Recently, I participated in an Exhibition called "In the Flesh II" at the Torpedo Factory's “Target Gallery.” As I understood it, the curatorial position was to highlight the various ways contemporary artists were exploring the implications of figurative art.
This exhibition was reviewed by Shauna Lee Lange, who seems to be the leading art commentator in the area. The review (click here for full version) illustrates the problem many journalists face; the overall pressure to write voluminous commentary without the time to thoroughly review that which you are to review. Many resort to sound bytes and Wikipedia for the needed nuggets of information. Frank Zappa was often quoted as saying (of Music journalism) that it was "written by people who couldn't write, for people who couldn't read." Fortunately, unlike folks like Anna Politkovskaya and Shi Tao, Art critics and Music critics don't run the risk of assassination or imprisonment for exercising their right to misinterpret or gloss-over the facts.
I stopped subscribing to ArtNEWS, because all it was telling me about were some factoids that collectors and their ilk wanted me to hear. Periodically, you hear this kind of commentary leak out into different sectors of the regionalist art sphere. Let's face it. Art is not an easy way to make a buck. So, sometimes you need a representative to say, this stuff is stylish, this stuff ain't (er I mean, isn't). Most of the artists I know are interested in making enough coinage to keep their concepts afloat. So, the ArtNEWS target audience tends to be collectors, and people making "Art" for collectors. Headlines read something like "the Neo-Expressionism average is up 3.7 points this week” or something like that. I'm not in that target audience.
When you peruse the commentary written by representatives of the illumined ones, you try to get an idea for their frame of reference. “From what philosophical framework are they drawing their conclusions?“ is usually a question at the forefront of my mind, for example. I had a certain degree of difficulty in ascertaining what aesthetic position led the author to her conclusions regarding “Billy the Test Subject” and the curator's decision in it's entry into the exhibition. The statement below quoted from Shauna Lee Lange's essay: “target gallery's in the flesh II: hands, eyes and upholstery?” The title of the article and quotation (below) are pasted directly from the source. So, missing capitalizations in the title and the clumsy syntax do exist in the published document.
Pennsylvania's Tom Estlack offers gypsum cement poplar Billy the Test Subject. It was at this unfortunate point that I started to get aggravated. There is nothing wrong with Estlack's construction of a gothic-headed zombie-creature and it certainly has its own audience, however I could not for the life of me make the connection to the show's theme. A disappointment only in that regard, Estlack is not well served in this venue.
Evidently, her readership must be quite concerned about her emotional state, at any given point. To state, without provocation, that "there's nothing wrong" with something is a passive-aggressive way of implying that that you think there's something wrong with something. I also think I detected a hidden slam at the visual art idiom known as Pop-Surrealism. So, any of you losers who read Juxtapoz magazine or browse DeviantArt, and are reading this right now, check me out on Facebook, twitter and on my homepage and see if you'd like my other stuff! It's totally gnarly dude! The author also couldn't figure out what the connection to the exhibition's theme was, despite the fact that there was a figure right in the middle of the god-damned thing. Is this the leading voice in aesthetics in the D.C./Alexandria metro area? (Another review of this exhibition can be found here) She may have had a point about being better served by another venue. The Thai restaurant a few blocks from Target Gallery has some killer pad thai.
Now. What's the piece all about?
As you can see by the photograph, the work is a cylinder with a modeled and cast head emerging from the top. "Billy the Test Subject" (as you might have guessed by the title) deals with testing on animals. The head looks somewhat human, suggesting a connection between humans and the rest of the animal kingdom. The size of the head, in proportion to the cylinder would indicate that the figure's body is concealed within the cylinder. The cylinder has a brushed metal-looking texture. The appearance of this form is intended to resemble machinery. Consequently, when the two elements are juxtaposed, one might have the impression that the figure is trapped inside a mechanistic form. This refers to the entrapment of both human and animal in the mechanism of industry. The referents in this work are the mechanisms of scientific experimentation and testing.
The modeling of the head is intended to blur distinctions between human and animal forms. This is a direct reference to industrialized genetic experimentation being conducted on various animal and plant species. The singular reference in this instance is ANDi, the surviving (out of a number of failed attempts) rhesus monkey who had foreign proteins introduced into his DNA. The intent for this kind of work and other experiments (such as product testing and vivisection) is to study virus pathology. These practices are inhumane and are corrupting forces in our society. The human-other-animal hybrid form is a reminder of our psychological and spiritual connection to the non-human animals. It is also a grim reminder that scientists are actively pursuing the development of patented genetic hybrids whose genetic codes match those of humans, closely enough to achieve "accurate test results."
Should we depend on our cultural leaders to be aware of current events? I used to think so. But, being "aware" of current events is a problem, unto itself. We'll have to bring the ghosts of Jean Baudrillard and Marshall McLuhan in on that conversation. We can't magically sprinkle pixie dust on a situation, have a glass of wine and watch our troubles disappear. Art is where our opinions are shaped and our imaginations are tested.