This week: Larry Cook’s Eternal Splendor at Galerie Myrtis, Expanded Dialogue at Guest Spot at the Reinstitute and MONOPractice, and C – Magnetic Cultures: Four Chinese Artists at Cardinal.
Larry Cook: Eternal Splendor, through January 25, 2020
Galerie Myrtis, 2224 N. Charles St., Baltimore 21218
Hours: Thursday–Saturday, 2–6 p.m. or by appointment
Artist talk: January 18, 2020 2–4 p.m.
Larry Cook, “Urban Landscapes #2,” digital print (2018)
Most people who grew up in or around this city, or who at least have lived here long enough, probably have some memory of the campy, airbrushed photo backdrops that used to pop up in the median in front of the Lyric during concerts or at graduation parties or nightlife events. The ones with giant bottles of Courvoisier and Chanel logos and stretch Hummers with glittery spinning rims. Getting your picture taken in front of a backdrop like this is usually, but not exclusively, a cultural practice associated with Black Baltimore. But even my Caucasian ass has a box somewhere in storage with Polaroids from some point in the 2000s at Pride or clandestine Westside after-hours spots or Bmore Club parties drunkenly posing in front of “glamorous” signifiers of conspicuous consumption. Lately, I haven’t seen these around as much, perhaps owing to the proliferation of smartphones and instant selfie-editing apps.
But it turns out this was a thing in the DC go-go scene too, where artist Larry Cook used to moonlight as a party photographer. Owing to this gig, he has quite the collection of these backdrops. And in a really brilliant, incongruous move he brought them and their over-the-top nouveau riche aesthetic with him to an artist residency on Martha’s Vineyard—that summertime bastion of a certain kind of New England Old Money who pride themselves on an ostentatiously discrete approach to being obscenely wealthy. It’s the kind of place where people who use “summer” as a verb—but kick themselves when they slip up and use “help” as a noun in their politically correct, liberal circles—summer in a carefully manicured simulacrum of a casual, leisurely countryside life. With the high-profile exception of the Obamas, it’s a place associated with a very specific kind of whiteness in the American mind.
And so, with this cultural context, the surreal photos of these people-less backdrops abandoned in bucolic settings take on several levels of meaning. But even without that context, they are just such good, weird photos it hurts. In one of these Urban Landscapes, as the series is titled, we see an airbrushed BMW parked in front of a row of airbrushed trees with a faint outline of a chalet behind it. It’s a backdrop that speaks to the popular imagination of an expensive suburban lifestyle—the idea of the countryside as commodity. And here, it’s parked in a daytime setting of what is most likely a deliberately preserved and curated wilderness—the foreground-background relationship between the ersatz and “the real” creating a sort of trompe-l’œil feedback loop that’s oddly satisfying and unsettling at the same time.
And in others we see airbrushed scenes of idealized beaches superimposed onto the fiercely protected wild seashores of the Vineyard. In each, there’s a corporate logo visible, usually of a “high-end” liquor—a relatively accessible status symbol that can make someone aspiring to a bourgeois strata of consumption feel momentarily rich—even as it makes them poorer in reality.
Seeing these gorgeous intervened landscapes hung next to another of Cook’s related series, The Visiting Room, evokes a kind of profound sadness. Were it not for Cook’s artist statement, I might not have guessed this, but the photos are taken in prisons. And here, the subjects—all Black men—are anonymous apart from that demographic information. Their backs are turned from the camera, facing toward the backdrops representing some fantasy trope of freedom, wealth, and power in the American psyche—the luxury sedan or the pre-9/11 Manhattan skyline. The physical closeness of the backdrop and conceptual distance between the figures in the foreground creates a palpable tension. And in the most haunting one, a man is turned toward an ambiguous seascape beyond a balustrade. Perhaps unintentionally, whoever the airbrush artist is seems to have referenced the just-out-of-reach light on Daisy’s pier in The Great Gatsby, shimmering like a mirage across the bay from Gatsby’s new-money imitation.
I found myself wondering how many summertime residents of Martha’s Vineyard profit—either directly or through unconsidered mutual funds—in the private prison-industrial complex. Or how many clinked glasses with the Clintons or Kennedys in support of escalating the War on Drugs or the land-grab Hope VI, involving the armed mass-eviction of Black families from public housing and into disputed gang turf. Even those who dutifully ostracized Trump supporters from the island’s polite society?
