Charles Browning, Jennifer Dalton, Eric Heist, Laurie Hogin, Lou Laurita
Walter Martin, Paloma Muñoz, Laura Parnes, William Powhida, Heidi Schlatter, Michael Waugh & David Wojnarowicz
“What is a Caucus-race?” said Alice …
“Why,” said the Dodo, “the best way to explain it is to do it.” …
First it marked out a race-course, in a sort of circle (“the exact shape doesn’t matter,” it said), and then all the party were placed along the course, here and there.
There was no “One, two, three, and away!” but they began running when they liked, and left off when they liked, so that it was not easy to know when the race was over. However, when they had been running half an hour or so … the Dodo suddenly called out “The race is over!” and they all crowded round it, panting, and asking, “But who has won?”
from Alice in Wonderland, Lewis Carroll
The idea of a caucus is distinctly American, which is probably why Lewis Carroll ridiculed it in Alice in Wonderland. A caucus is a group of like-minded people who come together to make a decision, and often that decision is about a decision. The US Congress has a Black Caucus, a Hispanic Caucus, even an Internet Caucus; the members of these caucuses discuss how they will vote – when a vote eventually comes. The Iowa Caucus, as well, essentially decides whom voters might like to vote for in the future – when the election occurs. It is in this spirit of deciding about decisions, and especially the deferring of decisions about leadership, that the artists in this show have formed a caucus.
Though most of the works in this show are not essentially about politics, they offer insight about the nature of choice and the lengths people go to in order to be chosen. As such, this show is timely and relevant. But more than that, the works in this show employ a dark beauty that reminds us of how power engenders its own aesthetics, an aesthetics in which a choice may seem a forgone conclusion. When that happens, the caucus is not mere procedure, but a necessary attempt to call each other out, to identify our own self-destructive desire to relinquish responsibility.
David Wojnarowicz’s iconic photograph Untitled (Falling Buffalo) typifies the attitude in this show towards deferred decisions. His gorgeous landscape presents buffaloes suicidally racing off a cliff, presumably chased by hunters. The herd mentality isn’t particularly good at devising creative solutions. Yet the crisp tonalities, the setting, and the fact that the buffaloes are merely maquettes all conspire to make the narrative seem as romantic as it is apocryphal.
By placing into a snow globe a scene of soldiers who are alternately shooting into the sky and blowing their own heads off, Walter Martin and Paloma Muñoz transform a scene that should be horrifying. Physically diminutive, technically ingenious, the piece elicits a dark glee from viewers that is so strong as to make one forget simple questions like: why are the soldiers spinning out of control and choosing to end it all? Though, we may just as easily be avoiding that question because we already know the answer.
Heidi Schlatter’s light boxes also present seductive scenes, referencing the advertisements at bus stops and on subway platforms, with hip youths bearing corporate logos. The scenery may be bucolic. The logos may be prominent. The youths may be beautiful. But they are dead. By taking the form of advertisements, these pieces imply a persuasive rhetoric. But how far are we willing to be lead?
Lou Laurita avoids that question through a mandate: FOLLOW. Written large, the letters of this word form the outline of his drawing. Within those large block letters are two other things: the lyrics of the song Make it With You (also the title of Laurita’s piece) by Bread – and photographs grabbed off the internet showing people in various states of intoxication. Amid the sincerity of the pop lyrics (with their entreaty that a sexual encounter could lead to something deep and lasting), the command to follow and the drunk faces set a scene in which a locus for the right decision gets hopelessly deferred.
Michael Waugh’s drawing, The Assumption (of the Public Debt), writes out by hand, a long, rhetorically sophisticated argument: Alexander Hamilton’s report to the US congress on why the federal government should assume the debt incurred by the states during the revolution. By accepting his argument, the congress transformed the United States into a capitalist institution and global power. The image of the drawing is of George Washington being assumed into heaven, neither that nor global dominance were mentioned in the report, though a master rhetorician knows when to withhold and simplify the choices.
With Teller (from US trust), Eric Heist presents the simplest of choices: none. The minimal elegance of black glass framed by more black offers us nothing but a beautiful abyss. Seductive though it is, such transcendence falls away when one realizes that the blank panels are actually bank teller windows. The austerity of the work is non-negotiable.
Jennifer Dalton seems to offer viewers more room for negotiation. Visually spare and elegant, like Heist’s piece, her sculpture, Would You Rather be a Loser or a Pig? sets a transparent box on top of a white pedestal; the box appears to be filled with grey rubber loops. But, again like Heist’s piece, the elegance disintegrates. The rings are actually cheap rubber bracelets. Moreover, viewers are instructed to take one bracelet, choosing between one that has the word “Loser” printed on it or one with the word ”Pig.” Presenting as a choice that which is no choice at all may leave one with the desire to abstain.
In Charles Browning’s painting Fluid Allegory, even the option to abstain has consequences. Referencing 19th century American romanticism, Browning presents America (symbolized by an Indian maiden) with Europe (symbolized by a pink baby) attempting to suckle at her teat. The maiden recoils, refusing to take part. But the baby has already latched on. Self-consciously over-the-top, blood from a dead deer and milk flow across the landscape.
Laurie Hogin’s work offers another route towards abstention: drugs. In a series of paintings, Hogin presents a pharmacy of animals who are anthropomorphically twisted, vile, pitiable. Yet the cheerful colors and astounding craft of these paintings make even these horrors marketable. Painting, still the king of art world commerce, transforms the grotesque into capital. But the self-reflexivity of these paintings, with the animals locking eyes with the viewer, turns consumption itself into allegory. Consumption of drugs or paintings, it makes no difference.
The actors in Laura Parnes’s work seem to have a more proactive solution: take up arms. In a still from her video, Blood and Guts in High School, a 1980’s punk girl is up against a wall, with gun in hand. Behind the wall, a sinister, white-collared man holds a gun too. Are the characters aware of each other and the threat the other poses? Are they working together? Making a choice is never easy, but if the rubble strewn in the background of the photograph is any indication, decisions have been made.