A couple of weeks ago I dropped by ALPHA artspace, a modestly-sized, narrow gallery tucked away on the first floor of a building on E 3rd in Alphabet City. The space rotates between two different curatorial projects each month, Philip Tomaru's Practice Gallery and Danielo Garcia's Open Projects. For May 2017, Open Projects staged the group exhibition Auto-Exposure featuring Kalup Linzy, Rindon Johnson, Andrea Arrubla, and Fallon Cecil. It's a tight but versatile collection of work that finds the artists turning the camera lens on themselves (or their stand-ins).
From Garcia's press release:
Within imaging techno lingo, “auto-exposure” refers to a camera mode that automatically sets the appropriate amount of light that hits the film or sensor plane. A second reading of this term would signify an action by the artist that self-reveals an identity or fact previously concealed, unknown or unseen.
Andrea Arrubla's short video, Now That's What I Call Photography (2011), flaunts a deep frustration with the titular medium. She stalks and beats the absolute guts out of a digital Canon Rebel XTI, one of the more affordable DSLR models popular with undergraduate students roughly a decade ago. While certainly profane in its violence from a capitalist, materialistic perspective, an undertone of slapstick tempers the piece. Arrubla squares up with the camera--the one she's about to attack on the floor, that is--at the start of the video as if to give it one last chance to quit talking shit before she goes to town. Thereafter, as she's smashing the thing to bits, her presence begins to resemble that of a drunken, headbanging hesher going wild to a live band at St. Vitus. It's serious, but it's also silly; she no doubt is clearly angry with the device that she's destroying--and that she may not be able to afford to replace--but she also opted to use half the video screen to display intentionally hokey, droll spinning text of the work's goofy title.
The piece is clearly about a frustration with the medium, but I would also argue she feels a frustration with her viewer. In much photographic work, the artist is completely absent in the final piece. Unlike brushstrokes in a painting or worked surfaces of sculpture, a well-produced photograph can feel clinical, authorless. McLuhan described photography as a "hot medium," which for him meant that it required little audience participation, was horizontally repetitive, and extended only a single sense, albeit in high definition. Contemporary painting and sculpture, essentially forms of "cool media," require more intellectual participation, allow vertical associations, and exist more tangentially in the physical space we occupy, thereby appealing to multiple senses. Arrubla here creates a work that has more in common with cool media but sardonically insists upon calling it photography. She seems to be asking us just what exactly we, as viewers, expect from photographers. Why should they have to remove themselves for our visual dilettantism? If we want something to think about, she's given it to us.
Inverting a reductive reading of the show's stated theme, Rindon Johnson's video re: hello from the other side (2017) points the lens away from the body, offering a shaky first-person perspective as the camera's operator wanders along what appears to be the edge where a grass yard meets the forest. A surrogate male voice narrates a letter, which also appears as subtitles onscreen, from the artist to a lover that describes in great detail a sexual encounter that was "maybe the first time [they] made love." The letter was written intimately, explicitly, and--frankly--quite sweetly. Johnson's presence in the work, though abstracted, is a deeply vulnerable one. We're voyeurs, or invitees to exhibitionism, of a private encounter between Johnson and an unnamed lover, now presented publicly. Within the gallery, it engenders a complicated viewing experience; the letter is erotic, arousing, but was never originally meant for you or me. Johnson did include a set of headphones, giving us the opportunity for a more one-on-one experience with the spoken text. This format assists the viewer in losing themselves to the sensual and affectionate aspects, without having to receive them in the full company of others. However, Johnson has always demonstrated a sharp grasp language, aesthetics, and installation techniques, and I can't help but wonder if the inclusion of the headphones is meant to provoke a different kind of anxiety. As the piece finishes and the viewer hands the headphones off to the next person, they might overanalyze their participation with it. Was I acting uncomfortable? Too comfortable? Were they reading the onscreen text over my shoulders?
The video is also embedded on Johnson's website with accompanying descriptive text that asks, "What does a letter to your long distance lover sound like through someone else's lips? What does it matter if you're no longer lovers?" It goes on, "It's you, or it could be you." Because of the layered abstractions Johnson employs, the preceding sentiment rings true. We could be the narrator. We could be the recipient. It all depends on how much we're willing to submit to an art experience.
