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.

Dorian Dyer. Joy Embraces All. Colored pencil, 1994-2006. 40 x 60 in.

Dorian Dyer. Joy Embraces All. Colored pencil, 1994-2006. 40 x 60 in.

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.

Jack Ryan. Moon Fixture. Mixed media, 2008.

Jack Ryan. Moon Fixture. Mixed media, 2008.

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.

Left: Jenny Heishman, "OK now back into the sock." Aluminum foil, vinyl sticker, paper. Right: Gretchen Bennett, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." Colored pencil on paper.

Left: Jenny Heishman, "OK now back into the sock." Aluminum foil, vinyl sticker, paper. Right: Gretchen Bennett, "Last Night a DJ Saved My Life." Colored pencil on paper.

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:

Matthew Offenbacher. Untitled.  Oil and acrylic on stainguard fabric, foam.

Matthew Offenbacher. Untitled. Oil and acrylic on stainguard fabric, foam.

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.

Gretchen Bennett. "You Only See Us When You're With Us." Mirrored glass, chipboard, tape.

Gretchen Bennett. "You Only See Us When You're With Us." Mirrored glass, chipboard, tape.

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.

Call and Response is installed at Crawl Space through April 26. Second Peoples is at The Helm Gallery through May 14. Both spaces have weird hours, so consult their websites before visiting.

~ by emilypothast on April 20, 2009.

3 Responses to “The Age of Aquarius: Art, Magic, and Transcendence at Crawl Space and The Helm Gallery”

  1. I really disliked Call and Responce. I attended the opening, hoping to hear some discourse from Mitchell, elaborating on his choices and the logic behind the show, but he didn’t say much, didn’t even touch on hippie magic or anything from his original blurb. I was disappointed, and the only piece in the show I found at all engaging was Chauney Peck’s. Those little crafty dreamcatcher things with skeevy braided hair tacked on? Not so much. The fact that many of the pieces in this show could be construed as hipster irony (which was my initial assumption too) makes me wince.

    There seem to be a lot of groupings, clusterings, and comparison in this town, when it comes to curatorial choices and criticism. (Regina Hackett – whom I do love for/despite of all her awesome quirkiness – does this constantly on her blog, for instance, slapping together semi-related artists or images and making cursory comparisons.) I’m beginning to suspect this could be a weakness? Ironically, I remember Hackett complaining about Dawn Cerny’s show at the Henry last year, admonishing the museum for not just showing a body of Cerny’s work. Though I loved the entirety of that exhibit, installation and conceptual bits included, I did agree with Hackett in the end: what I really wanted to see was more of Cerny’s work. She’s a skilled and profound artist and her work, when assembled in a body, packs some punch.

    Why can’t we have more punch? I think one of Seattle’s strengths, in terms of regionalism, is its slight (?) stench of isolationism that breeds eccentricity and individualism. So I’m confounded by the proliferation of group shows that seem to harbor dilettantism. And hippie magic.

  2. Thanks for your thoughts. I think a show organized around this theme would have doubtlessly been stronger if it had really been conceived of beforehand and actually curated, not picked from submissions. As it is, I think Jeffry simply saw this theme emerge from the images he was looking at, which happened to be his favorites from what he had to choose from. He didn’t have much to say about the process because that was all there was to it. They asked him to pick from a big random group submissions and he did, and wrote a little statement about his impression of the choice he’d made. End of transaction. I think what we’re looking at, therefore, is less about artists trying to make “hippie magic” (at least most of them) and more about Jeffry Mitchell’s taste and his personal reaction to what he sees young artists doing now.

    There are some very nice objects in the show (Chauney Peck, Sol Hashimi, etc.), but I would agree they ended up getting overshadowed by things like the Dorian Dyer drawings and the “crafty dreamcatcher things,” which I think embody all of the style of one reaching for “hippie magic” but little of the substance. In that case, I think it’s an issue of the level of commitment and craftsmanship in the work. A couple years ago, Chad Wentzel filled Crawl Space with crafty god’s eye things, but the result was positively transcendent.

    I’m as sympathetic to psychedelic aspirations as the next guy, but much of what really works about good psychedelic and visionary art is that it sets up geometric and/or psychological relationships between objects or between the part and the whole that are mirrors for deep perceptual and psychoanalytic structures in the human mind—as in, “soul” (psyche) + “manifesting” (delos). Defined that way, those Indian paintings at the SAAM are about a million times more psychedelic than this stuff. So was that great Munich Secession show at the Frye that I loved but never had a chance to write about. And so was the work in the Second Peoples show, which on the whole functions much better as a group, as it was designed and conceived of in that way by the artists involved.

    I’m hoping David comments soon, because I know he has some great things to say about this that he hasn’t had a chance to from the brain to the computer just yet.

  3. […] one thing, the counterculture trend has blossomed, bloomed, and exploded back in on itself in a sort of Möbius Strip of post-sincere, post-transcendent self-transcendence.  As well it […]

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