Opacity and Tension

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Frank Zappa Questionnaire: John Berndt

jimmi≈research at Springsteen Gallery by C. Alexander

There is not much information made available to describe what jimmi≈research is or what its goals are. A web search for the name produces a website with a slideshow of a modular looking device in different natural settings. It is only through word of mouth that I know that jimmi≈research is the young project of recent MICA graduates Evan Roche, Harrison Tyler, and Lucas Haroldsen to develop the fully functioning 3D printer titled jimmi/beta that the three have designed from the ground up in the past year.

There is no available information, either online or in the gallery, suggesting that the group operates within the fine arts or has had any intentions to do so (besides their art school background). Nevertheless, the Friday opening of jimmi≈research, an eponymous show hosted at Springsteen Gallery, marked the tech startup’s first formal venture into that realm.

A release from the gallery offers that the show is “the result of a two week investigative process with Springsteen,” and that jimmi≈research identifies itself as an “interdisciplinary research project.” Entering into the space offers a similarly elusive experience. Three small wall pieces of about 8.5”x11” are mounted so that each one gets a wall to itself. One depicts a sentimental love poem addressed to “lofted plane” and is signed affectionately, “Love, Jimmi.”

The other two wall works are documents which adopt the visual and verbal languages of dense textbook writing, but describe figures and reference body movement. On the floor, a large triangle made of painted black plywood resembling an arcane measuring tool leans against a pole while a bulk roll of bubble wrap and a brightly colored, plastic bin on wheels each occupy opposite corners of the room. Two ice tubs are filled with bare metal, unlabeled (unopened) beer cans and are offset by one natural fibered coil basket at the center of the room. On the floors are scattered 3D printed sculptures that resemble tied rope knots.

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The two wall pieces that resemble pages from textbooks are the most magnetic for me. I approach them for information and immediately lose focus, just like I do with anything that looks like a TV repair manual, but I catch words that seem human and out of place for their stuffy context. Their inclusion reinforces the “tech company” identity of the group, though the rest of the show emphasizes an art context.

Comparing the objects in the space to the gallery statement, I am drawn to that idea that this show is the result of an “investigative process” between Jimmi and Springsteen rather than a composed exhibition–as if the audience’s role in the triangle relationship between artist, gallery, and audience is redundant. I found that my own exploration of the exhibit felt strikingly similar to walking in on the middle of a chess match. Having missed the first half of a chess game makes it near impossible to focus on the points of tension, even if you are well familiar with the rules and the attacks of the pieces. It’s easy to see that there are strong logics and strategies at play in this show, but no way to peer through the surface.

Despite this opacity, there were a few openings to the outsider viewer. While exercising my own redundancy in navigating the show, the one object that I went out of my way to ask about was the plastic bin in the corner which, it turned out, was a high tech, super efficient mop bucket that had been donated to the gallery to aid in the frequent clean ups necessary to maintain the surgical white that has become the space’s calling card. Soon after asking about it, the lights repeated what had been an ongoing cycle of shutting off the overpowered fluorescent lighting for just long enough that the audience’s eyes adjusted to the light of one yellow incandescent bulb in a wall outlet and a matching yellow glow from streetlights outside, reminiscent of Martin Creed’s “Work No. 227: The lights going on and off.

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These gestures in particular are strange because they combine with the move of altering the gallery’s alcohol (a standard opening night offering) to suggest that the “gallery opening” as well as “Springsteen” itself might be central subjects of the show. The blank beer cans bring the audience in as part of a worship for the neutral sort of cyber space that Springsteen has come to represent while the contextual changes of the light cycle and the mop bucket work to break the illusionism that the space might exist outside of the touchable world. Of course, this reading requires a familiarity with Springsteen’s space that relies on a dangerous level of exclusivity.

All the presented work in this exhibit seems more like a mirror to reflect on Springsteen’s identity, or perhaps even a funny piece of fan art. If that is the case, what role does Jimmi play as a guest in that space? Objective observer? Branding agent? Lover? It seems like Jimmi itself is ambivalent on that question. With work like technical documents and heartache love poems operating in the same space, one half of the show emphasizes the scientific myth of objectivity in their investigation while the other undermines that and promotes a belief in humanity. Jimmi’s self identification of interdisciplinary research project seems to be a compromise between the roles of Tech Company and Artist, a binary that parallels the same back and forth between objectivity and humanity.

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At times in this show, I am convinced that vagueness is an element at play–a nod towards the tendency for tech companies to develop a brand before there is a product– but other times it seems like a lack of ability to be specific in the topics that they are pointing at.

jimmi≈research is most successful when it draws me into the tension surrounding their methodology as artists and/or non-artists. This point seems to be increasingly relevant now, as the role of artist continues the trend towards embracing more traditionally “non- art” practices of manufacturing and of more formal understandings of business, such as with viral marketing strategies and with new approaches like Aesthletics. That said, I am keeping an eye out for when the cryptic method of presentation here hinders the work from addressing those ideas that Jimmi (so quietly!) hints towards. At its worst, the show could act as an aesthetic flavor of the week, but I get the sense that even the sexy look of the tech world and of the slick gallery is an element that the group is consciously pointing to, both invested in and a little skeptical of at the same time. If anything, I read that notion at the core of the show, but the opacity I am forced to wade through to arrive there seems unnaturally forced.

Author Colin Alexander is an artist, writer, curator, and musician currently living and working in Baltimore, MD. He graduated from the Maryland Institute College of Art in the Spring of 2014.

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