Cochrane & Middendorf + Gray & Paulsen at The Art Gym
Attic clutter that eventually became exhibited as "The Dregs"
Like no other people except the ancient Egyptians, Americans are obsessed with
the accumulation of stuff. The mantra of ownership of property (via enlightenment
Locke) practically defines our consumerist national character. Philosophically,
Locke considered property both material and more abstract to be a natural right,
a kind of talisman imbued with the value of labors undertaken and exchanged to
acquire them. America was the first country to apply these rules evenly across
all social strata.
King Tut's stuff
Still, the Egyptians
differed from Americans in one telling respect; property and death were
entwined in a hermetic dance of preparations, while Americans do everything
in their power to avoid addressing death often using stuff as a distraction
from the inevitable. Alas, no pack rat has enough stuff to keep death from getting
in the door. Still many try.
The Dregs by Cochrane and Middendorf is a kind of fantasia collaged from the
remnants of an estate sale that Cochrane oversaw. These "dregs" thus
were unwanted detritus that couldn't be disposed of commercially. Interesting how instead
of the landfill, all of this stuff heads off to a university art gallery.
The strongest aspect of this exhibition is the fascinating way in which art
picks up after commerce loses interest and through artistic intervention somehow reanimates
the property's ghostly owners in a cheerful, mostly non-creepy way.
Beginning with a slide show at the start of the exhibition, we are shown some
of the original context from which the exhibition has been curatorially organized
into; several walls of correspondences, some party balls, a collection of antiques
and two rooms each devoted to Larry and Elsie as a kind of nostalgic paean
to their departed owners.
There is also small wall of personal and official documents and photos such as
Ross' Oregon drivers license, Ross's son Larry's report card and an appraisal
of Ross's wife Elsie's jewelry successfully brings a piece of the three former owners to life.
correspondences and other papers
The largest wall of correspondences and other papers acts as a kind of avalanche of sentiment and detail,
with tantalizing tidbits about the senders and their recipients. Some of the
letters contain a lot of personal detail but it's the sheer # greeting cards
which indicate a lifetime of birthdays and illnesses. I'm a historian so I'm
used to filtering through correspondences but to many this sort of glimpse into
other people's sentimental life is probably disarming.
As a historian I found myself wishing for a step ladder since many elements
were simply out of reach. It turns an archive into a daunting object like the
ghost of a hallmark store filled with used cards returned to the shelves
it's paradoxically a pop and personal display, both accessible and inaccessible.
More visual were the various party globes fashioned by Cochrane and Middendorf
out of poker chips, satin ribbons or my favorite, the death star disco ball.
Somehow craftily reanimating the deceased's more pied belongings and turning
them into a solar system of fun in one corner of the gallery was a very effective
tribute. It's kind of the inverse of the velvet underground's "All of tomorrows
parties," instead these are all of "yesterday's parties"
and thus more of a way to reanimate the ephemeral fun these objects were once
a part of. The globes are of Elsie, Larry and their son Ross's life but re-charged
through the intervention of Cochrane and Middendorf it is a kind of cross-generational
meeting of the party people.
More personal and somber is Elsie's room which contains a bed, matching lamps
and a rack of empty clothes hangers (among other things). The most telling object
though is "Beloved Mother" a high backed easy chair that Cochrane
has sewn in an elaborate pattern of various fabrics... even undergarments left over
from the sale. In effect the artist's intervention occupies the now empty seat
with the textures of a former life. To me the Octopus tentacle-like patterns also look like stylized art deco hair and it's probably the most artfully effective
piece in the show because it is so nostalgic yet somewhat of an anthropological and
In contrast to Elsie's, Larry's room feels more abstracted as the space is
dominated by the black skeleton of a mattress with the word crestfallen written
in lavender neon letters. What's more the shadows thrown by the piece project
a form that eerily looks like a house. It feels like an unfinished poem and
might be the most somber aspect of The Dregs, while at the same time definitely
trying hard to be art.
I wonder, does it break the spell of the show or add to its mystique? To these
eyes it wouldn't hold up as an individual piece but it's the fitting touch of
tragedy and darkness that completes the show. This is especially true since an
array of soaps and cleaning utensils called Clean/Dirty is nearby.
Clean/Dirty is a wonderfully guileless but paradoxically filthy array of cleaning ephemera (both soiled and pristine) laid out
like a mini museum. It's my favorite part of the show. Somehow this archeological
display offers up ancient soaps like "Cashmere Bouquet", "Dial"
and "Refresh" like Etruscan artifacts. In a way it's a Duchampian
ready made or quirky Warholian
collection like the cookie jars except this collection seemed more ad hoc.
It's simply a case of stuff accumulating during travel and a curator laying
it out in a coherent fashion.
