“I’m clean man, I’m clean!” (The Paranoia of Time at Carter & Citizen)

I wonder about Craig Doty’s photos at Carter and Citizen, I mean, I’m predisposed to appreciate printed photographs anyway. I like that I can see an edge and that it appears in relief against the backing. Light, as it reflects off the surface, or diffuses across more matte finish photos, is also nice, and I always imagine holding the picture I am looking at. Doty’s choice of things to picture incline to the inscrutable yet recognizable: a few flowers, the bare suggestion of a proscenium arch limned in a dark place by orange lights, several nudes of the same young man – one with the model’s arms raised and exhibiting the residue of antiperspirant; all these seem drawn from a specific life – if not the artist’s then perhaps one that he creates, or that I, in response to his work, create for myself. I feel personally responsible to these pictures. This effect might be manufactured, but it rings true, especially when I inquire and Whitney Carter shows me the entire portfolio of twenty-two pictures. As I hold the card-stock mounted Instamatic photos and stack them after looking, I find flaws both in the processing and in the way this inexpensive camera accepts light – halos appear, and parts are whited out. This all feels honest to me rather than precious. I don’t think that I am fetishizing an outmoded technology here – I think I am looking at good photographs. But as I said, I wonder.  Barring evidence to the contrary, I’ll trust my instincts. (Check them out and let me know what you think.)

The walls of the gallery are papered (or perhaps are foiled) in gold thermal blanket material – like the stuff that saved the Hubble telescope. This is a conceit of the curator – John Knuth – as well as a work by an artist – the same Mr. Knuth. The practical effect of this change from white-wall-normal for the works exhibited is to make me look at them harder and longer.

Knuth’s use of this gesture makes me grateful that Night Gallery exists as an exemplar of such exhibitionist honesty. Objects, and art objects, exist in a world. Doing a viewer – a percipient – as well as a work of art the favor of not lying to them about an ideal, pristine existence seems to me the ultimate compliment one can pay. Most of us understand that there is labor to be done in looking. In fact, messing with the whiteness – by jarring me – gives me agency during an otherwise disempowering experience. A barely masked disdain is the secret to white walls and the dishonest and opaque transactions that take place within them. (It’s quite likely that no one has power in this system, and that each party feels cheated. Human nature cries for transparency.)

“The white cube owes its success to this strategy of effacement and simultaneous self-negation: highlighting the inherent (that is formal) qualities of a work of art through the neutralization of its original context and content while, at the same time, remaining itself virtually invisible and thus obscuring the process of effacement.” (Quoting Christoph Grunenberg in Contemporary Cultures of Display.)

Grunenberg places the origins of the white walls of display in European museums in the ‘teens and Twenties.  We’ve had fewer than 100 years of such white cubism in art display, and it occurs to me that we no longer can afford a power structure that seeks to disappear and so offer a “neutral space.” In fact – from our Internet experience with Facebook, Google, et alia, we know the danger of this. (Powers that we cannot see are essentially creepy and lead to the same place as absolute powers.) Perhaps it is time to seek not invisibility, disappearance and neutrality (in display as elsewhere in culture) but transparency. A showmanship of exhibition: “Of course gallery goers you have to negotiate these obstacles that are in your way – life is like this! Anything else is lies and damn lies. Step right up.” Paint the gallery black, or wrap it in gold. Play music, encourage visitors to talk, to exchange pleasantries, thus might develop ideas; allow art life as well as live space.

(Hah. For this show John Knuth has draped the white walls of the gallery in the gold of its desire. But be careful, ye who think in $$$ when you look at art – its a thin blanket.)

For his part, Greg Wilken questions Knuth’s authority as curator by cutting into the gold wall-covering blanket the story of a child murder, told in the first person from the moments just after the killing and rape. The killer’s words gave me a harrowing feeling of flatness. Telling a police interlocutor that he “had no intention of living any longer” (after his crime) he “picked out a place over there (Ocean Beach), sat down… and just didn’t” – kill himself, that is. If one thing means nothing, then everything does.

Wilken’s project had him research crimes in the neighborhood of this exhibition to make Some American Anecdotes – Los Angeles (Gold Sunset). I remember seeing Charles Gaines’s work at the Luckman in 2003 and finding his Night/Crimes work – aquatints of the night sky at the longitude and latitude of murders in LA, paired with copies of police photos of the scene. (I think the aquatints may have depicted the sky at the moment of the murders.) The senselessness of the choices made by these artists in my mind matches the lack of purpose to the crimes. Ah, but I think about the horror for a long time.

(Horror Geoff? I don’t know that Greg’s piece is directly about the murder – a news story would accomplish this. I think he’s talking about context a little, which has both a time and a place. Is there an emotional context possible? Is this turned off during an art experience, is emotion otherwise channeled? Does a written account of a crime become a sculpture that is not a crime, and nor is it about the murder anymore? When Lawrence Weiner’s instructions become sculptures do they lose their instructional ability? Or does this become one among several qualities. If you achieve one of his sculptures by following the direction, what happens to the words? How much depends upon context anyway?)

The Paranoia of Time has work by Heather Cantrell, Craig Doty, Jesse Fleming, Cameron Gainer, Julian Hoeber, Cody Hudson, Dawn Kasper, James Krone, Karen Lofgren, John Seal, Aaron Spangler and Greg Wilken.

What I have written here is but a tiny survey of the possible experiences with the artwork on display. It’s a problem with group shows – I can either accept the curator’s premise in a press release (which I don’t, because this would require me to limit the depth of an artist’s practice to one idea garnered from a single work), and weave in my mind something like a story that supports this idea or ideas (except people get paid to write press releases, so why should I rewrite them?), or I can write what I know about each artist and try to place the artwork in their practice. I can also write a little of what I think as I move through the space and after, and invite you to visit and also have an experience. In the case of The Paranoia of Time, I choose the latter.

If you have been paying attention in Los Angeles then you will recognize several of the names listed and are anticipating good things from them. You ought to invest with similar interest the artists who are new to you – John Knuth made good choices in this show. Closing Saturday, April 28.




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