At the opening of Eternal Splendor, Cook had hired another party photographer to shoot attendees in front of one of these aspirational backdrops: a red Mercedes parked in front of a palm tree at sunset. I got my picture taken, which is a nice souvenir of a show I really love and a generous gesture on the part of the artist and gallery. But then I wondered if I should feel guilty—am I a tourist in the dreams of the other? Or are we all? Is any participation in the fetishization of consumption and the inherent violence of capitalism ever really innocent dreaming? Eternal Splendor starts peeling back a lot of layers just beneath the surface of superficial vanity. And damn, it looks good doing it.
Expanded Dialogue, through December 7, featuring Kat Chamberlin, Brian Michael Dunn, Giulia Piera Livi, and Doreen McCarthy
Guest Spot at the Reinstitute, 1715 N. Calvert St., Baltimore 21202
Hours: Wednesday 5–7 p.m. and Thursday 1–4 p.m.
MONOPractice, 212 McAllister St., Baltimore 21202
Hours: Thursdays and Saturdays 1–4 p.m., or by appointment
Expanded Dialogue at MONOPractice
By happy accident, while walking to one of two openings for Expanded Dialogue, I happened to be on the phone trying to help a Mexican buy a gift for a Swedish family (I know this sounds like the setup to a “priest-and-a-rabbi-walk-into-a-bar” kind of joke, but I swear there’s no punchline coming). I kept trying to explain that this family had a really high taste level that was kinda modern but also kinda hygge–a Scandinavian concept for a cuddly, cozy happiness that doesn’t really have a direct translation in English and definitely does not in Spanish. I only bring this up because there’s a certain kind of itch an art writer gets when language fails to do justice to an aesthetic concept, and stepping into either of the two Baltimore galleries hosting Expanded Dialogue immediately reminded me of abstraction’s wonderful capacity to scratch it.
Both local exhibition spaces (a third, Brooklyn’s Tiger Strikes Asteroid NY, collaborated on the show and hosted a “precursor” exhibition) are dominated by Doreen McCarthy’s lovably awkward and huge inflatable sculptures. But maybe “dominated” isn’t the right word either? There’s a gentle, almost goofy vulnerability to these. I found myself wanting to give their soft, deceptively lumpy-up-close bodies a hug. And maybe that’s the nonverbal communication that tells us what a cuddly, cozy, modernist happiness would feel like?
Likewise, Giulia Piera Livi’s wall-hanging minimalist sculptures upholstered in soft materials invite comparison with furniture and the urge to snuggle. They could be cushions from a Danish modern daybed, speaking to a high-end design object of desire. But then again, they could be voluptuous architectural details that drifted out of the abstract cityscapes depicted in Kat Chamberlin’s graphite drawings. Those drawings have a delicate, almost schematic quality, but like most of the work here, their surfaces betray a lovely texture—traces of the hand never feel too distant from the objects in Expanded Dialogue, an unexpected joy for a show that very much embraces minimalist aesthetics.
That conceit is probably most evident in Brian Michael Dunn’s strange, paper-like steel sculptures, which aren’t quite abstract in the traditional sense—they’re representations of pieces of graphic design such as album inserts or newspapers. Here though, the content has been removed and reduced to blocks of color, not unlike so many metal overpass walls buffed in hopelessly mismatched greys to cover graffiti. They’re maybe the least “cuddly” of the objects here, despite their attempts at evoking softness and slumping discreetly around both live-work gallery spaces. But in this day and age, isn’t the idea of a newspaper buffed of content kinda comforting? Their hand-painted but sleek, industrial surfaces trying so hard to be soft serve as a nice thematic capstone to this show.
In all the work here, modernism’s aesthetic legacy and playful nods to the snuggly tactile maybe bring a bit of joyful hygge to these house galleries—contexts that themselves prove the minimalism of the white box and the lived/worked-in domestic can make cozy bedfellows.
C – Magnetic Cultures: Four Chinese Artists, through November 29, featuring Bingyi Liu, Jia Sun, Beichen Zhang, Ruiqi Zhang
Cardinal, 1758 Park Ave., Baltimore 21217
Hours: Wednesday 6–9 p.m and Friday–Sunday: 1–6 p.m
Screening of Where We Stand by Yunye Chen on Saturday, November 23, 7 p.m.
