Up Close and Unimaginable
Cliff Evans and Gregory Green
Wasmer Art Gallery
Curated by John Loscuito and Anica Sturdivant
January 31 - February 28, 2019
Opening Reception - Thursday, January 31, 5 -7pm
Artist Talk at 5pm in U. Tobe Recital Hall with a reception to follow until 7pm in the Arts Complex
The heightened threats of terrorism and war are ever-present both nationally and abroad. These threats are experienced through a wide range of lenses including social media, international news outlets and direct exposure. Cliff Evans (Austin, TX) and Gregory Green (Tampa, FL) make work that is critical of these threats and the psychological toll they impose on everyday life. This immersive installation includes panoramic animated collages and sculptural installations.
Sponsored by Alice and Dean Fjelstul, Gene and Lee Seidler, The State of Florida, Department of State, Division of Cultural Affairs and the Florida Council on Arts and Culture, and The Beaches of Fort Myers and Sanibel
Image, left to right: Gregory Green, “Worktable #9, (Minneapolis, Saint Petersburg)”, 2011 – 2017, Mixed media, 11 x 13 ½ x 5 ½ ', Courtesy of the artist
Cliff Evans, “The Road to Mount Weather” (detail of still), 2006, Three-channel moving image installation (15 minute loop), Courtesy of the artist
ART AND SPECTACLE
RICHARD COUGHLIN, PH.D.
Associate Professor of Political Science and Public Administration, Florida Gulf Coast University
“The spectacle,” wrote French critic Guy De Bord in his landmark book The Society of Spectacle, “…is the existing order’s uninterrupted discourse about itself, its laudatory monologue….[its] self portrait of power.” The spectacle is the media’s colonization of reality, which forms the ideological enclosures in which we live. The works exhibited in Up Close and Unimaginable interrupt the spectacle with humor, terror and hope.
Road to Mount Weather
Mount Weather, in Western Maryland, is where the political elite of Washington D.C. would go in the case of a nuclear conflict. Cliff Evan’s Road to Mount Weather uses images retrieved from Google searches to depict such a scenario. The conflagration begins in the back of a drive-in theater in North Dakota where nuclear missiles are launched as evening falls. Then smoke billows from cities while attack planes fly overhead. Citizens, led by cheerleaders, defiantly assemble. The scene shifts: people are emerging from piles of rubble while the military engages in reconstruction amidst signs of muted protest. The scene shifts again: people rendered homeless by the war cheer wildly for football heroes in a massive stadium.
This sequence of scenes is hardly realistic, but the images are. The images are familiar because they are iconic. But Evans has recombined them in an ideologically disorienting fashion. I would like to underscore a particular meaning of ideology here: it is the subject’s (our) imagined relationship to reality, a relationship which is deeply mediated by the images we routinely encounter and which form the image-laden reality of the spectacle.
Evans combines these images to develop a dissonant and incongruous story of war in which narrative threads, composed of bizarre image collages, point in multiple directions. What does it mean, for example, for us to encounter Pat Robertson behind a naked woman behind whom stands a devil with the entire ensemble of characters situated in front of a mega-church that is ensconced within an oil refinery? And this is only part of the image collage that unfolds here. Nor does this description account for the soundtrack of the video, which adds another layer of meaning to Evans’ assemblage.
These images - indeed, all images - are highly fungible. They can be combined and modified, as Evans does through the use of photoshop, to create all sorts of provocative arrangements. The familiar becomes strange. Of course, Evans’ google images have long since been torn out of their original contexts, but they remain frozen in their original postures and gazes as they become recombined in novel ways. Their familiar gazes and unfamiliar juxtapositions render them powerless, absurd and perhaps even subversive.
Evans is interested in disrupting accustomed image flows by means of appropriating and re-coding images, inserting them into new plot lines and combining them in uncanny ways. Evans’ sense of the uncanny reveals a heretical disposition, one which aims to profane the holy, which, in this case, is the solemnity of the spectacle. This is evident in the abundance of grotesque and erotic images that are deployed throughout the work. Red distended flesh hangs from the metallic structures of Mount Weather and oozes from the ramparts of the sacred city contained within. Deformed bodies are fused together and pulsate in the background of the assembled elite while naked women (and the occasional man) appear in erotic poses. They are interspersed throughout the crowd of dignitaries.
