Nightmares for the Well-Adjusted

L.A. Expanded: Notes from the West Coast
A weekly column by Catherine Wagley

"Permission to Fail," 2010, Mixed media, Dimensions variable: 90 x116 x 20 inches.

A show with as defeatist a title as Permission to Fail should be anything but healthy. Yet “healthy”  nicely describes Macha Suzuki’s unpretentious installation at Sam Lee Gallery. Stationed at the intersection between ambivalence and ambition, Permission to Fail rejects the fragmented nostalgia and aimless grandiosity that has infected too much recent art, opting instead for a quirky brand of pragmatism. Luckily, Suzuki’s pragmatism sidesteps tedium, and the exhibition functions as a psychological dream-scape in which even the well-adjusted must grapple with life’s weirdness.

All of the sculptures in the exhibition consist of typical craft-grade materials, the likes of which could be found at Michaels or Home Depot: MDF, t-shirts, pebbles, spray foam, cotton balls, yarn, and fake grass. While Suzuki doesn’t mask the normalcy of his oeuvre, he executes each work as if he were Charles Ray on a budget: clean edges, deliberate surfaces, precise proportions.

Two geometric birds hang above the gallery’s entrance, suspended from the ceiling. White with sleek surfaces, the birds have only one wing a piece and, at first glance, they look like the two severed halves of a single animal. Their co-dependence doesn’t seem to bother them in the least, however, and this is just one instance in which Suzuki turns failure into a fact of life that, while certainly more intriguing, isn’t much more debilitating than mismatched socks.

"Just a Tree," 2010, Mixed media, 91 x 24 x 35 inches.

Below the birds, a life-sized male figure in a striped sweatshirt, crisp new shoes, and the outline of a cell phone in his front right pocket holds an angular orb as if performing some hipster ritual. Suzuki’s doppelganger–the figure’s proportions mimic the artist’s exactly–and the exhibition’s protagonist, the man has a papier-mâché tree trunk  in place of a head. Like in a dream that only becomes a nightmare once you wake and untangle its strangeness, the tree trunk seems natural, even rational.

The figure of child in blue and red pajamas and a mask for a head perches on a shelf and another child figure, called The Rider, straddles a headless creature with a cotton-ball laden lamb’s body and wolf’s legs. The Rider’s geometric helmet head, which resembles the man’s orb,  has white antlers growing out of it. Each figure in the show dresses trendily, wearing the sort of clothes that announce their wearer is “with it” but don’t draw too much attention. No more or less innocent than the tree-headed man, the children, while the size of toddlers, channel the precocity of adolescents who genuinely believe themselves grown-up and capable. Their covered heads suggest that they’ve also encountered enough grown-up threats to make them wary, though not necessarily inhibited.

"Nice Try," 2010, Mixed media, 45 1/2 x 45 1/2 x 21 inches.

Two targets–one black with a green rim, one white with a blue rim–hang on walls that would be adjacent if not for the gallery entrance. Evenly spaced arrows that have all missed their goal puncture the targets’ peripheries. The whole show is full of near misses like these, yet none undermine the fact that Suzuki’s approach to disappointment feels more measured  than desperate.  The head coverings, rather than effacement or jaded attempts to escape identity, present as viable strategies for relating  to a prefabricated world. If you masquerade as material, the material environment will more likely embrace you, and you’ll be better able to protect what’s really yours–the body and face beneath that no one sees. And if you fail consistently, cleanly, and smoothly, sending the arrow into the target’s periphery every time, then the difference between failure and success gradually becomes null. Maybe this is still a nightmare in which the only way to beat the big, ungainly world is to wear a tree trunk on your head and fail expertly, but it’s a nightmare in which the main players refuse to sweat the small stuff and seem comfortable with themselves, even if they can’t be themselves without masking themselves.

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