The tiny back room is a more claustrophobic exploration of stuff with its multiple
Larry Hagman puzzles; several Dr. Scholls felt corn pads and boxes of Sprecker's
Powdered Sugar. It brings the exhibition back to the inexplicably strange things
people keep well beyond any logical use. The packaging serves as a time capsule
for each objects respective era.
Despite all the stuff and tantalizing details it's a somewhat meager portrait
of its former owners but succeeds as an incidental time capsule of Americana.
Had the exhibition included a car it would have said much more, but being valuable
an automobile wasn't going to be a remainder of an estate sale. Still it is
all of this ephemera that makes The Dregs so different than the way Ed Kienholtz
was buried in his Cadillac. Here at the Art Gym, the former owners of all this
stuff are portrayed more for their incidental humanity rather than a gesture
at immortality. The difference is the way artists become egoists of stuff, seeking
to transform material and undo or render ambiguous the Lockean causality of
value for stuff whereas a typical American person simply wants to possess
it. What does it say about western civilization that much of the art since Rauschenberg
has so popularly sought to create combines like the globes and chairs in this
exhibit? Why is experiencing all this stuff both dread inducing and fascinating?
Possibly it is because all American families leave a similar wake of consumer
activity and we can read it like a more detailed obituary.
a pile of burnt newsprint from "The Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things"
Whereas the, "The Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things," is one of those rare situations
where a book becomes an art show. Specifically here, artists Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson
Paulsen lost most of their belongings when the house they were renting caught
fire. They made a book around the experience called Integrating
a Burning House and The Imaginative Qualities of Actual Things is the follow through exhibition.
The show consists of a burnt Apple G5 computer. A stack of burnt newsprint,
a charred guitar neck, a burnt Joe Macca post card and an OSB shipping crate
full of cardboard boxes and a video that display the text from the book. The
most important lines being, "What is lost never fully extinguishes."
Thus, all of the burnt items are essentially ruins of their former selves and
as such possess a sort of romantic quality not unlike the artifacts brought
back from the Titanic or wreckage from the World Trade Centers.
For example, the burnt newsprint is neatly tucked in beneath an avalanche
of paint pried from the gallery walls that seem to flow over them a nod
perhaps to the act of displaying a ruin in a gallery setting which further fetishes
their former-ness. In reality was the stack of newsprint ever as cool as it
is now? This is where Gray and Paulsen are dealing in imaginary qualities
and it's up to the viewer's subjective experience. Out of necessity the artists have moved
on by transforming misfortune into art. Here it seems like a clear victory of life becoming art.
Whereas, the burnt mail art from Joe Macca is definitely less than its former
self. As a ruin it feels incomplete and not at all like one of Macca's hilarious
bravura moments. It is more of a casualty now. The operative issue here is that
the newsprint built up mystique by first becoming a ruin and then through intervention,
art whereas the ruined Macca can no longer operate in the way the artist
intended as too many details have been obscured.
Crate made of OSB, video and Guild guitar neck
Another effective ruin is the charred neck of Ryan's 1967 Guild guitar. Most
guitarists are attached to their instruments a lot more than a G5 computer.
For example, a computer like the one on display here can be replaced but a
guitar is a sensual thing. Most experienced guitarists can recognize their instrument
blindfolded, even compared to the exact same models. Thus, in both the guitar
and computer's case there is a real sense of loss but it is different. The guitar
had the potential to be a kind of life partner, whereas the computer is a tool and an archive...
though many more people can probably identify with the G5 computer.
At this point it is obvious that the viewer's interpretation of these objects
will be very different than Anna and Ryan's and this too creates a sense of
empathy. Perhaps to enhance the empathetic impulse the OSB crate in the center
of the room plays some video text that divulges a little of the compartmentalized
feelings the artists have about their things. There is a sense of a grieving
process that has mostly passed and the text seems to be mostly a resignation
to the fact that they have moved on while others haven't yet sated their curiosity.
Overall, it's a successful show and the stack of newsprint is an excellent
art object in itself. Still, I feel like the book really ate this exhibition's
lunch. Maybe it's because The Dregs exhibition in the larger space was so expansive
and this one felt like such a footnote. Still, it's that feeling that Gray and
Paulsen have moved on already that is the show's lasting legacy... so (quite poetically) to be a footnote
isn't such a bad thing, in fact it is natural. I can't wait to see what these
two do next (actually the two have married and a baby is due any time now).
Overall, these were two successful shows that mine the well worn "sincerity
art" one finds in a lot of university art galleries these days but
in both of these cases it's the individual quirks and not relying on "community
building" activity that makes them better than most. Instead, what is on display are
somewhat personal treasure troves one for three lives now gone and in
the case of Paulsen and Gray; a need to move onto the next thing, with the promise
of new stuff to fill a life with. Americans still have too much stuff but these shows suggest that belongings aren't the real problem, simply the quantity and the level of meaning that is attached to consumption with too little discrimination.