Ruiqi Zhang, “Manifesto: Art Downgrade,” video (image courtesy Minwen Wang)
Usually when I walk into a show and notice it’s comprised of mostly videos I find myself asking: Why is this a gallery hang and not a screening series? But C – Magnetic Cultures makes several convincing, interrelated cases for the idea of video art as an object to be placed in a physical context. It’s one of those rare screen-centric shows where sitting through a lot of time-based media in succession (some pieces less than others, admittedly) doesn’t feel like a chore.
Part of that is due to the show’s youthful, kinda cyberpunk energy—exemplified by Ruiqi Zhang’s roughly four-and-a-half minute “Manifesto: Art Downgrade,” in which the artist films himself testifying to the democratic possibilities of instant, post-internet aesthetics in quotidian situations from the shower to the supermarket. And I get the sense that, to these young artists, there’s not a big distinction between the reality of the screen and that of physical space. Objects and video freely mix, as in Bingyi Liu’s humorous, interactive installation featuring a treadmill and flatscreen or Beichen Zhang’s poetic “11,565 Kilometers,” a mixed-media documentary project back-tracking an ancient coffin’s unlikely trajectory from a neon-lit antiquities market in his hometown in China to the collections of the University of Pennsylvania.
And leaving the show, I had another thought: the geopolitical context of where these screens physically exist is one that I take for granted. But curator Minwen Wang and the four artists represented here all moved to the Mid-Atlantic for art school after having grown up in China, where YouTube and Vimeo are blocked and the national alternatives are strictly surveilled and censored. In the weeks before and after the show opened, it’s been impossible to ignore news stories about the brutal suppression of student movements in Hong Kong. And with that in mind, this gallery full of glowing screens takes on the liberatory, buzzy energy of a cybercafe for tentatively subversive expats. The physical space of video and its dissemination and discourse is vitally important.
I hate to mention Ai Wei Wei, because Wang made it clear in an email that she was not interested in curating a show about Chinese-ness through the lens of identity politics in the obsessive Western sense. And there, I think she’s succeeded—this is a show about individuals experiencing a sense of rupture from prescribed identity in a new context. But I bring up Ai Wei Wei because, to me, his most compelling work was that which he made as an art student in New York after leaving China for the first time. He documented the chaotic protest movements and counterculture of the East Village in the ‘80s—his first exposure to dissidence. Upon returning to China, before he started making the schlocky commercial stuff we’re all familiar with now, Ai Wei Wei was one of the founders of a clandestine network of underground art spaces and subversive academics disseminating zines and the idea that “art” could be an act of resistance. It’s hard not to draw a parallel with the experiences of this generation of digital artists, experimenting in the not-quite-World-Wide Wild West(ern) Web with stuff you just couldn’t do at home.
I’m thinking of Jia Sun’s chilling two-channel installation “Education Production,” in which an official-sounding voice speaking Mandarin rattles off plans for making the Chinese education system more efficient and standardized, according to the English subtitles. It sounds like the audio from a newsreel or propaganda film, and it’s dubbed over stock footage of assembly lines moving untold numbers of chicken eggs and mass-producing latex gloves. The eggs and uncanny hands function as surrogate anatomy—evoking a shade of cyborg horror that’s more sinister than the human-prosthesis relationship implied in Liu’s treadmill piece, or other works in the show alluding to absent or displaced bodies. Depending on the order in which you view the show, the two monitors are either the first or last thing you see entering the small, pleasantly crowded gallery. It’s another clever curatorial move by Wang—Sun’s work serves as a dystopian counterpoint to the optimistic message I got from the show, a message that art and technology can help us excavate unique past and future personal histories despite the uncertain realities of the present.
Larry Cook images courtesy of the artist and Galerie Myrtis. Expanded Dialogue images by Michael Anthony Farley. C — Magnetic Cultures image courtesy of Minwen Wang.
Featured image: Larry Cook, “The Visiting Room #2,” digital print (2019); Doreen McCarthy, “Voluptuary,” inflated vinyl (2016), on view in Expanded Dialogue at Guest Spot at the Reinstitute; Ruiqi Zhang, “Manifesto: Art Downgrade,” video.