At one level, this is just the repertoire of the internet. Evans mobilizes this repertoire unconventionally. Evans remarks that his work sows confusion, but “that such confusion is necessary to subvert the propagandistic and commercial aspects of the forms used.”
For my part, I see not only confusion but a proliferation of connections between images and their interconnected meanings, which are normally far more attenuated and submerged. In Evans’ work, they are recombined in a dreamlike alchemy of subconscious affinities. The result is not a re-edification of the real. The Road to Mount Weather offers, instead, an experience of de-familiarization. The familiar – which is to say, the spectacle - becomes ridiculous and laughable and, as it does, its grasp upon us loosens.
Fear and Hope
Gregory Green’s Work Bench bomb sculptures detail the construction of terrorist explosives. We see everything in the work space except the maker. This individual is indexed by his artifacts. In Worktable #9, He of Righteousness, these include a worn edition of The Turner Diaries, empty cans of Pabst Blue Ribbon Beer, along with tools and equipment that could be procured at any hardware store. Who is this absent maker? What redemption or regeneration is he seeking through violence?
We might spare a thought for the absent maker, but Green’s work also draws our attention to the fabrication of explosive devices. These sculpture bombs are a materialization of terror. They underscore the transgressive aspects of Green’s work: the tendency for his work to proceed to the threshold that separates peace and violence. Green’s work does not cross the line, but comes close enough to disturb it. Previous exhibitions have provoked police responses, not because Green broke any law, but because his work illustrates how tenuous our presumptions of order and security really are.
An interesting counterpoint to Green’s bomb sculptures is the political philosophy of Thomas Hobbes. In his classic work, Leviathan, Hobbes appealed to the fear of death in order to convince people to abandon public life and prudently pursue their private interests under the protection of an all-powerful ruler. The ruler would use his or her power to guarantee everyone’s security and keep the prospect of their violent death at bay. Green confronts us with these prospects. The bombs planted in bibles or in suitcases of all kinds, or manufactured at workbenches which could be in anyone’s garage, signal the imminence of terrorist violence. We have seen the instruments of destruction laid before us (complete, in some cases, with instructions on how to assemble them); now let us strengthen the Patriot Act even further!
What might neutralize such a response is the fact that Green’s bomb sculptures don’t point to some threatening other (aside, that is, from the absent maker). They are simply objects on the verge of explosion, which place the audience on the cusp of destruction. This may be an artistic experience insofar as the purpose of art is not just to edify, but to push toward uncomfortable extremes. Green’s work mimics a violent reality and thereby activates the imaginative facilities through which we comprehend and experience danger. The danger is not going away anytime soon. Green’s representations of danger can accommodate us to the dangers that really exist. Perhaps this will spare us from embracing authoritarian solutions at the first sign of trouble.
Green’s Gregnik installation offers hope as a stark contrast to terrorist violence. The installation consists of a sphere inspired and referencing the form of the Soviet Union’s famous Sputnik I communication satellite; the ultimate dream of the ongoing project is to put a version of it in orbit. The purpose of Gregnik is communication, a goal this installation achieves through the deployment of a low power transmitter broadcast reaching most of the FGCU campus grounds that, in this exhibition, will broadcast the hopes and fears of the FGCU students about the future.
Like the bomb sculptures, this also is transgressive art: it is the unauthorized irruption of people’s aspirations into the media spaces that are normally subject to official regulation and control, which also filter reality and construct the spectacle. The point of Gregnik’s transgression is, I think, to experiment with the limits of historical necessity in order to discover new possibilities for community, empowerment and freedom. This is one response to the world; to destroy it is another. Thus Gregnik and Worktable #9 palpably juxtapose contrasting modes of empowerment - terrorist violence and mundane aspirations - which leaves us situated as the intersection of fear and hope.