12 artists cram themselves into a small apartment to tackle the theme of intimacy. Sounds like a good idea to me.
Our idea of private galleries has changed quite a bit in the past 50 years. With the rise of mega-galleries and (in the words of these galleries themselves) “museum quality” exhibitions, commercial galleries evoke the image of a cavernous space where huge paintings, priced per-square-inch, hang on ceilings as high as the most decadent hotel lobbies. In this scheme of things, intimacy has become a pejorative—as something small, trifling, and ignorant of the grand purposes (either social or theoretical) of art making. Together with the still-lingering aversion to sentimentality in the fine art community, ‘legitimate’ expressions of intimacy must now be self-negating and ironic—giving license for artists like Jeff Koons, Claes Oldenburg, and Wayne Thiebaud (in his food paintings) to appropriate our domestic relics and sap them of sincerity. I think this is a dreadful state of affairs, as the only remaining way of presenting what once conveyed comfort and warmth self-destructively erodes its symbolic potential.
Thus, it immediately piqued my interest when I came to know about Close Quarters: An Apartment Show (held on December 9 and December 16). Curated by Simon Wu and Sydney King in their small Brooklyn apartment, the show exhibited a small group of young artists and writers who are relatively inexperienced in the exhibition circuit. The brochure laid down the purpose of the exhibition bluntly: that the participants “propose new ways of thinking about intimacy.”
King and Wu, who presented works of their own, did not hold back on exploiting the spatial format of the apartment. Many of the works shown are highly site-specific, artists such as Mira Dayal, Emily Madrigal, Gabriela Bucay, Caroline Levy, and Annie Bartholomew created works that directly commented on the domesticity of the space. However, with the prepackaged loaded nature of site-specificity, the works were predisposed to slip into two opposite extremes of obviousness or obfuscation. Not all works came out of such a demanding environment unscathed.
Dayal and Bartholomew, in particular, dealt with that most intimate and familiar of furniture—the bed. Even though Tracey Emin’s My Bed (1998) is almost twenty years behind us now, the complicated and often oxymoronic latent meanings of the bed have proven to be rich subjects for contemporary conceptual practice. A recent example of this fixation can be found in Laura Owen’s current show at the Whitney—her painting of two people in bed Untitled (2000) has been one of the primary marketing draws of the exhibition. Dayal and Bartholomew took this engagement with the bed one step further and used the bed and its accompanying parts as the literal support for their works. Bartholomew’s series of installations comprises an embroidered bedsheet, mini embroidered muslin pillows and a small felt sculpture attached to the corner of the wall near the doorway into the bedroom where all of this takes place. Bartholomew’s embroidery comprised text that reflected the thoughts of an anxious teenager, or a young adult. While I appreciated the visceral and uncomfortable nature of the text, the visual presentation gave me no room to navigate. The literalism of a bed being a place where angst and anxiety took place was so blatantly conveyed that it almost felt like a helpline PSA.
Dayal’s Bed to Bed (2017) is an installation of the printed bedsheet haphazardly fitted onto a queen-sized mattress. Unlike Bartholomew’s installation, Dayal’s piece veers sharply to the other end of the spectrum. The faint reddish brown streaked abstract patterning of the bedsheet seemed to disappear and fade into the dim lighting of the room, and most casual observers may miss it without the guidance of the exhibition guide. I found the pattern’s presence in the room lacking, especially given that the crumpled bed sheet camouflaged its appearance. Maybe I was too dense to appreciate the subtlety of the work, but when I am forced to turn to the artist statement (which, to be fair, was compelling—the pattern is a print of a scan of a stained and used mattress) to find significance, it is usually sign of a high-brow concept smothering the attention given to the final product. These attempts by Dayal and Bartholomew to engage with such a loaded support reveal the inherent difficulties in the endeavor, where the familiarity of the object gives the viewer numerous a priori preconceptions of the object that thwart the potential for deeper and complicated engagement.
