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Thursday 10.27.05

« Not Constantinople | Main | G500 to the Great Big Beyond »

Megan Whitmarsh at Motel Gallery

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.


Ever since the 2002 Whitney Biennial 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 their guitars… 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
Drunk vs. Stoned show: check
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 miracle… and are any miracles really small?

Megan Whitmarsh: Crystal Logic at Motel 19 NW 5th Ave, Suite C, Portland OR. Located on NW Couch Street between 5th & 6th Aves. Through Oct 29th. www.motelgallery.com

Posted by Jeff Jahn on October 27, 2005 at 22:29 | Comments (3)


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..)

Posted by: moustache afar [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 28, 2005 11:22 PM

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.

Posted by: Double J [TypeKey Profile Page] at October 29, 2005 12:43 PM

He'll also be exhibiting work at The Saatchi Gallery in 2007... check out Jon Pylypchuk at The Saatchi Gallery

Posted by: katfive [TypeKey Profile Page] at July 18, 2006 04:14 PM

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