Where Everyone Knows Your Name
By Matthew Herzog
Person, Place or Thing is a composite show of ten artists. Each is delineated, given their own kind space, not unlike the Armory Show with less cubicles and far less New York Fashion statements. There is the interplay of which artist is next to whom with some works breaking barriers and living as wayward satellites. But by in large, the artists have their idiosyncratic seats and appear alone. It has a range of media and is, as the press release notes, ‘autobiographical’, lending hard on the figurative and representational. In a sense, the show is a series of vignettes in the hopes of crossing story lines, a Philadelphia anthology we are deputized to interpret.
Since most of these artists reside in Philadelphia, our big city of small town turfs, it isn’t odd to take this as an attempted core sample of our current art society. Which made me first wonder whether I have the time or energy to understand this, then wonder if there was a sociological hammer by which I could threaten the answer to reveal itself. For the luck of everyone involved, there was a separate answer: Nancy Drew this jawn.
Jaither West makes small paintings saturated with portraits, not unlike a depository of the people, or images of people, we might see between home-door and work-door or wherever one travels in our urban days. As a friend commented during F.O.’s opening, ‘If my fit-bit counted the people I saw as it does steps I walk, I would go crazy. You traveled 10,000 steps and saw 2 million people.’ He had a point. West’s portraits are a benign collection. It’s human density to which one might engage without human heart. Problem solving over empathetic panic attacks derived from a city’s massive population means diluting passersby to objects one must avoid. ‘You’re not someone I have to care about! You’re another snag moving too slowly on the sidewalk.’ To paint them is more a message from artist to those he saw than a display of faces that should be seen. It’s almost bittersweet, a song to deaf cosmos, a photograph taken of a crowd in the dark while the photographer screams, ‘I can’t have you all but know I love you.’ Among these portraits were images of Michael Jackson and what may have been my girl Tina T. It also included flickers of break dancers and everyday commuters, people posing on couches, pairs wrapping arms. West created paintings of all his hidden voices, as if it wasn’t just a breakdown of who he saw but the dynamics of all the Gods that speak to him. Makes me wonder who I carry despite desires not to.
Jonathan Lyndon Chase understands how to play up the ‘sub’ in subtlety with his large scale piece, 3 Sum. You shouldn’t interpret my language play as any indicator Chase’s work is of similar cheesy par. It is the piece to see in F.O.’s show, the artist to watch in the coming years. The LGBTQIA community is on its toes, so to speak, by our social and political climate. Chase provides the viewer with what makes homosexuality catalytic yet humanity most communal. Figures engaged in sex blur into another, becoming confusing cartoonist line drawings that depict either an elbow behind the ass or a fist within it. This is coitus and an exploration of intimacy as Chase guides us fearlessly through losing ourselves with/in another. Yes, that’s an asshole painted like a sloppy pink Nuvaring. Yep, that’s a dick. And goodness, it’s near another one. If the work stopped there, we’d have a contemporary Edward Hopper showing voyeuristic scenes of the unfortunately politically palpable nuances of gay sex. Change Edward Hopper’s race to black and you’ll find yourself closer to Chase’s powerful works. You may also find yourself quoting the famous documentary by Jennie Livingston, Paris is Burning. ‘My father once said, you have three strikes against you: you’re male, black, and gay. You’re gonna have a hard fucking time. If you’re gonna do this you’re gonna have to be stronger than you ever imagined.’
Chase takes it further by denying us a sense of separation. The figures are painted inside a dim lit room. Claustrophobic maybe a proper word. Outside its imagery, a pair of sneakers, one at each end of his un-hung painting, keeps it a firm foot from the wall and hovering inches above the floor. He took the piece from a safe distance on the wall and put it in our home, the viewer’s private bed in which we typically stand with a hand on our hip andsecurely deny the artist’s viewpoint. Are those my sneakers? Are they owned by one of the figures? Am I walking into a bedroom or have I already finished? The viewer is implicated without being told what role they play. I searched for evidence to direct my participation from the faces of the figures but was met with little to persuade. They were relatively blank yet expectant.
The figures in Chase’s piece make me think of people partially smiling in a photograph. The longer you stare the more you’re able to distort their face to either a full smile or a slow grimace. It’s as if our brain is incapable of handling the ambiguity of emotion. We play the scene as we wish it to be or it plays us exposing what we fear it might become.
Chase exploits this underlying reactive. You are standing before intimacy with its players looking back, no indication of how they feel. ‘I don’t know what they want and now I’m having weird feelings.’ I heard someone say this while they looked at Chase’s paintings.
