The Spectacular of Vernacular

Walker Art Center

Regan Golden-McNerney

Lari Pittman, Untitled #30 (A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation), 1994; acrylic, enamel and glitter on two wood panels; 83 x 160 inches; © Lari Pittman; courtesy Regen Projects, Los Angeles

Marc Swanson, Untitled (Looking Back Buck), 2004; crystals, polyurethane foam and adhesive; 36 x 18 x 18 inches; © Marc Swanson; courtesy Richard Gray Gallery, Chicago

Chock full of pattern and color, The Spectacular of Vernacular at the Walker Art Center indirectly answers critic Roberta Smith’s call to curators to set aside “visual austerity and coolness of temperature” in favor of artworks “made by one person out of intense personal necessity, often by hand” (“Post-Minimal to the Max,” New York Times, February 14, 2010). The artist’s hand is readily apparent in the forty artworks by twenty-five artists comprising this exhibition. Such intensive handicraft provokes the very question, what “necessitates” making art? Within the scope of this exhibition, the answer lies in ameliorating or making reparations for a loss. Although the artwork is sometimes mournful, it also verges on celebratory as evident in Dario Robleto’s Demonstrations of Sailor’s Valentines (2009), where a profusion of red cut-paper flowers adorn an oversized placard memorializing sailors lost at sea. Mike Kelley’s More Love Hours than Can Ever be Repaid (1987), with its worn stuffed animals stitched into an expansive woolen blanket, is another monument to lost love. In their devotional excess, both works transform the ordinary into the exceptional: taking the “vernacular”—something familiar, typically a form of speech, architecture or craft—and making it “spectacular,” a sight to behold. Each work in the show enacts this transformation, with the most compelling works using this shift to challenge myths about rural America, disrupt stereotypes of the “primitive” and reconfigure American history, all while dazzling viewers with glitter and comforting them with wool.

Taking aim at the myth of rural America, a persistent black hole appears at the center of the old photographs flickering past in William E. Jones’ projected video Kill (2009). The black dot is the “kill mark,” a hole punched through negatives, taken by artists working for the 1930s Farm Security Administration, that did not conform to the FSA’s image of rural America. Jones’ sequencing of these “wounded” images makes the hole into an act of erasure and a reminder of the editing of American history. Opposite Jones’ video, Aaron Spangler’s carved wooden sculptures, such as To the Valley Below (2009–10), also mash up pastoral iconography from the 1930s, even including Grant Wood’s rolling Iowa hills. These haunting monochrome totems of black-painted wood appear like charred relics mourning a bygone era. Alongside photographs by William Eggleston and Walker Evans interspersed throughout the exhibition, Spangler’s sculptures and Jones’ video carve away the idyllic image of rural America and point to the complicated role of artists in perpetuating its myth.

Further examining how fantasy informs American history, several artists appropriate and reconfigure popular images of historical events. In Matthew Day Jackson’s painting November 18, 1978 (2010) orange yarn swirls out from under a rooftop in a rendering of an aerial press photo of the Jonestown massacre. The yarn, a material associated with warmth and comfort, is disarming; the spiraling patterns suggest the power of fantasy to warp one’s sense of reality. In Kara Walker’s Selections from “Harper’s Pictorial History of the Civil War (Annotated)” (2005) the black silhouette of a male slave emerging from a cave is screen-printed over an illustration of “Foote’s Gun-Boats Ascending to Attack Fort Henry” borrowed from a popular late nineteenth-century account of the Civil War. The silhouette can be seen as covering the landscape or creating a hole in the image, either interpretation pointing to the tremendous degree to which African-Americans are missing from the popular narratives of American history. Walker’s use of the outmoded craft of cut-paper silhouettes criticizes the similarly outdated stereotypes of gender and ethnicity that characterize her figure. The exaggerated physiognomy of Walker’s silhouette reminds the viewer of the way fantasy, shaped by bias, influences the version of American history told, popularized and reproduced through the vernacular.

Siah Armajani, Closet Under Dormer, 1984–85; wood, paint, shellac, mirror; 107 ½ x 48 x 27 ¼ inches; collection Walker Art Center, Minneapolis; T. B. Walker Acquisition Fund, 1986

Dario Robleto, Demonstrations of Sailor’s Valentines, 2009; cut paper, various seashells, colored wax, cartes de visites, silk, ribbon, foam core, glue; 59 x 52 x 6 inches; Des Moines Art Center Permanent Collections; purchased with funds from the Ellen Pray Maytag Madsen Sculpture Acquisition Fund, 2009.75

Marina Abramovic’s video Balkan Erotic Epic: Exterior Part 1(B) (2005) similarly addresses the desires, as well as the gender and ethnic stereotypes, embedded in vernacular iconography particular to myths of the “motherland.” Abramovic, dressed in an unbuttoned folk costume, massages her large, exposed breasts before the camera. Though this performance is based on a Serbian custom, Abramovic’s act primarily reveals the lust latent in the iconic winking girl with braids painted on a beer stein in a Midwestern gift shop. This interpretation is heightened by the adjacent brightly colored lettering in Lari Pittman’s painting A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #30 (1994) that shouts, “HEY GIRL, LOVE-SEXI, CUM N’ GIT IT!” Pittman’s text, from a personal ad, marks a new form of vernacular speech—speaking in a “native” or “mother tongue” to communicate one’s most intimate desires. Facing Pittman’s painting is a stack of shimmering antlers encrusted in sequins like kitschy trophies to “bucks” conquered. Marc Swanson’s (Untitled) Antler Pile (2010) is an attempt to reconcile two, often divergent images of masculinity: the hunting tradition of the artist’s childhood home in New England and the gay music scene he discovered as an adult in San Francisco. All three works expose the often-sexualized desire that is latent in the vernacular images and objects that beckon a return to the idyllic “homeland.”

Many other works in the exhibition express a longing for home, real or imagined. Chris Larson’s installation Unnamed (2010) conflates the two by using an emblem of vernacular architecture—the covered bridge—to act as vantage point over his hometown of Minneapolis–St. Paul. In this installation two life-sized bisecting covered bridges made of unfinished pine breach the glass wall of the Walker’s atrium, extending out onto the front lawn. Viewers can walk into the bridges, elevated above the gallery, to look down into the gallery or to look across the snowy city. The bridges, inspired by the cover on a romance novel set in the quaint Midwest, now provide a scenic overlook onto the urban landscape surrounding the museum. From this elevated position, the viewer seems suspended between inside and out, an apt experience in an exhibition that brings craft techniques and a thrift-store aesthetic into the contemporary art museum. In their transforming of the ordinary into the spectacular, the artists and works assembled here reveal the myths and histories hidden in the familiar turns of phrase, ordinary objects and archetypal structures that we put to use every day.

Regan Golden-McNerney is an artist and writer based in Chicago.

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