Apr 19, 2009

Ward Shelley at Pierogi

Autonomous Art ver. 1, 36 x 24" (detail), Ward Shelley

Went to visit Ward Shelley at Pierogi, where he has a show titled "Who Invented the Avant Garde - and other half-truths ". Ward is showing a series of diagrams mapping various takes on history, primarily art history, ending at around 2000. The drawings are beautifully detailed, they have an an organ-like quality, like giant cardiovascular diagrams of bodies.

In addition to the diagrams, Ward has set up a (tiny) living area in the back of the gallery, where he will live for the next two weeks, sleeping during the day and working at night. Sleeping in a gallery is no longer new, but Ward takes things to an extreme - both in terms of how long he has been doing it and the kinds of demands he places on himself during each stay. When you visit his website you can see some of his previous living arrangements. In the Pierogi show, he invites visitors to enter short sentences into a laptop, in a document titled "Dreams" (I entered "relational aesthetics", my stock response when given an opportunity to comment in an art context). These sentences are converted by Apple's Text-to-speech into spoken words, which are played on speakers mounted in the extremely small sleeping area, a narrow mattress buried in a pile of cardboard boxes. Peep-holes let visitors see Shelley as he sleeps during the day, and you can hear the sounds of the words from the speech synthesizer.

Shelley says he is inviting the viewer to influence his dreams and through that his drawings, a way to experiment with how this effects the drawings he makes during the night. He also invites people to suggest topics for the drawings. Shelley blends both social and autonomous elements in his art.

Social art often makes democratic claims - suggesting, for example, that everyone is equally a creator. Such claims are overstated since, in practice, the viewer always occupies a tightly proscribed role. Shelley's approach is more carefully positioned. He gives the viewer a role to play, a way to contribute, but there is no claim that the viewer becomes the author. At best the viewer can become part of the authors dreams.

Shelley demonstrates, in both his diagrams and his social practice, a commitment to a kind of balancing act - between art as commercial enterprise and intellectual enterprise; between the history of art and art today; between social and autonomous drives; between the needs of the artist and the demands of the viewers. In contrast to the idealizing of modernist art, this kind of balancing act is a compromise, an attempt to have it all ways at once. However, if Shelley's work gives up on the radical idealism of modernism, it also skips the kind of irony typically associated with post-modernism. The work sets a sincere tone, almost worthy - one viewer thanked Ward as he left the show, saying that it was informative.

Then the Apple text-to-speech generator blurts out a phrase, and the whole exhibit lurches into the ridiculous.

I value art which proposes a sincere attempt a balancing act, trying to have it all ways at once, with a dose of ridiculousness that reveals how futile it all is and how important it remains to try.

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