February 16, 2006

Artists Being Artists

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The undergraduate exhibition Antiques Show at Tjaden Hall this week does not deserve the modern connotations art bears on its broad shoulders. The art we know in museums and private shows is not supposed to make us feel as intensely engaged with life as this show does: lie on your stomach in once corner by J.J. Manford’s work to sense the strange combination of melancholy inspiration, sit in a sofa near Ben Shattuck’s paintings and feel strangely enamored with the natural environment, take a knee somewhere by Tim Taranto’s mirrors to feel the warmth of your grandmother’s photo albums and folktales, and most importantly, exit feeling an inexplicable satisfaction with the complexity of your time alive, in both its happiest and most unpleasant memories. The emphasis on a past which may or may not be accurately portrayed in this show forces us to take stock of our own history and dust off the memories we thought we forgot years ago, but also begs the question few of us want to hear: How will I be remembered?

This show takes the viewer and wraps him up in thoughts like these rarely realized by the art of a museum or private collection. The show’s conception, in fact, originally developed as a response to the “dentist office gallery” that we all know: a room of well-dressed yuppies who pretend to be impressed with flat-panel photographs, sterile sculptures, and paintings bereft of any inspiration. No, art of our age does not make us feel at home like Antiques Show does, it does not make us miss the house we grew up in, the photographs our family took when we went to England that one summer, or a Thanksgiving when everyone finally made it. Because for all the different ways we can look at Antiques Show, we should see it first as a home that these five collaborators have created out of material expressions of their own memories, meditations and imaginations.

Upon a cursory look, the show appears merely as five personalities on display near one another, divided by sewing tables, old motorcycles, or perhaps a football trophy; the emotions the exhibition elicits after even a half-hour of engaged viewing seems to gesture otherwise. Perhaps its most consistent idea is the notion of memory, and more importantly, the hazards of trusting completely its resurrections. Nevertheless, the exhibition drives home the point that even the haziest recollection is a crucial piece of our essence and the creativity that it entails.

The exhibition begins with the work of Blake Fall-Conroy, a sculptor who constructed the entrance screens, hospital bed headlights synthesis and a fan whose blade is responsible for the deeply-carved circles. The structures emote unnerving helplessness: knives and bare hospital beds remind us of uncomfortable trips to the hospital for surgery or to visit a sick relative. The sculpture bleeds into a motif that becomes constant: quaint wallpaper covered with the work of the artists side-by-side with various high school diplomas, family photographs, and stamp collections. Amidst these fierce oddities are Tim Taranto’s enamel-painted mirrors, which painstakingly recreate the frames we normally stuff with precious photographs and stamps. While the art of Antiques Show has intentionally been placed in close contact with outside heirlooms, Taranto’s work pushes this ambiguity to its thought-provoking edges: How accurate is memory and the reconstruction of the past? While dazzlingly photorealistic, his work playfully points out the minor pitfalls memory is entangled with.

J.J. Manford’s portfolio hangs mostly in the one far corner, a quintet of blurry images of his father’s lifetime each hued in a different color, perhaps symbols of memories where the context – the sun, sky, and personalities involved – are easily recalled but the event itself is a mystery. This intensely personal series is abruptly interrupted with Nick Zimmerman’s light-hearted outdoors prints, Reverend Moon paintings and Ben Shattuck’s takes on pastries, chickadees, windpipes and sea monsters. The common thread between these three artists and memory is a little tougher to grasp, but perhaps it points out that not everything we recall has to be intensely emotional but rather imaginative: in real life it’s out of the question, but art can show help show us what would happen in cupcakes could fly, a giant squid turned up on a fishing reel, or we were married in a massive ceremony with thousands of strangers in black tuxedoes and snow white dresses.

Last Sunday night, the artists installed Antiques Show, and I learned that the process of making art is more fascinating than the product. The night began slowly: By midnight, only a few works had been hung, and the rest of the room was a maze of antiques, artwork, homemade cookies, sheets of wallpaper, and the generic flotsam that builds up whenever we temporarily make a room a place of residence. The rush of the gallery’s opening in a few hours hadn’t hit yet: Zimmerman was still in the basement making prints and Manford seemed unconcerned as we conversed about the project. But as the night went on, the music was turned up, the laughing and chatter died down, and conversation turned to rapid-fire bursts: “Look good here?” was the most murmured in a few hours, perhaps followed by a quick response, like “Maybe on the couch?” The room was rarely occupied by more than two of the artists at a time – unspoken shifts in curating the room emerged as others ran home for more wood, back to the studio for window frames, or next door to the Green Dragon Caf