Two other artists, Gabriela Bucay and Emily Madrigal, responded to the site-specific nature of the prompt in ways that interested me more. While the drawings Feeling Full (2017) by Gabriela Bucay were emotionally obvious renditions of pregnancy, her unexpected presentation—the drawings are hidden on the underside of a table—enrichs the works by metaphorizing the movement that the viewer has to go through in order to see them, evoking intimate memories of lost secrets, scratched underneath study desks long discarded and unused. What, if presented normally, would be obvious depictions of a painful pregnancy are transformed into an introspective take on childhood innocence and its inevitable implosion.
Emily Madrigal’s installation/performance piece Family Portrait (2017) was also enjoyable. Viewers are invited to interact and “play” with Madrigal and her dollhouse as part of the performance. The sweet innocent presentation of the dollhouse quickly reveals itself to hide some awkward and sinister details about the artist’s family. It is an intensely personal piece, and it reveals the flip-side of intimacy, that of alienation and neglect. From what I know, this is Madrigal’s first attempt at a performance work and her inexperience shows. Fortunately, her untrained performance and interactions did not take away much from my viewing of the work, but it did make me sense the irony underlying the playful nature of the work a little earlier than I would have hoped.
Most of the other artists in the exhibition presented works in more traditional formats. The photographic works by Sydney King and Walid Marfouk were presented mixed together, something I found strange given the disparate visuals of their works. The cold mirror of Islamic history and society Marfouk presents in his photographs are the kind of documentarian works frequently made by the medium’s contemporary practitioners. But while works of this nature usually find their totality in wholesome presentations which include evidence of actual documentary work, Marfouk’s photographs appear incomplete and simple—necessitating his jargon-filled artist statement on the exhibition brochure. King’s photographs, on the other hand, were more self-contained than Marfouk’s. Her photographic manipulations reminded me of Man Rays discomfiting compositions, conjuring up the sad melodrama of erotic dreams, and unfulfilled desire. I am excited to see more of her works in the future.
Two painters also exhibited in the show, Rosa Bozhkov and Steve Sekula. Being painters in a conceptual show must come with its challenges, and the paintings by both artists show a kind of nonchalance towards the theme. Bozhkov’s paintings struck me as very trendy—bright flat colors, naive shapes, and a snapshot photographic style of composition. While the objects of her paintings encourage an iconographical approach to reading them, I found them difficult to stay with, their candidness ultimately doing them a disservice. As the works are passive in nature, their placement in the kitchen of the apartment, a naturally socially active space, also deprived them of much-needed attention.
Steve Sekula’s Bearface (2017) paintings benefited from a more forgiving presentation. Hung above the bed on which Dayal presented her rather inert installation, they exuded into the small bedroom an uncanny atmosphere. While Sekula chose to title this series of paintings with a humorous name, their appearance is anything but. The paintings are rather horrific depictions of close-ups of bears. Sekula’s generalized and smudged application of paint renders the faces ghostly, like poltergeists ready for possession—a delightfully uncomfortable experience that fully exploits the intimacy of the bedroom. I learned later that Sekula appropriates blown up and pixelated found images, prints them onto canvas using a paper transfer technique, and paints over them. Sekula intends this process to be part of the conceptual core of the works, as a commentary on our collective prejudiced treatment of the “poor image.” While I understand the historical meaning behind ingratiating an image into respectability through painting, I did not find his labor-intensive process especially enriching in the final product, which all but obscured the printed image beneath the thick waxy coats of paint. The paintings show Sekula to be a formally sensitive painter (or appropriator) capable of creating deeply atmospheric and haunting pictures; it remains to be seen how he would navigate his more highfalutin conceptual ambitions in the future without falling into gimmickry.
While apartment shows create a crucial alternative for commercially inexperienced artists to show their works (especially given the exorbitant rental fees in New York), my experience with Bozhkov’s paintings revealed some obstacles that require tackling. As people live in these apartments, exhibitions are usually held on specific days. In this instance, it created an overly opening-like atmosphere in which it was difficult to spend time engaging with the works without being distracted by the people in the space. At times, it felt more like an apartment party, with some art around, than an art-centric endeavor. However, Wu and King were quite successful in utilizing the notion of intimacy towards productive and sometimes innovative ends. Having seen a few unkempt and slap-dash apartment shows, the professionalism of the exhibition also defied my expectations, and I look forward to future curatorial efforts by Wu and King, who may benefit significantly from a more flexible space.