Also intimate, is Fallon Cecil's photo triptych, Untitled I, II, III. Flanking Johnson's work on the gallery's east wall, it's a thoughtful curatorial decision in contrasts. Johnson's work features penetration and bodily fluids, heard about but not seen. Cecil's photographs are visually more explicit, but ultimately softer-core in their suggestiveness. A model's body, which Garcia described to me as a "stand-in for Cecil," has imprints from rope having been wrapped around it. The photos have a distinctly staged feel to them, though it's not to their detriment. In the exhibition's checklist, Cecil's 2016 Image/Memory series, from which these prints come, is explained as "focusing now on the memory of her mother’s work as a small-town portrait photographer... [using] the familiar tropes of photography, e.g. sterile blank environments and studio lighting..." The images imply light bondage using rope, a less-than-controversial kink known (and probably practiced at least once in their lifetime) by most. The purposefully highly-staged images nod to the staged experience of exploring kinks with a partner; the reality is mediated and--when done correctly--follows specific sets of rules agreed upon, respectively, by model and photographer or between lovers. Like Johnson's contribution to the show, Cecil's explores vulnerability while presenting us with an opportunity to act as voyeur. Each remains explicit and simultaneously quiet in their own way, a juxtaposition that gives the small southeast corner of ALPHA a cohesive, but twitchy, warmth.
Garcia also chose to include a twenty-two minute, 2008 video work from Kalup Linzy, the most well-known artist of the four, titled SweetBerry Sonnet (Remixed). It's a collection of six music videos, each a remix of a track off of Linzy's album SweetBerry Sonnet, also from 2008. The album continues the narrative of the character Taiwan, whom you might remember first appearing in Linzy's 2003 breakout video series Conversations Wit De Churren, as he moves on with his life after turning down a marriage proposal from his boyfriend. The remixed videos are equally funny and heartbreaking, something Linzy continuously excels at. Other recurring characters include Katonya, Labisha, Jada, and Nucuavia, who show up to dance, to sing the sentimental and raunchy lyrics, and to explore music video set tropes like a rocky pier, the club, bedrooms, and seamless photo studio backgrounds. As usual, Linzy plays virtually every character, and it's consistently remarkable how much he manages to maximize the minutiae of barebones sets, small gestures of physicality, DIY costuming, and facial tics.
Linzy, born in 1977, is one micro-generation older than the other three artists. Garcia's choice to include him highlights the value of cross-generational dialogue between artists, even if the gap between them isn't too pronounced. Arrubla, Johnson, and Cecil are all what some people describe as "digital natives"; they've pretty much always been online and subsequently exposed to art making strategies that account for that. Linzy was an early adopter of digital media, despite it not being ubiquitous in his youth. Whether or not their own practices are directly influenced by Linzy's is less important than the fact that many of the things that Linzy has pushed for, and the technological and social innovations he's responsible contributed to, undoubtedly had residual effects on the art world as they entered it.
Linzy is part of a long line of artists--Nayland Blake, Lynda Benglis, Betty Tompkins--whose work spoke frankly about sex and power. Their staging of these conversations created a context where art audiences grew more quickly receptive to artists like Cecil incorporating imagery that explores kink. Even more importantly, Linzy is canonically recognized as having unapologetically expanded visibility and discourse around queer black voices. Johnson's video doesn't outwardly appear to take direct aesthetic influence from Linzy, but it is valuable to see them together in context as Johnson most certainly represents a new generation contributing to the advancement of a kindred conversation. Of course, Linzy's work is a powerful example of an artist reclaiming their identity in a culture that constantly tries to erase it, but we must also recognize how profoundly fucking funny he is. The unorthodox wit and corporeal presence that he brings to his video work reverberates well with Arrubla's video on the gallery's west wall. Their northeast corner of the gallery has its own type of warmth, one of humor that's not afraid to confront its own pathos. Each of us, no matter our backgrounds or lived experiences, can see ourselves in that dichotomy.
Typically, summer group shows--even art artist-run galleries--follow a "phone-it-in" curatorial process. The rich people are out of town, so curators and spaces throw together a mish-mash of works that are maybe kinda related somehow and name it something like JETSKIZZZ. It's nice to see Open Projects bucking that trend. Auto-Exposure provided me with lots to think about, introduced me to some new work, and created a space where four distinctly different voices harmoniously conversed.
Auto-Exposure's last day viewing is this Sunday, May 28th from 2-4pm at ALPHA artspace, 292 East 3rd Street, #1B in New York. To arrange a different viewing, send an email to Danielo Garcia at: firstname.lastname@example.org.