It reminded me of what a friend said to me once, ‘I’m not misogynistic. I’m gay. Misogyny isn’t possible with me. But if you ask why someone called her a bitch and him an asshole, I’ll clearly lay it out for you. This is how a being, socially predisposed to feel safe around women, can be subverted by a sphere of complicated and learned behavior. I was raised by women but I’ve called them bitches. When a construction worker leans on his shovel tells you to ‘smile more’ and you don’t know why he thinks he has the right to say that, I could probably tell you even though no one ever stopped me to pass the book on male privilege.’
It’s interesting to consider inherited biases, even inherited biases that surpass the empathy one can gain from being a minority. Chase’s figures are in our space, giving us no facial expressions to interpret how we are to proceed. Thus we are forced to overlay our interpretations like Rorschach tests. And overlay we do, falling into the trap that can display our own ill prudence. Internalized homophobia, anyone? Stand before 3 Sum and see what instincts you have sadly absorbed.
The power of Chase’s work is radiant subversion, may I not be the last to say it.
Inspecting for shared signs and metaphors at the Fleisher/Ollman. show is possible. Put an apple near an orange and you’ll find similarities. But the show in total, leaves me without evident clues of purpose or inherent meaning. And to shove my thumb more up my ass, F.O.’s press release deposits, ‘...broadly conceived exhibition of Philadelphia artists* allowing for open-ended interpretation and various avenues of discovery.’ It’s as if the gallery’s hierarchy of knowledge and power has been handed back to the viewer. F.O. calls this ‘broadly conceived’ which I’m not sure I understand unless I imagine the author raising their shoulders and eyebrows making an ‘eh’ noise followed by a come hither expression. I find this at first frustrating, then equitable, then back to frustrating, but then equitable again. Discovery is stupidly dependent upon my mood. That aside, the showcase of human interest works and vulnerability does align with Philadelphia’s share-if-you-got-it altruism. It also aligns with F.O.’s open-inquire curatorial history. The mystery that is Philadelphia Wireman was first exhibited and researched in F.O. by Co-owner John Ollman and his associates. It would seem F.O. is not only the place of displaying thought but studying it. But as a commercial gallery, is this possible?
Like a kindergartner hesitant at the steps of school, I turned to a nearby adult, Fleisher/Ollman’s Director Alex Baker.
Baker - ‘A part of it [Person, Place or Thing] is selfish. I wanted to go out there and see what was going on, for my own interests in living in Philadelphia….’
Herzog - ‘In this situation, selfishness is a line to the public. Selfishness that opens yourself out.’
Baker - ‘I live in this city. I should check it out. It’s a matter of timing, and my own time, and how both coincided…. Having said that, you can’t show everybody. You can’t be curator to all sensibilities. It’s tainted by my own, whatever you want to call it, worldview.’
Herzog - ‘Is it necessary?’
Baker - ‘I don’t think it’s necessary. I think we’re human beings and we’re just prone to want to organize things into neat categories and to look for larger issues and broader themes… I also think that you’ll be prone to fail….’
Herzog - ‘...You talked about teasing out ideas, but then also the issue and judgments of labeling and then upon that you’re also a commercial space with an interesting history. You seem to be working within a very specific but also troubling and unique space...’
Baker - ‘That sums it up.’
Herzog - ‘Tough place to be. No wonder it’s Person, Place or Thing.’
Baker - ‘It wasn’t just what a noun is. I thought about that title to be as open as possible, but it’s also a play on me growing up. There was ABC television which had this thing called School House Rock which taught me what nouns were through animated cartoon imagery...’
Herzog - ‘...You’re putting everything away and applying a rudimentary focus on this place. Do you think a lot of people are doing that? Or, is Philadelphia’s art scene as old as Philadelphia itself, an established environment?’
Baker - ‘A combination of both. There’s artists who have been here a long time. They’ve given a lot to the community and continue to make work. But there are sedimentary layers of newness on top of that. I don’t want to stratify things too much. You want to put things in dialogue with one another. That’s why I didn’t want to do strictly an emerging artist show either…’
Herzog - ‘Do you think it’s a little problematic to have a self-reflective scene?’
Baker - ‘Maybe, I don’t know. I come from a Museum background. The public, art public, the local audience that is really engaged with art, always has problems with the bigger institutions in which they do not see themselves in. It’s part of the scene.’
Well, shit. I’m diggin’ his candor.
Looking at curation the way Emile Durkheim looked at collective consciousness, galleries are measuring devices for an art scene, representations of shared social facts. The function of galleries, even if they apply institutional critique to themselves, will apply premise to what has been created even instigating the artist like a cattle prodder to see what scream they make. I’m sure curators are much nicer than this (though I enjoy imagining the kind smile of Alex Baker lit by an electric white pulse) but their effect, however minimal the act, is not by the impulse of the artist. It is an outside perspective on another’s artistic leftover. It’s a shake up. This is the Boggle theory at its most intended. Typically we shake the Boggle and enjoy what letters show. But what if, before we looked, someone took time to move the pieces around? Are they absolved from the question ‘why?’ when the purpose is to get you to purchase the game? Before I trail into Googledom and research parallels between Durkheim and Alex Baker maybe even Robert J. Kleberg (Texas cattle baron and inventor of the cattle prod) and Alex Baker, let’s move the fuck on.
