Terence Hannum reviews Ready to Drop at Springsteen, a group exhibition featuring Bradford Kessler, Erin Jane Nelson, and Body by Body
Attending an exhibition at Springsteen feels like loosening a tap on the Internet’s subconscious and letting it flow. Sometimes it’s like finding the secret 4chan board, the anonymous internet imaging board and meme incubator, and endlessly scrolling. Low-fidelity images abound, memes, cell phone videos and other forms lead us to think of the exhibition not so much as a physical place but hypertext. You are simultaneously here but not here.
Tight in aesthetic but meandering in concern, Ready to Drop features artist collaborative Body by Body (artists Cameron Soren and Melissa Sachs), New York based Bradford Kessler and Atlanta’s Erin Jane Nelson, who all reinforce the established tactic of free association. The show gains a more solid grounding given a prompt generated by essay writer, and “post-internet” star Ed Fornieles.
Throughout Ready to Drop we are led to an unfiltered concept of the fetish. Fornieles establishes his essay with a quote from Look fashion editor Nancy Holmes “to be at the bottom of your personality, looking up,” essentially allowing oneself to fill with content and then to sift through it for meaning afterwards. In this action, the sifting is the meaning — not the thing that remains.
Therefore Solaris, peanut butter and Vaseline paintings as an Easter egg, horror movies, black metal makeup, preggo porn (I’d be wary of Googling the exhibition title) and Harmony Korine can be selected from the discard pile and embellished. The fetish, or obsession, has immense power; it can open portals, and according to Fornieles, function as a glitch. In the instance of this exhibition this glitch is the prompt for the artists to generate work from.
Bradford Kessler presents the most direct object-based pieces in the exhibit. These pieces have more to do with sculpture and less to do with a meta-textual maze of stolen imagery or sound. Being more intrinsic, the pigmented silicone wall sculpture Hat (from the Mist) combines an odd texture from the silicone and strange snot-like coloring added to the oversized headwear. It could be a disguise, a remnant from a Stephen King novella, it isn’t clear – but doesn’t need to be. Its mystery is its power because it feels ripped from the other side of a portal, from the glitch.
The strongest piece in the exhibition is a strange dislocated bust of Brian (Geisteater), where a plastic head has been sliced and the jaws replaced with plastic canine jaws. It makes sense; geist is German for “spirit” – the spirit eater. Even casually adorned with a real uncast hat and its ear pierced with a baby’s pacifier there is a menace similar to David Altmejd’s heads, but edited exquisite corpse style. The mash up of the sculpted and cast with real objects, hats or pacifiers, etches out an unreal and real liminal space.
Erin Jane Nelson crystallizes many of the themes of meta-text and the festish with quilts of inkjet printed fabric, felted wool, and embroidery. It’s as if Nelson takes the quilts of Gee’s Bend and feeds them through Tumblr, eschewing pattern or tidy edges — there is literally a web of texture and images. These images become a disappointing scavenger hunt in Node Crook, a quilt hanging from the wall where the images, found fabrics, and patterns overlap over a large reproduction of a man’s face, eyes closed, bent straws shooting from his mouth. Being unresolved though is admitted by the exhibition’s title.
What if the “node,” the central area of communication in a network like the internet, has been stolen? In this piece the themes of the exhibition sharpens. In Fornieles’ essay, he wrote about the fetish as a portal and a node – that the node can redefine the world, whereas a portal is a rip in the time fabric. This sounds very optimistic until we consider Nelson’s suggestion (implicit in the work’s title) that it was stolen; thus our ability to communicate is gone.
When considering whatever Post-Internet Art is, which here feels a lot like what used to be called “new media art,” there is a sense of media and aesthetics folding in on themselves to the point where meaning becomes obscured or erased into esotericism. This work functions more like a black hole than Möbius strip. What was once proclaimed to be “new media” are now old media. In this field 8-bit, ASCII and decades-old computer code are all exhibited under the name of “new media.” This isn’t the fault of the artists; media is always on a collision course with its replacement like an arms race. The term “new media” is more about the values of institutions, be they museums or art schools, which have always struggled with more experimental media and the line between craft, design, and art.
Finally, works by Body by Body enter into this territory with nomadic and incidental cell phone videos on flat screens – feeling as if you’ve stumbled onto a randomly uploaded vertical video via a time machine through cheap graphics. There is the aesthetic turn of low-fidelity played on high fidelity, where the pixilation becomes dominant and our way of knowing the image or of believing their authenticity. Their genre is to appear casual or deskilled to reinforce their reality. Even with 13 Drawings + 1 Video, the Life and Work of Frenhofer and its reference to the Honore de Balzac short story The Unfinished Masterpiece, where art is destroyed out of frustration with a lack of perfection, have a hard time holding my attention.
To me it is this very act of intending a casual gaze using the cell phone video mismatched with the way the media is presented in these two videos. The steadfastness of the gallery screens, and the proliferation of the flat screen in these types of exhibitions is short sighted.
Especially in comparison to the duo’s very refined piece, The Flabby Angels – Let Joy Reign Supreme, which presents a limited LP, in an edition of two, played on a custom painted turntable. The LP is the object here, the fetish object that contains the portal inside of it. Instead of its music being mastered for the highest fidelity for vinyl, Body by Body has flipped this idea upside down creating an MP3 mix that was then cut to vinyl.
MP3 is obviously in no way lossless or ideal for sonic purity because it contains multiple flaws in its compression. When pressed to vinyl these omissions create odd distortion and overall a strange sounding almost bootleg or false sound similar but in a different direction to Cory Arcangel’s Number of the Beast where Iron Maiden’s song was compressed via MP3 666 times, which was a pseudo-cover version of Alvin Lucier’s I am sitting alone in a room.
This exhibition is entirely fitting with Springsteen’s working aesthetic, but I would argue that this aesthetic has a leveling effect. If you were to collect many of their artists’ works on a Tumblr page and remove their titles and names, it becomes very difficult to parse individually who generated what. The intersection of lo-fi pixilation, casual earnestness, collage, fragmentary objects, and assemblage starts to mutate into a singular expression with just a few exceptions.
I do not think it is necessarily a negative observation but one worth inquiring, where does this end? Considering how both directors of the gallery steered this situation with Fornieles and the artists, where does Springsteen throw their audience for a curve and challenge themselves away from the expectations that they’ve established?
Ready to Drop: Body by Body, Bradford Kessler, Erin Jane Nelson will be on view at Springsteen through March 12, 2016.
Author Terence Hannum is a Baltimore based visual artist and musician who performs solo, with the avant-metal band Locrian (Relapse Records) and the dark synthpop duo The Holy Circle. Hannum is an Assitant Professor of Art at Stevenson University. He has had solo exhibitions at Guest Spot (Baltimore), Western Exhibitions (Chicago, IL), Stevenson University, Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago, Gallery 400 at UIC (Chicago, IL). And in group shows at TSA (Brooklyn, NY), sophiajacob (Baltimore, MD), Allegra La Viola (NYC), City Ice Arts (Kansas City, MO) & Jonathan Ferrara Gallery (New Orleans, LA).