In societies where modern conditions of production prevail, all of life presents itself as an immense accumulation of spectacles. Everything that was directly lived has moved away into representation.
—Guy Dubord, Society of the Spectacle, 1967
The Bay Area is the social media capital of the world; with headquarters for Google, Facebook, Twitter and Instagram, it is no surprise that everywhere you go, people are on their cell phones. The subsequent inundation of digital and virtual media creates a state in which the real world is increasingly less necessary. We are constantly connected not through corporal interactions but through uploading and downloading of information. The result of is an ever-expanding chain of posts and reposts that increasingly disconnects us from the original idea. Simultaneously appropriating, diffusing and layering, we create a state in which we can live vicariously through the representations of others’ experiences. The current exhibition “Low Subject” at The Popular Workshop and the inaugural exhibition “Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” at Et al. bring together a group of artists whose works challenge the notions of what we understand to be authentic, and how we process the current bombardment of visual information. While the two exhibitions are not intentionally connected, the relationships between the works in each show and between the two galleries demonstrate a local investigation of contemporary issues that is proving to be more than the sum of its parts.
“Several Species of Small Furry Animals Gathered Together in a Cave and Grooving with a Pict” could not be a more perfect title for the experience of viewing Et al.’s debut exhibition. Taken from a Pink Floyd song, it sets the stage for the wonderfully strange and pedantic gallery visit. Occupying a basement-level room behind a dry cleaning business, Et al. covers the walls with a surprising number of artists while maintaining enough space for each work to be appreciated. Featuring works by Kate Bonner, Andrew Chapman, Anthony Discenza, Aaron Finnish, Chris Hood, and Cybele Lyle, the overall aesthetic of the installation is chromatically minimal, which helps to keep the room from feeling cluttered. In a continuation of the exhibition title, the works are all deliciously anti-cathartic. What we see is a biopsy from a larger narrative that the artists never full reveal. Instead the works confront the viewer with tension and aura, encouraging the consideration of the exhibition as a whole.
CHROMA III (10MB data), Aaron Finnis’s tall wooden rectangle painted with dizzying, thin stripes leans on one wall. With a hole where a knob could go, the object is at first recognizable as an incomplete door. To further demonstrate its absolute uselessness, behind the door is a wall, so even if it were complete with handle and hinges it would lead to a dead end. Any potential “doorness” of the object deteriorates in CHROMA IV (10MB data), the sister piece across the gallery, which lacks even a hole for a doorknob. Facing Finnis’s impassable door and mirroring its graphically buzzing lines, Anthony Discenza’s lightbox, The Woodcut, glows with white serif text on a black background. The combination of the text and what it describes negate all that is typically featured in a light box. Devoid of sensational or commercial pictures, Discenza paints a scene of revulsion and confusion in a deadpan, matter of fact tone.
What seems like a reprieve from the ominous aura of the other works, Chris Hood’s paintings Line of Sight and Floater, feature some of social media’s favorite subjects: puppies, kittens and food, but all obfuscated by a haze of white wash. Instead of being sweet or even twee the works look like a child’s drawing forgotten after years of neglect. The playfully dark mood of Hood’s paintings continues into Black bone on cast iron plinth with enamel, Andrew Chapman’s small wall-mounted ceramic squiggles that protrude from the wall as if some of the molecules got confused and broke away. Almost too perfectly matched with the gallery’s electrical wiring above the sculptures, the pieces hold a lingering sense of familiarity. Chapman’s accompanying two-dimensional diptych contrasts the evidence of a corporal interaction with strictly inhumane aesthetics. ½ WIOH, a Rorschach-esque smear hangs next to 50/50 OMWY which looks like visuals generated by computer errors. The titles of the works give the impression of being abbreviations, yet their meaning is never revealed in a gesture that alienates the viewer from the understanding the privileged knowledge.
Kate Bonner’s inclusion in both exhibitions links the galleries and alludes to an investigation of the anti-/meta-representational appearing in contemporary art. Her pieces at Et al. tumble off the wall and stand crumpled on the floor. At The Popular Workshop, the sculptures, reminiscent of jammed paper ripped out of a copy machine, almost entirely obscure the images represented. Bonner’s multiple shifts between two and three dimensional states through her transitions between photography and sculpture transcend to a headache-inducing level in David Bayus’s paintings. Through a process of building maquettes, photographing, printing, and meticulous painting, Bayus blurs the boundaries between the actual and representational. What appears to be computer-generated imagery is in fact the opposite: the smooth, unnatural surfaces are the product of tedious hand rendering in oil paint. The works combine virtualized imagery with traditional techniques to render subject matter that has recognizable aspects, but are too bizarre to exist beyond the canvas.
In a visual mash-up of kitschy materials, Nico Krijno’s photographs are a schizophrenic celebration of color, texture, and depth. The fabricated still lives range from Untitled, which looks like a cage stuffed with every bit of gaudy fabric the artist could find, to The Old Pope, a golden disco mess of shiny wrapping paper and bizarre, finger-like shapes snaking out at all the wrong angles.
The works in both exhibitions depart from the historical desire for definitions rooted in the real world. They utilize the absurdist over-population of images in consumer society in combination with a rejection of expectations to puckishly deny their audiences a clear understanding. Viewers will not leave the exhibitions feeling warm, fuzzy, or cathartic. The challenge presented to contemporary artists is not to simply exist, but to create something out of the haze of uncertainty, to embrace bizarre fracturing of cultures and media in such a way that brings our understanding of the world into question.