Fillip

Fillip 2 — Winter 2006

Farm Arugula with Figs: Bay Area Bazaar, The RED and the GREEN, and Ripe Family Supper
Aaron Peck

At five o’clock in the afternoon I arrive at Matthew’s house in North Portland to find Kevin and Dodie. They’re about to leave the house. Kevin has to meet Karla (the rest of the cast has had only one dress rehearsal) and Dodie plans to walk over to Powell’s. It’s a clear afternoon with a quality light that I’ve come to identify as characteristic of Oregon. As part of the Bay Area Bazaar at the Pulliam Deffenbaugh Gallery, curated by Laurie Reid, at eight o’clock on Friday, September 2, 2005, Kevin—or for those of you who are not his friend yet, Kevin Killian—debuted a play, The RED and the GREEN, co-written by Karla Milosevich. Killian asks poets and artists to perform in his plays. Killian initially began by asking artists to perform in his plays as a way to bridge the gap between the Bay Area art world and the writing scene. The performance effortlessly manifested what the exhibition tried to do less successfully.

The play was full of Killian’s trademark humour, a clash of intellectual life and tabloid gossip. A broken-hearted Annie Liebovitz (played by Dodie Bellamy) resurrects Susan Sontag (played by Killian himself) on Madonna’s “twenty-eighth” birthday only to find out that Sontag, the first celebrity Kabbalist, had simply been in Rio delivering a paper. We also find out, to our delight, that Sontag invented such phrases as “my bad” and “gaydar.” All of this happens while the Green Party, led by Ed Ruscha (played by Chris Johanson), plans to drive the Kabbalah Centre out of London and regain the Green Party’s prominence among the rich and fabulous by promoting, as Ruscha says, “grassroots democracy, social justice and equal opportunity, sexual abstinence, non-violence, ecological wisdom, and five other key values.”

As I walk into the gallery, I notice that it’s hung chaotically. I spot Linea. She gestures to a free seat by some friends of hers. Immediately I’m thrown into the exciting and tenuous position of making new friends. The performance was by far the highlight of the exhibition, a delight for all who attended, and an inspired move on Reid’s part to include a play as a work in an exhibition at a commercial gallery.

But before I continue any further, let’s hazard a warning: this is not just a review of the exhibition Bay Area Bazaar, it’s also about the way a dinner, a play, and the people manifest the concepts of said exhibition. The Bay Area Bazaar itself failed to cohere in a way that the events surrounding it did—even if those events were full of chaos and entropy. The Bay Area Bazaar was about friendship, or more so, about the way friendship networks artists in the Bay Area, and this was both the strength and weakness of the show. Reid attempts to curate an intangible thing—friendship—instead of curating an exhibition. But to re-phrase a Vancouver poet: friendship, like an emotion, has no referent.

Later, Kevin admitted his first thoughts on entering the gallery: “This is a mess!” Laurie’s—or Reid’s—talk clarified things somewhat. She described wanting to let an object “be more than it is, materially.” Her practice both as a curator and artist concerns material transcendence. I found the show overwhelming. But that’s the point, Reid would argue, and I respect her prerogative. It appears that works are hung in groups for associative reasons—an interesting idea, to be sure—but it doesn’t work. Motifs, shapes, colours, and emotions arrange the work instead of genre or artist. The show feels cluttered, like it’s trying to do too much. Reid tried to create a space wherein things exist in contrast or association. The problem is that Reid is trying to curate a group of friends rather than an exhibition. The result was a wildly successful weekend-long happening, an intensely emotional and intellectual exchange, but not a particularly interesting exhibition. As an experiment in the dynamics of friendship, the Bay Area Bazaar worked—particularly for its failures. And there was interesting work, to be sure, but the exhibition felt secondary.

