do so is literally anti-social, which is, broadly speaking, one of the hallmark symptoms of mental illness.
Another such figure floating around my brain is American painter Thomas Eakins, perhaps best known, of late, for his 1875 Portrait of Dr. Samuel Gross (The Gross Clinic), and introduced to me by way of Jennifer Doyle’s excellent book, “Hold it Against Me: Difficulty and Emotion in Contemporary Art.” Doyle asserts that Eakins’ success as a painter within his lifetime was limited by certain personality factors and ambivalence about the quality of his work, even among his supporters. Following his death, writes Doyle, “Slowly the Eakins story was rewritten: he was a man ahead of his time, he was a maverick... He was America’s first great painter, and, in his mix of bravado, machismo, and workman-like devotion to his art, his legend offered the template for what continues to be defining characteristics of the figure of the male American artist.” [page 44] Perhaps legacy offers some kind of cold comfort for those beyond this mortal plane, and perhaps struggle is a driver for authentic expression, but I have to wonder what measures are taken to care for artists in their time? What could we be doing to better support this occupation, which has been a part of human society long before the development of surplus and leisure that gave rise to less essential pursuits?
Doyle’s book was also a handy tool for confronting a rupture in my own capacity as an arts writer, which arose in connection with a series of back-to-back events that traded heavily on overload. Culture Lab Detroit debuted a public project from visiting artist Gary Simmons, who covered 1301 Broadway Ste. 101 in a candy-colored assortment of music posters that amounts to the walls screaming with political messaging and ambiguous concert dates. The “Art As Ritual: A Conference on Lamentation in Contemporary Performance and Practice,” which took place at the Detroit Institute of the Arts on September 12, sought to examine ritual and lamentation in art—which is having something of a moment in the wider art world. This on the heels of the opening and guest lecture for Subjective Cosmology by Sanford Biggers at the MOCAD, an exhibition featuring video works so layered with laden imagery, it is almost impossible to distinguish if they mean something on their own, or merely leverage a critical mass of association. There was no lack of meaning for any given individual work on display at 333 Midland’s second show and reprisal of its popular “big” series, BIG SCULPTURE @ The Factory, but with 200 works by 50+ artists, it was too big to take in a single viewing.
While I have no wish to revisit the specifics of any of these experiences in this context, they certainly forced me to confront my limitations as a critic. There is an inherent difficulty in a career that has developed out of an acute sensitivity to art, but that also requires at least a fair attempt to create critical distance from it. The push and pull of these poles is typically energizing for me, but here, drawing upon the final turn of an action-packed September, I find myself a little wistful for direct experience. It is the plight of most writers, journalists, photographers, and other kinds of documentarians, I think, to find themselves always standing a little apart from the crowd. You cannot simply participate in the scene, or give yourself over to the experience; you are always conscious of the need to capture the moment, for later you will be accountable to tell what happened. On the one hand, there is a sense that the creators of art would like you to engage with it to its hilt. On the other, they also tend to want you to write about it, and God help you if you get even the smallest of details wrong. All told, I will have written sixteen articles in September—one every other day—and the pressure to maintain accuracy in the face of all these events—often two to three in the same evening, or daylong conferences rife with panelists, sponsoring organizations, and references—has morphed into a kind of generalized anxiety, which to a certain degree undermines the ability to properly experience them.
That’s why it’s good to focus on the transcendent moments. This complex and generally anxious job would not be worth doing, if it did not have a host of beautiful moments embedded within it. Alex Schweder’s presentation on “Performance Architecture” for the Penny Stamps Distinguished Speaker Series was breezy, funny, and illuminated a practice that sets space and performance into an extremely charged and playful relationship with each other. Emmy Bright’s art card tarot readings, with a custom deck based on her print series being shown at David Klein Gallery in Detroit reminded me that there can be moments of spontaneity, trust, and ritual in a public art setting, when they are properly earned. I don’t currently have much to say about a retrospective of Mary Ann Atkins at What Pipeline, other than it is a very good painting show, somehow managing to offer a bit of complexity alongside relief in its simplicity.
After a hectic run of days attempting to cover the 2016 Detroit Design Festival, I found myself parked on a picnic blanket on the DIA’s southeast lawn, watching “Facing Change: Documenting DETROIT”—a slideshow of works by 21 emerging Detroit photographers, who are seeking to process their city on their terms. I was suddenly, engagingly, present. Maybe because the project has done such a good job of gathering a diverse cohort of photographers that reflect a personalized and in-depth view of the city; maybe because I empathize so strongly with the urge to capture life and appreciate their efforts to do the same; or maybe because it has been a long month and if you don’t take a break, a break will certainly take you.
Looking back on this month, I can’t help but identify a little bit with Ray Johnson—finding, at every turn, a trove of odd and lovely, or disturbing and weird, or fascinating and engaging experiences. Doing my best to sort them into appropriate receptacles, and doing my best to stay connected to a network of correspondents that are eager, and numerous, and each worthy of an investment of time—but time is limited. Doing my best, through writing, to sort the hoard, in the hopes that, if not genius, at least some thread of coherence or return to order may emerge by October.