Herzog - ‘...I’m curious if it’s an open-ended discussion or interpretation of your interpretation.’
Baker - ‘Oh, probably. I’m sure it is… I wouldn’t know how to break that down… So much of it is, not to sound totally random but it’s thinking, ‘I know the Academy [Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts] does this One Year Out show. I should check that out’ Which is where Morgan’s work [Morgan Hobbs] came about. ‘Let’s show it’… Part of it is accessing what is going on in Philly.’
Herzog - ‘...Do you have an internal narrative about what’s happening in Philadelphia?’
Baker - ‘I don’t think I do. Only so far as me spending time investigating what’s happening and this is what I’ve come up with. There are a lot of artists here. There is a lot of art here. This does not represent - I don’t know what could - the greater Philadelphia Art scene. And that’s the problem with these kind of thematic, regional, or specifically American or emerging, or local, theme-based shows. The Whitney Biennial always struggles as do any of those large scale survey shows. A mini survey show like this is probably less prone to get in trouble because first of all we’re a commercial gallery so no one is looking at us to publicly speak for an art community. We’re a private small business… Commercial galleries are less beholden to criticisms regarding, ‘who are you representing now?’ ‘what is your notion of American Art or Philadelphia Art at this time?’ No one cares what commercial galleries have to say about larger themes.’
Herzog - ‘It’s interesting how palpable tastes can be. How effective they are. I’m thinking of Jonathan Chase. If we’re looking at his work and discussing taste… We’re more politically or socially affected than the term ‘taste’ suggests.’
Baker - ‘But you can also look at it and say this guy has such a great notion of line. He’s a really good drawer… There’s a lot of snobby art stuff you can get into too, with his work, as well as all the sociological - gay, African-American - identity issues. That’s why it’s probably successful.’
Herzog - ‘... This is a highly nuanced environment. Each artist has a honed point of view. If I’m roughly, and naively comparing this in Art History ways, I find this a difficult time to understand mass movement and collective idea. Maybe that’s a false action. But when you’re looking at this work, do you find you have to stop and just look at the one artist and maybe you’ll get an understanding of other places?’
Baker - ‘Yea, I mean. When I first started thinking about a show, I was like, ‘Can I tease out themes, media themes or ideological or aesthetic themes...’
Herzog - ‘Teasing from yourself or out of the greater place?’
Baker - ‘From the greater place. I was like, ‘Nah, I don’t want to do it that way.’ First of all, when you start to do that, you become beholden to the greater themes in contemporary art… Can we even? People are saying now, ‘oh the return of the figure.’ Give me a break.’
Person, Place, or Thing has other great talents I would go deeper into; Ashley Wick and her video where each frame is a painted atmospheric homage to love and fear. Anne Minich and her painting with seashells and what could either be an eye or a sideways vagina. Nick Lenker and his paper models of a dartboard and Corinthian column. But, this won’t be the last I see them so I’ll save it for another time.
Considering arrangement and the emergence of meaning, the influence of group shows isn’t simply by their existence but existing inside a greater narrative. Fisting is generally peculiar but bring it to the junction of random visitors, unfortunate political dynamics, and the curiosity of a naive writer and BAM, you got something unique stretching beyond the neighborhood. Our whole tiny-big art city is a birthplace for meaning and potential interpretation. It is made by chance and inundated with raw sensibility. Which makes me believe it is what one is near that distinguishes who one is. The place where everyone knows your name is also a catalyst for your own identity. Not only that - and probably most important - if you’re aware enough to take an element out of an equation, swap it with something else, you can fundamentally change power dynamics, identity, the conversation. ‘To what?’, you might ask and, ‘What was the original conversation?’, you might demand. To which this author raises his shoulders and eyebrows making an ‘eh’ noise and follows with a come hither expression.
Arrangement isn’t new. We all took Composition 101. But take this inquisition into what we say about ourselves and apply it to Philadelphia. You’ll find galleries aren’t simply playing with red square near blue line. Exhibitions aren’t just flick-of-the-wrist examples of culture. They are deep engagements with such, however they want to agree with this. If Person, Place or Thing is a broad conception propagated by notable characters with uncertain connections, do they bracket Philadelphia’s content? What is the best core sample we can give of our artistic ecological system of creators, galleries, and press releases? I won’t be touching that question anytime soon so let me get to the larger point: As a collective in a political and social environment where communication and honesty is critical now more than ever - and as Fleisher/Ollman has briefly considered - what the hell are we and what are we doing?