The Age of Aquarius: Art, Magic, and Transcendence at Crawl Space and The Helm Gallery
Last week I attended the opening of Second Peoples at Helm Gallery in Tacoma. I also finally had the chance to see Call and Response, the “Annual Centennial Exhibition” curated (or rather juried) by artist Jeffry Mitchell at Crawl Space. On the SLOG, Jen Graves remarks that the two shows remind her of each other, at least in terms of their statements. Of Call and Response, Jeffry Mitchell explains,
There’s something about magic, Hippie magic, and the way the LOVE CHILDREN freed themselves from the cross and sought spiritual expression through ancient forms other than the Christian one that resonates through this show for me. It’s very much my story, and the story I look for. It’s the story that I can’t help but see and although I claim that each pair of works in this show found each other on their own, the instant I see these works I bring stories to each of them, helplessly, naturally.
OK, so unlike SLOG commenter Fnarf—whose only contribution to culture I am aware of is making comments like “[Mitchell’s statement] is complete bullshit…Hippies looking for new spirituality were embarrassing and doltish then, not admirable or even interesting”—I am starting from a place of sympathy for where Jeffry’s coming from. Though I learned long ago that I don’t have what it takes to be an actual hippie by a long shot, I’m pretty much obsessed with the universal phenomenon of human spirituality, which makes me the de facto hippie in more social situations than it doesn’t. I will concede, however, that Jeffry’s choice of words will do little to win over those who are convinced it is possible to remove oneself from the history of the human quest for self-knowledge altogether (no doubt failing to identify their own secular positivism as made of the same psychological stuff as religious convictions.)
That said, there is currently a fashion and art trend toward the cartoonish appropriation of a generic “Native American” aesthetic (feathers! dreamcatchers! silhouetted wolves in moonlight!) that is more notable for its hyper-ironic insincerity than its embrace of the spiritual or social values of any subset of the people who were (and still are) on the losing end of what some historians identify as the largest holocaust in human history. When I first saw Dorian Dyer‘s large scale colored pencil drawings of Google-Image-Search-meets-Oklahoma-souvenir-shop pastiches, I naturally assumed they were a tongue-in-cheek product of hipster irony. After all, butterflies, eagles, and giggling babies floating freely in a disorienting space where galaxies twinkle over vast desert landscapes? How could they not be?! But a quick look at Dyer’s website demonstrates that irony is just about the only thing that isn’t on the menu. Identifying as a self-taught visionary artist, Dyer’s resume also includes channelling “transmutational energies from the angelic realms” and “waking sober visions of past lives as shamans and healers in other cultures.” Whoa. I stand corrected.
Other exhibition highlights include Sol Hashimi’s Twelve Ways to Stack Six Stools, Chauney Peck’s The Crystal that Proves Life Could have Existed Earlier, and Jack Ryan’s Moon Fixture, an illuminated emblem of a culture whose reliance on technology increasingly alienates us from our most basic, elemental selves. Viewed as a whole, it seems what Call and Response achieves best, perhaps, is wrapping a mystical narrative around a batch of disparate artists whose strongest affinity is the collective identity Jeffry Mitchell has crafted for them. Though the press release calls Mitchell the curator, the work was in fact selected from submissions to a Call for Artists, which I think goes a long way toward explaining the variety of work represented. This organizing principle is in stark contrast to that of the Helm Gallery’s Second Peoples, a self-curated exhibition from four artists who all worked in close contact to bring a collective vision to fruition.
Like Call and Response, Second Peoples sets up dialogues between objects. But unlike the Crawl Space show, these dialogues were set up by the artists themselves and reflect a unified collaborative experience. Like the interaction between Jenny Heishman and Gretchen Bennett’s work, pictured above, or the conversation Matthew Offenbacher has set up between one of his paintings and a wall covered with the multicolored recycled foam padding galleries use to protect hardwood floors and artworks from one another:
Though less effusively so, the works in Second Peoples also reflect a spiritual sensibility, as well as a desire for personal transcendence. But where Dorian Dyer’s slick colored pencil drawings leave little to the imagination, Gretchen Bennett’s Last Night a DJ Saved My Life and You Only See Us When You’re With Us are disarmingly subtle, whispering fragments of bygone psychedelic moments.
Likewise, new works by Jenny Heishman and Heide Hinrichs deliver suggestive material transcendence. On the whole, I was charmed by the objects in Second Peoples. The works function well as a group and the connection to the manifesto that accompanies the show is there, if tenuous at times. I’m glad I made the trip to Tacoma and am sorry to learn this is the last show that will be mounted at a wonderful space. There are more photos and thoughts on this exhibition on Joey Veltkamp’s Best Of.