Curated by Helen Molesworth
On ViewJack Shainman Gallery, The School
June 5 – October 30, 2021
Audio feedback happens when output and input signals get crossed, an information overload in a closed loop. Another definition of feedback is a dialogic interchange. The former results in dissonance while the latter can imply a mutual give and take. That legendary manipulator of musical feedback, Jimi Hendrix, transformed his electric guitar into a channel of sound that expanded blues notes (and appropriations of standards like “The Star-Spangled Banner”) into wide-angled waves of oceanic release. After “hacking” those standards he then famously burned his instrument in a ritual immolation/sacrifice to this universal medium—a very modernist approach to finding common creation in destruction of the particular. It’s an important precedent to ponder in consideration of Helen Molesworth’s recent curatorial premise at Jack Shainman’s School in Kinderhook, New York. What instrumentalized particulars are being over boarded here towards newer soundings? Drawing from a commons of art history, popular culture, and personal narratives, the artists Molesworth has assembled for Feedback readily form a complex universal chora of band practice and social studies.
Shainman’s public school-cum-Kunsthalle venue offers a variety of sites redolent of primary indoctrination (Fordist instrumentalization?) within which artists can riff and play. In the main lobby entrance are Steve Locke’s neon text piece Untitled (I Remember Everything You Taught Me Here) (2020) together with Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller’s Feedback (2004), a pedal-activated amplifier of feedback that perhaps puts too fine a point on the show’s conceit. Locke’s neon piece is an interestingly equivocal challenge to the aforementioned indoctrination, more creatively subversive than his broadly didactic detournement of Josef Albers in his “Homage to the Auction Block” (2019–) series of paintings which are installed, like all of the works, episodically throughout the building. Molesworth mixes the show up in this way, as “rounds” in overlapping orchestration. In a corner of the entrance is Rose B. Simpson’s Flight Path (2021), a tall personage fashioned of ceramic, leather, and twine that seemingly channels Native American votive figures while a smaller room contains John Buck’s Talk of the Town (The) (2005), in wood and acrylic paint, which similarly takes the form of symbolic figuration as its template. Simpson’s generic human piece, with its strong vertical orientation, tracks aspirational while Buck’s headless female form juggles a variety of suggestive American political signifiers such as an oil well derrick, a tattered banner, and the Statue of Liberty. In both works an emphasis on tactile craft is primary, though Simpson’s is more visceral in this regard. North of the lobby entrance one encounters the first of multiple canvases in the exhibition by Becky Suss, Reading Room (2012). Her version of illustrative realism takes as its subject, without much editorialization, quiescent domestic spaces of contemplation and relaxation. There’s strong appeal to her constructive paint application and her energetically-patterned compositions, yet this patently conservative idiom sits a bit too comfortably in a Mattisean easy chair methodology. Down the hall from the lobby is stretched Tyler Mitchell’s Laundry Line (2020) on which a series of dye-transfer photographs of Black family portraits, models, and social influencers are recontextualized from social media along with textiles that extend this social dimension and palette. Is this a critical transformation of the “laundry list” of social media algorithmics into a specific locale, or just letting it all hang out for the viewer’s download?
Dana Sherwood and Christina Forrer’s works add a note of fantasy to Molesworth’s mix. Sherwood is a painter while Forrer works primarily in wool, cotton, and linen tapestries. In the Forest (2013), in colored pencil and acrylic paint on paper appears to be a study by Forrer for one of her tapestries. Her neck of the woods is that deep European folk history of fairy tales in which a female protagonist is often menaced by both natural and man-made misfortune. Dana Sherwood paints intimate animistic superimpositions of human and animal forms as in Inside The Belly of a Rabbit (2020). One is made to wonder how such a fantastic tangent fits into the overall social study of the show. Are these two representative of the vicarious satisfaction/wish-fulfillment versus socially conscious recognition dialectic posited in Bruno Bettelheim’s Uses of Enchantment (1976)?
In the large main space of the school are juxtaposed the plaster bandage figurative assemblages of Karon Davis, the cubistic collage sculptures of Black neighborhood signage by Lauren Halsey, a painting by Kerry James Marshall, Diedrick Brackens’s woven wall hanging, a Kohshin Finley painting, and one of Cauleen Smith’s neon signs. This largest space offers the opportunity to really see how the curator is thinking with regards to the form and content relationships between these various artists. Molesworth constructs a rather theatrical scenario with the works that contributes to an overall direction of Blackness. One is immersed in this scenario between Lauren Halsey’s raucous representations of Black-owned small businesses such as in Shirley’s (2021) hair care salon script and in the discount store chromatics of We Are Still Here (2021). These appear as condensations of certain blocks of small businesses in communities of color that are resistant to gentrification, or memories of what once were vibrant gathering places subsequently replaced by luxury condos. Karon Davis’s Double Dutch Girls presided over ominously by The Nun (Mother Superior) (both 2021), maintain a ghostly presence in the space in their stark white plaster-bandaged makeup, a longing, washed-out feel of memento mori picked up by Kerry James Marshall’s acrylic on Plexiglas painting Vignette #7 (2005) of lovers in portrait embrace. Kohshin Finley seems to chime in on this romantic riff with his three-quarter length grisaille portrait of Adam and Kai (2021). While the large scale of Diedrick Brackens’s wall hanging In Lieu of Locks and Dreams (2021) may have been dominant here, it tends to recede in its contemplative palette of purple, yellow, green, and black offering a welcome interval in the overall curatorial orchestration. Cauleen Smith’s neon Real Ninja’s (For Elijah) (2020)completes this particular feedback “round.” Elsewhere in the show are disbursed a few of Smith’s compelling videos such as Blue Scrubs, Yellow Scrubs, Trustees All Above and Orange Jumpsuit (both 2019) in which the artist works at making distinct flower arrangements (juxtaposed with social contexts) based on connotative color scales. The color-coded connotation of primary care service workers and the realm of the carceral relative to the disproportionate lack of social health and safety nets for communities of color is clear. Yet via such a radical apposition of the genteel craft of flower arrangement with stark documentary footage the artist manages to speak to the social in both broad and specific tongues, thereby making her tactical, political instrumentation that much more expressive.
There is much more to this rambling show that editorial space does not permit. Although I wouldn’t want the review to be overdetermined by spoilers in any case (especially because of the commitment it takes to visit this important regional venue), a few more works of note demand mention. Roy Dowell’s sensitive symbolic abstractions, such as Untitled #1162 (2020) served to connect the show to a tradition of abstract transcendence in the vein of Hilma af Klint and Sandford Biggers is represented here by both his textile works and his appropriative marble mash-ups of traditional African and Greco-Roman sculptures. A monumental Lynette Yiadom-Boakye oil portrait, Underlife (2013), graces the school’s reading room. In all, the ensemble effect of the show takes on an imperative tone of voices of difference making up a chorus of commonality. Extending the musical metaphor, it is a concerted effort by Molesworth to conduct what composer Butch Morris would refer to as a “structural improvisation” yet with a distinct social timbre.