The Virtue of Dissent

by Amy Ritchie Johnson

Perversion 1

In Perversion of Form, a group exhibition at 1708 Gallery (March 31-May 13, 2017) featuring Robert Beatty, Sarah Briland, Ryan Crowley, Ben Durham, and Mike Goodlett, the group of artists identifies their common goals by this statement: “The ambiguities at play in their work reflect an attraction to and reaction against the pre-existing systems, products, and infrastructures that dominate our sense of self and the surrounding world. Spanning drawing, sculpture, video, and sound, this work reveals a need to experience the world through the transformation of material, and a desire to speak not of function, comfort, and beauty, but of doubt, unease, and corporeality.”

Function, comfort, and beauty, in this case, being the prevailing concerns of the Western social and art traditions these artists have evolved within. Whereas doubt, unease, and corporeality, especially as it relates to the materiality of the body, and presumably of experience, are traditionally shunned or tabooed.

When Durham calls the exhibition “a maker’s show,” he’s referring to formalist notions of material, manipulation and process taking precedence over concept or content; that each of these artists “work through ideas—through life in general—via material.” They engage material with an unease (distrust?) of traditional value placements on prevalent formal considerations; including function, beauty, … but perhaps also, meaning.

In a 2010 Ode Magazine article, Jeremy Mercer delved into the important role of dissent in the ongoing building of our communities and societies. Even if ultimately, as dissent results in change or innovation, the alternative view then becomes absorbed into the consensus, so that the value of dissent lies in the ongoing role it plays in the process of perception and creation of human endeavors and ideologies.

“We all have an impulse to see these structures melt,” said Durham, as in entropy, or the breaking down and losing of specificity—pushing a material or a form so far that it has to be recognized for what it truly is, a construct. (Of the mind, of the tradition of a respective medium.) This is illustrated in the use of non-traditional materials pervasively throughout the exhibited works, and the way the artists elevate the importance of their materials by listing each one specified in the title text: plaster, window smudges, heater core, spray paint, thread, chainlink fence, aluminum foil.

Perversion 2

In The Football Team, Goodlett pushes the boundaries of how seriously we take our body forms, how personal. He emphasizes the absurdity and oddball features of the human body, its sprouting hairs and wonky appendages that slink or swell, the inflated importance with which we organize bodies into feats of prowess, as in a sports team. He has created organically-shaped sewn fabric molds and poured concrete into them, sometimes peeling back the fiber to reveal the newly solidified form within. We can imagine natural laws working back and forth from fluidity to hardness. Is desire an intrinsic force of nature, like gravity?

Acting as fulcrum in the gallery space, Crowley’s GUM plays with the perversity of calling something one thing when it is actually another thing. In this case the imposing solidity of the large-scale sculpture made of plaster, cast bronze, plastic, steel wire, etc, with the word G U M marked grandly upon its surface, a word that means amorphousness and plasticity in our lexicon but in this juxtaposition manages to deconstruct both our understanding of “gum” and of what we can see and touch and feel as solid object in front of us.

Through the erratic grid of GUM we eye Beatty’s two animated video projections, Bifurcated Passthrough and Red Passthrough. These works may be on the farthest wall of the gallery and constantly tugging against the varying sunlight for clarity, but they pervade the entire space with their movement and sound. The left video has biomorphic forms, referencing Goodlett’s, coalescing into ever-changing shapes then oozing away again into another form, interrupting and falling away in a methodical rhythm that relates peripherally to the sound. These are strange discordant sounds that fade into the exhibition background but at the same time chafe at the comfort in the space. Especially in relation to Briland’s undulating, quiet sculptures.

The video on the right shows hard-edge lines moving around haphazardly on a grid. How do the forms of the body relate to the organization and constraint of the grid? As in the gridded streets of the city, the grids of the suburban housing development, the grid of the chain-link fence. Grids as containers and borders that tell us where to keep out, to go, or to pass through in a directed fashion.

The artists themselves form a collaborative “computing grid” (def., the collection of resources from multiple locations to reach a common goal). Their longstanding relationships, built on various interpersonal, geographical, and educational overlaps, exposes preexistent commonalities and divergences that over time have influenced each other’s art practices and artworks. The way the pieces in this exhibition play off each other visually and spatially elucidates the sense of shared community and resultant depth of exchange between the artists.

Back to the grid of chain-link fence: Durham, working beyond the graphite-and-paper tradition of drawing, has taken found chainlink fence and embedded it in thick handmade paper, so that drawing becomes sculpture. With rusted fence sometimes visible, these grid works are black or cream, void of color, rich in texture and repetition. Only one, Chain-link Fence Silhouette (John), includes a figure silhouette alluding to his earlier works, from the graphite text-based portraits to his parsed paper anti-portraits.

Perversion 4

A hypnotic back and forth occurs between Durham and Briland; her 3D textural forms seen against his almost flattened wall pieces, minimality and lushness allied in a dance instead of in opposition as we typically perceive them to be. Briland’s sculptures, employing manmade materials like bubble wrap and memory foam mattress, defy the presuppositions of those commercial materials into gorgeous geological forms. They happen to induce a de-stressed psychological state. Fractals maybe? Problematica (Foam Rock Seep) anchors the ground beneath us, an ocean-crafted boulder of glittery stone oozing some fictive black essence (glass).

Perversion 3

Nearby is Crowley’s Wig, where we find unemployed silver hooks embedded in the wall behind the sculpture, hardware serving no purpose or function and not even in contact with the sculpture itself. They are invisible from the front, so they have no aesthetic purpose either. They are anti-functional, dwelling in the shadow space of the sculpture suggesting a kind of mutualistic existence. Imagine the hooks like wood ferns thriving beneath the canopy of tree, receiving slivers of sunlight through spaces between branches. The hooks do receive cutouts of light from the overt object made of plaster, pipe cleaners, plastic, sawdust, glue, spray enamel, and oh, there it is on the materials list: four hooks.

Finally, and in full circle, we must look up, out of the traditional exhibition space, where we discover Goodlett’s found object tucked away above our heads on a ledge. There she is, a statue Virgin Mary, painted red instead of the traditionally symbolic blue. She is turned away, her back to us, her face and hands open against the wall. This might be the most blatant subversive act in the whole show, but also nearly unnoticeable. It’s a gentle totem of intention hovering over the other artworks. All the artists here are trafficking energetically in a language of dissent against (from within) common expectation and assumption, maybe even against the culturally and art school conditioned mind of the artist. Their effort ultimately brings a reinvigorated freedom of experience to the viewer, whose own mind pushes claustrophobically against “the box” all day long every day, and finds, in this exhibition, plenty of fresh undefined air.

Amy Ritchie Johnson is an independent art writer, curator, and educator, Richmond, VA


Perversion of Form, on view at 1708 Gallery March 31 – May 13, 2017

Images: Perversion of Form (installation views), Courtesy of Terry Brown.

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.

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