So should I even bother describing the humour of Kota Ezawa’s images in The History of Photography Remix (26-26-28) (2005), a series of slide projections of famous photographs in Ezawa’s trademark South Park style? Or Prajakti Jayavant’s work, reminiscent of Richard Tuttle, beautiful pieces of paper folded and bent into quasi-sculptures, hung on the wall like paintings? Or J. John Priola’s projection, View of the Empire State Building from the Seventh Floor (2005), a DVD loop of the Empire State Building citing Warhol’s Empire (1964)? If these three pieces caught my attention among the overwhelming quantity of work, that’s not to suggest they offer any totalized statement on Bay Area art. Qualities often associated with the Bay Area (an informal tone and approach, a lineage to American counterculture) were apparent in a lot of the work, not necessarily in the three above, but I think the curation took those qualities for granted, assuming people in the gallery would recognize them as such. This highlights one of the problems with the exhibition. Was this a showcase for the Bay Area and its sensibilities or an exhibition about friendship? Reid’s approach implies that friendship is one of the fundamental qualities of Bay Area art. But regardless, this lack of focus provides one of the reasons a play, such as The RED and The GREEN—with the same tone and quality, with ironically the same “Bay Area” style—worked so well, while the exhibition did not. Instead of curating the works of people, the play curated the people directly.

In her talk on Saturday morning, Reid discussed her curatorial approach. She asked an artist to participate in the show and then asked that same artist to invite two other artists. This way, Reid lost control of her curation in both positive and negative ways. In some ways this approach alleviated certain problems. For example, she was no longer responsible for the exhibition in its totality. Instead, the show webbed interests, a network reflecting a group of friends and their work. And to the exhibition’s credit, this opened the possibility of disagreement. If the general organization concerned friendship, I was relieved to realize this was a concept of friendship that included disagreement. Friendship in this way seemed healthier than the mannered inability to criticize those working around us, a symptom so often experienced by those of us north of the border. Reid herself admitted she disliked some of the work, but was willing to respect her friend’s choices (disappointingly, she refused to name names). But this loss of control—or perhaps in terms closer to Reid’s practice, trust—also failed to transform into something coherent in the gallery. That the exhibition space was a commercial gallery only heightened the exhibition’s failure. The Bay Area Bazaar felt like an excuse for one gallery to effortlessly arrange twenty studio visits, and the Pulliam Deffenbaugh comes off feeling opportunistic. More than anything, the failure of the exhibition to cohere highlights two necessary, but at times conflicting, economies in art: friendship and commerce.

But once last caveat. Wandering into this hospitable mob from San Francisco, with their allies in Portland, do I risk being the outsider? I’m not only a critic and not from the Bay Area. I’m also a foreigner. Would they accuse me of not understanding where they’re coming from? Reid’s approach and Killian’s play were, as I’ve noted, very “Bay Area” and identified as such. Do I risk casting aside friendships for criticality? No doubt these questions have more to do with the role of the critic, magnified by the position of a foreigner in the United States (either suspicious or fetishized, either way hazardous), than they have to do with friendship. But isn’t criticism, the lack or abundance thereof, at the heart of the debate? What do we risk in friendship?

During the panel at The Ripe Family Supper, some of the discussion made me indignant as Matthew Stadler eloquently moderated four incongruous speakers. Many of Laurie Reid’s comments that I had found interesting earlier in the weekend were butting heads with those of Larry Rinder, whose comments seemed far more thoughtful and pragmatic.1 Rinder was critical of Reid’s approach. Only an artist who does not curate for a career, such as Reid, could have pulled off the Bay Area Bazaar, whereas Rinder, as a professional curator, could not afford such a liberty. Again, exclusion rears its head in the face of criticism. I whisper to my friend Jerry sitting next to me, between sips of brandy: “As William Blake said, ‘Opposition is true Friendship’.” “If you want to remain friends,” he replied facetiously, “never quote to me again.” Was he telling the truth? Of course, and of course not. Friendship is a fragile thing.

Notes
  1. The next day a friend told us that Larry was reported to have been acting “cranky” at the talk.

With thanks to Stephanie Snyder and Matthew Stadler for generous disagreement and suggestions.

About the Author

Aaron Peck is the author of the novel The Bewilderments of Bernard Willis. His criticism has appeared in Canadian Art and Matador as well as various exhibition catalogues. He lives in Vancouver.

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