Written in response to Greg Stewart’s exhibition, Engine Of Bones Man the Handyman on view at 1708 Gallery June 3 to July 9, 2011.
Frequent, easy mobility between places and cultures, a condition that helped form our global society, now defines it. As a culture, we seldom remain in one house, or even one community, over the course of our lifetimes. A desire to establish roots that motivated earlier generations no longer drives us.
Artist Greg Stewart projects an extreme version of this condition, envisioning a future where people never stay in one place but are always on the move. In Stewart’s imagined world, genetically formed animal-plant hybrids are carted on makeshift wheel barrows allowing humankind to transport their own sustenance. Stewart’s wearable “hides”, which are made with camouflage blankets and fabrics and antlers, underscore the notion that these objects are utilitarian.
The rough-hewn, Mad Max appearance of Stewart’s work conveys a certain post-apocalyptic tone and it is hard not to see these creations as dystopian visions of a future inspired by a collapsed housing market and economic recession. One imagines Stewart’s train of thought moving from foreclosure to this state of hard-scrabble, semi-homelessness.
The survivalist mentality that runs through his work seems to predict doom and gloom. Yet one also senses humor at play as both the hides and the animal-plant composites suggest the absurd, tempering notions of a dire warning. And there is something plainly hopeful about the signs of life on the fruit-bearing trees. Perhaps these works don’t imply homelessness as an end result so much as they imagine a nomadic existence as an alternative lifestyle. Stewart is not warning of bad times to come but rather offering his surreal and fantastical vision as an antidote.
In his exhibition at 1708 Gallery, Stewart’s installations had to be tended to–the real plants had to be watered and the lights that provided an alternative to sunlight had to be turned on. However, a few days after the exhibition opened, the leaves began to dry out and turn brown. As a result, Stewart made several trips to Richmond, VA (he lives in Harrisonburg, VA) to address the plants’ deteriorating condition. In some cases, the saplings’ roots were bad and the trees had to be replaced. Later it became clear that several were infested with bugs.
Stewart embraced these issues as part of the process and not as diminishing the installation, and offered a message that expanded his pioneer spirit to suggest a general need for flexibility and the ability to be adaptable and embrace change.
Such a message for resilience and readiness in the face of mutability offers plenty food for thought. Yet the more time I spent with Stewart’s installations, the more I believed that there was a larger vision. The deliberately awkward and forced configurations of Stewart’s hybrids led me to consider the idea of cultural hybridity, an idea that cultures don’t so much subsume one another (i.e. a melting pot) as co-exist and bang up against one another. Artist iona rozeal brown’s images of Japanese youth dressed in kimonos in blackface and with afros is one iteration of this idea.
What’s more, while we might come into contact with a lot of different cultures and ideas, these exchanges lack depth. Stewart’s use of faux camouflage and hunting blankets suggest a culture that invests more time acquiring the trappings for an activity and less time actually engaging with the activity. Stewart exposes a superficiality underpinning contemporary culture – that underneath the surface of a fast-paced, technologically advanced, yet teetering on the edge of financial and environmental collapse, society, is a fairly vapid existence.
This leads me back to the place where I started–to the idea of a rootless existence. Stewart imagines a world that is post-culture, post-society, and that is propelled by the need, or the compulsion to always be on the move. The other side of this rootless-ness is a society that is increasingly more virtual, where, rather than moving from New York to London to Berlin to Tokyo, one never needs to leave one’s home – we work from home, order groceries from home and socialize via Google life. Perhaps instead of Stewart’s mobile animal-plants, all one REALLY needs is an iPad. No home required. What this condition also suggests is that all of our experiences are mitigated, that there are no real experiences to be had because they are filtered through one’s computer monitor or by the desire to outfit a home with camouflage to represent your relationship with the natural world.
Emily Smith is the Executive Director of 1708 Gallery. Prior to coming to 1708, Emily was the Curatorial Fellow in Modern and Contemporary Art at the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts where she worked from 2007 until 2010. Projects at VMFA include the exhibitions, The Ludwig and Rosy Fischer Collection of German Expressionist Art; Matisse, Picasso, and Modern Art in Paris; and Labor and Leisure: Works by African American Artists in the VMFA Permanent Collections. Prior to VMFA, she was Director of Exhibitions at Piedmont Arts in Martinsville, Virginia (2004-2007) and the Assistant Director at Second Street Gallery, Charlottesville, Virginia (2003-2004). Smith was an adjunct faculty member in art history at Patrick Henry Community College, Martinsville, VA and was a critic for a Charlottesville, Virginia weekly paper. Smith received a MA in Art History from the University of Virginia in 2002.
ext. 1708 is an on-line journal funded through a grant from the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, which also supports 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions. 1708 Gallery’s mission is to promote new art, a mission achieved via a rotating schedule of exhibitions that presents a diverse range of projects. In relation, 1708 Gallery strives to educate the public about Contemporary art and employs artist talks and didactic text panels to illustrate the exhibiting artist’s issues, themes, and modes of working. In an effort to further expand opportunities for education, this journal features essays, interviews and other writings that provide context for 1708 Gallery’s exhibitions and promote further dialogue about contemporary art. 1708 Gallery works with a range of writers, from graduate students to professional writers, to allow for multiple voices and experiences to contribute to this project.