Icy King Kong (detail)
Megan Whitmarsh makes tiny, meticulously embroidered scenes populated with Yetis (who socialize), people from the future (who are menaced by modern sculpture),
crystals and a generous supply of moon boots and indie rock bands.
A sense of innocence as a treasured ideal that cannot exist but in memory pervades,
but it's more than nostalgia or a quest for authenticity (only hoplessly fake things claim
the authentic). For those who look for 911's effects, this fetish of impossible innocence has become a major defining element of early 21st century art and that event's legacy. Much of this genre merely traffics in these icons of innocence as a joke with little exploration of
why they have become so important. It is true, I generally dislike this cute formula
but Whitmarsh might be the exemplar worth saving from this popular but completely overdone trend. In embroidery art it has recent roots in the drunken confessional clumbsiness of Tracey Emin (reality art before reality TV). Whitmarsh's work is philosophically confessional but there is nothing clumsy here.Shangri-la
Ever since the 2002
the art world has been obsessed with a combination of cute,
trippy and purposefully amateurish art and it found its highest expression in
the knitted body suits of Forcefield
Since then hoards of MFA grads got the memo and have been churning either awkward
textile art or less sophisticated versions of Richard Tuttle meets Fraggel Rock
low cost material assemblage.
Then the 2004 Whitney Biennial
blessed the idea of nostalgia art so anything related to cameros,
70-80's arena metal, Bauhaus modernism, unicorns, rainbows, Sid
and Marty Croft
, antlers, glitter, and animagic TV specials like Rudolf the Red Nosed Reindeer
became sanctioned iconography and the flood gates
opened. That memo was added to the previous one and now at any art fair you
can be treated to an avalanche of self conscious drawings of people trying to
rock out, knitted versions of practically any object and a poorly assembled
Richard Tuttle copy with some plastic animal atop it (usually a deer). Jerry Saltz dubbed this termite art
in 2004 and about 99.999999999% is crap, but
let's not throw the baby out with the bathwater there is a reason for all this.
The problem with nearly all of it is the 60's+70's +80's = art quotidian formula
doesn't seem to form any rigorous philosophical vernacular or probing. Whitmarsh
doesn't have that problem, she goes beyond pillaging our collective childhood's
and contexualizes it in the challenges of the present.
Her choice of small size is a calculated as a way to make the crushing philosphical and historical weight
of the last 3 decades more manageable, leaving space for optimism. It's also a lovely deflation of ego and helps her keep some of that amateur "hope" in the work. This takes serious integrity because her work sells and larger work could easily command bigger price tags. She's been a presence at the NADA and Armory art fairs so the temptation must be incredible.
What is more impressive is her courting of the amateur has successfully avoided
that lamest of traps, trying to look amateur (i.e. lacking skill or virtuosity).
The details of her works are amazingly perfect and succinct. Each color in each
form is embroidered with a single thread and the forms jump off the monochromatic
grounds. She's learned a great deal from both Joseph Albers and Ellsworth Kelly.
Then there is the content. The normally reclusive Yeti's are sociable, and
in works like "Shangri-La" the Yeti cavorts with two people from the
future amongst a pile of jewels. In this blatant utopia, the people seem to
have clothing that mimic's the mythical Yeti's fur and everyone is dancing.
The Yeti is even pointing just a little bit like Travolta in Saturday Night
Fever (one of the best films ever made). Ace and Darth Vader
In other works pop culture icons like Ace Frehley and Darth Vader Jam out on
a celebration of costume as a way to reinvent oneself. Yes
Vader is evil and dehumanization personified in pop culture but in this utopia
even he can enjoy some rocking guitar and comraderie. In many ways this work is a nostalgic
pop culture kitsch redemption since Kiss was such whorish marketing strategy
only outdone by Star Wars. Now everything is as cross marketed as Kiss and Star
Wars. The difference is few moments can compete with the song,"I want rock-n
roll all night and party every day" and "Luke I am your Father".
Sometimes this work is a sanctuary for optimism that gets a bit grating like
in "Future War" where the yeti merely presents a flower to the warring
future people. Too much simplicity in this case.
My favorite work other than "Shangri-la" is "Icy King Kong."
In this work the Yeti is Kong sized, making him equal in size to the Icebergs
(universal symbols for looming but partially seen disasters) surrounding him.
It's a complete zeitgeist bingo and although this work looks like archetypical
2002-2005 art I believe it is probably some of the most memorable of this genre.
Her resume reads like a checklist of early 21st century American art:
NADA art fair 2004: check
vs. Stoned show
LA artist doing smart work: check
Armory Show art fair 2005: check
Shows in galleries associated with widely read blogs: check & check
She has everything but the MFA degree from Yale or Columbia to make her the
archetypical early 21st century American artist and her superior content to
those who use too many rainbows and unicorns makes her utterly contemporary.
I can't hold that against her. Millenium (detail)
Some artists create trends like Emin's confessional embroidery and Rachel Feinstein's
fairytale sculpture. Others refine a trend to its essences and become exemplars.
That is where Whitmarsh belongs, the quality and acuity and rare integrity of
her work set her apart. Her work dreams of a moment when art and pop culture
history aren't so oppressive and successfully carves a small utopia out of a
daunting reality. It engages the challenges of the day and pulls off a small
and are any miracles really small?
Megan Whitmarsh: Crystal Logic
19 NW 5th Ave, Suite C, Portland OR. Located on NW Couch Street between 5th & 6th Aves. Through Oct 29th. www.motelgallery.com
You may want to check out the show at The Moore Space in Miami, Fl.HANGING BY A THREAD...features occasional miami transplant Tracey Emin,Jon Pylypchuk, Gean Moreno (writer for art papers), the prolific Jacin Giordano (who showed at Savage Gallery a few shows back), plus a large cast of local miami players alongside more recognizable international cast...
click on current show...
(look for upcoming reviews about it in Art in America and ArtNews..)
Thanks, Interesting.... too bad it came down yesterday. Ill be in Miami for Art Basel Miami in December. I'm a fan of Emin despite my better judgement and Amer has always been a favorite that I wrote a little on in Modern Painters... chok it up to my mom's early career as a home-ec teacher (she likes to gloat about how hip macrame has become).
Another excellent artist to check out is Hildur Bjarnadottir. Sometimes I like to think of this use of thread in terms of Calder's circus too. There is a great full scale museum show (Forcefield, Anni Albers, Fred Sandbeck, Duchamp etc.) in this if someone wanted to tackle it.