If talking about music is like dancing about architecture, issuing press releases for art shows is like conducting a serious interview with a comedian about what makes something funny. Advertising art is a dissonant process, and curators and artists walk a fine line among pep, hype, and ick. Some address the problem by concentrating on the story behind the art or the artists ("BankShow 08 is an eclectic exhibition of art works by employees at a bank"), some get philosophical ("Formulated within a mind that rarely rests, these surrealistic creatures exist in a perpetual state of struggle as they have traveled from the artist's subconscious to the waking world of the general public"), and some just try to be as straightforward as possible in their descriptions ("New paintings by Crystal Sylver"). Then there are those that get whimsical ("Jay Howell rules awesome town, fuck mountain and all the surrounding area in or around the witches house"), or those that ignore the conventions of advertising altogether (like the recent press release for Lutz Bacher's show at Ratio 3, which offered the artist's name, venue details, and a recipe for butterscotch pudding).
It used to be that the only people who saw these press releases were members of the press, trained to let both whimsy and promotion wash right over their thickened skins. But thanks to Web sites like Fecalface.com and Happenstand.com, which list art openings and events, the innocent gallery-going public is now exposed to the ballyhoo. Most of it is not terrible, but some of it does a real injustice to the shows, either by overselling them and thus obscuring their small charms, or by ruining the element of surprise.
Last week I went to several art shows based mostly on their press releases; two in particular got me thinking about the effect of P.R. The first was "The Dissemblists" at Little Tree Gallery, a tiny space in the heart of the Mission. The show features work by Callyann Casteel, Maeghan Reid, and Lyla Rose, whom the curator, Andrew Berardini, groups together under the made-up movement that is the show's title. In defending his decision to name a new movement, Berardini, a critic for LA CityBeat and other publications, offers a mini essay that kicks off with a definition of dissemble and invokes heavyweights like Jean Baudrillard and Kurt Vonnegut. He groups the artists together, he writes, not just because they "share some sense of space in Southern California (all of them at one point or another in the near or distant past and future have called Los Angeles and its environs home)," but because "through their work they create and pull stories out of things, rife with inexplicable drama, hiding the nature of the things themselves through the essence of the assembled elements." These artists "pull together the handmade, the broken, and the found to create narratives, sometimes obfuscated and personal, other times absurd and far flung. A radical sensibility and a political gesture whose only dogma is ambiguity."
Wow! I rushed down to Little Tree. The tiny (did I mention tiny?) space is dominated by Casteel's costumes, which look like towering Muppets put through the nightmare factory. They're ugly, quite affecting, and not at all ambiguous. Collages by Reid and Rose make up the rest of the show — beautiful pieces that don't venture beyond the traditional definition of assemblage. In an untitled work by Reid, glitter glue has been applied over a found image of a waterfall. The glue drips out of the image and pools on the white paper below.
"The Dissemblists" is a show that might charm and intrigue if you discovered it while passing by, but as evidence of a meaningful movement it fails. The work is just too lightweight, and the accompanying literature too heavyhanded.
"As Above So Below," at Hamburger Eyes, has a similar problem. Curator Chris Fitzpatrick says the show was inspired by images of the Chilean volcano Chaitén, which has been undergoing a series of eruptions since May. The eruptions produce plumes of ash and lightning storms; photos of this dramatic phenomenon have been published in National Geographic and elsewhere.
Fitzpatrick has gathered some stunning work, including "Psy Ops, Electro Magnetic Pulse Test in Marin Vally, CA," by Gerald Edwards III, which transplants a huge phallic column of lightning into an idyllic-looking forested suburb; and a video by Daniel Oates-Kuhn that shows mysterious white orbs twinkling on a black horizon. There is also a goofy green papier-mâché volcano by the collective Anonymous Orphan, spewing a fog that made everyone in the gallery wheeze.
This is a fun, successful show with work that stands on its own merits, but Fitzpatrick distracts us with too much information. The press release tells us that the show's title comes from the Emerald Tablet, an ancient Hermetic text. There is a table stuffed with literature about the mythical origins of the Amanita mushroom and film scripts. There is a video by Brad Troemel that we're told is meant to induce seizures. Then there's a coloring book by Michelle Y. Hyun that's its own fairy tale entirely.
Fitzpatrick, clearly a talented curator, wants us to make the connections. "Can an exhibition generate a film in the minds of its viewers?" his press release asks.
Sure it can, but sometimes a volcano is enough.