MINT’s supra + natura Asks: What Still Qualifies as Mysterious?

James O'Donnell, Eternity and Grandma's Refrigerator, 2011, clay, water, and refrigerator, dimensions variable. Photo by the artist.

In the early days of space exploration, theorists said that science comprehended the cosmos, but that “man himself is now the crucial mystery.” (That pre-feminist universal “man” shows that they understood humanity even less than they thought.) Today’s neurobiology may (perhaps) have made our species seem somewhat less mystery-laden, but the (contested) possibility of parallel universes has made the cosmos seem mysterious once again.

For her curatorial debut at MINT Gallery, Rebecca Hanna thus chose to pose this challenge to the artists of supra + natura: What, to them, is still on the margins of mystery?

Mike Germon, Untitled Fragments 1-12, 2011, 12 found paper collages, 7 x 10 inches. Photo by James O'Donnell.

By and large, the artists appear to believe that the greatest mystery today is history, or story itself as the structure that supports understanding. Some of them seek to construct their own stories about their family’s not-quite-revealed history; others try to break through the barriers to understand the past in general.

Mike Germon’s multi-image wall shrine goes the route of piling up our unthought-out sources of awe, dread, and puzzlement—from the galaxies to the head of a serpent, by way of everything from astronauts to amethyst crystals to a map of the South China Sea and the pithy predictions found on Chinese fortune cookies. On his installation’s bookshelf, the dry rationalism of Jacob Bronowski’s The Ascent of Man sits next to that other ancient classic of mythic quest, J. R. R. Tolkien’s The Return of the King.

Truett Dietz, 11 Feet of Ambiguous Feelings, 2011, mixed media installation, dimensions variable. Photo by James O'Donnell.

Truett Dietz’s wall-filling collage Eleven Feet of Ambiguous Feelings also explores the problems of our post-digital, post-Internet mash-up. Here, the historic images of the 1960s show up alongside pictures of cats, bits of antiquity, not quite legible handwritten letters, and other varieties of visual and conceptual detritus that appear in our online universe without any means of evaluation or interpretation. We live, says Dietz, in the middle of a vast muddle in which we try to piece together a sensible story.

James O’Donnell brings this realization back home in Eternity and Grandma’s Refrigerator. The video of his opening-night performance gives meaning to the spectacle of an overturned refrigerator that contains both the muck of melted ice and a fragmentary family portrait. His family history, it turns out, has to be inferred from the uninterpretable scraps of the past littering his grandmother’s house, combined with her unreliable recollections of what they mean.

Jennifer Morris, To Keep Out What I Once Willingly Let In, 2011, clear wire, bells,gold paint, 108 x 84 inches. Photo by James O'Donnell.

Caroline Worth, too, perceives that her family history has to be woven together from disparate narratives. She symbolizes this by a linked network of lines, created by individual threads emerging from spools arranged on the floor and wrapped around nails in the wall to form a tightly complicated set of connections. The visual metaphor, of course, fits a much larger range of relationships, and the specific reference to family has to be explained by the artist or the curator.

Likewise, Sarah Shipman’s use of myth and archaic symbolism is linked to her theme of family relationships only by external explanations. Her silk flag containing packets of hair, salt, gold leaf and dirt, or her latex snake overlaid with salt and glitter, evoke ancient archetypes, but not her personal stories. Her video of a Cleopatra who toys with a creek-side grid of inwardly-illuminated rubber ducks wrests emotional depth from a visual mystery that, absent her explanation, eludes any easy readings. (That elusiveness may well be the main point.)

Jennifer Morris’s To Keep Out What I Once Willingly Let In is an evocative cluster of small golden bells suspended from the ceiling on clear wire, with gold paint spattering the floor below them. The title and the image together lead us back to the mystery of humanity’s relationship to itself and to the universe, and are a potent reminder that what we consider “above nature” (supra natura) depends entirely on how we choose to define nature.

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  • Mike Germon
    October 7, 2011 at

    This is probably the most in depth discussion/analysis of any show I’ve ever been a part of. Thanks to Jerry for several responses now and to Nathan for his response to Jerry’s response as well as the assessment of the show.

  • Rebecca Hanna
    October 7, 2011 at

    Nathan-Thank you for taking the time to give your thoughtful perspective on the show.

    And, to Jerry Cullum, Thank you for the abundance of time you have spent on not one, but several, writings on the show. I’ve still much to learn and having the opportunity to receive so much feedback has been invaluable!

  • Jerry Cullum
    Jerry Cullum
    October 6, 2011 at

    Dear Nathan,
    I don’t want to drag this discussion out to the crack of doom (on October 21, I believe, according to the prophets) but since you wrote so perceptively in response to the exhibition, I’d like to reiterate that I was writing a review to tell people what the show was actually about, which is by and large not what the artists thought it was about. (How could they? They were working independently of one another, and the correlation of their investigations is remarkably revelatory of larger social forces.)

    The premise of the curator was that we don’t have the same kind of belief in the supernatural that primitive people did. (Or at least we think we don’t.) Giving the artists free rein was a way of investigating what it is that in fact we do believe is inexplicable. This is kind of how some international biennials (not all of them) operate, positing a theme and telling artists to have at it as they see fit.

    The results of the investigation confirmed the suppositions of contemporary theorists. (“Contemporary”? I personally think they should still be called postmodern, or at least post-postmodern, given that “postmodern” became the name for a specific cynically ironic moment in the history of Europe, Australia, and the Americas circa 1979-1989. But I can’t change artworld jargon singlehandedly.)

    What is mysterious to us, it would appear, is history, to what degree the actuality of history is knowable in any reliable way, or the way we let history into ourselves and/or make it part of our own story. The other inexplicable thing at issue is how we receive our own story and then adapt the story we receive from our culture, or else make it up ourselves in conscious or unconscious resistance to the dominant currents in our culture. (We still get the building blocks from the culture that gave us the words and images with which to produce a story at all. What we do with them, and what we could or should be doing with them, is the topic of contemporary debate that is the unspoken undercurrent of the “supra+natura” exhibition—unspoken until I spoke it in my review, anyway.)

    I had been thinking that Jim O’Donnell’s visual metaphor of a refrigerator with life mask and photograph and messy liquid was a hackneyed enough metaphor for the complications of life and history that he would be better served by imitating the late Spalding Gray and just standing on stage or sitting without props at a desk, telling us the exact same story he wrote down on the cards—a story or a written narrative that is held together in a fragile fashion, one that could easily get out of order, have parts of it get lost altogether; a story of the reconstruction of a history that slips out of our hands as fast as we are telling it to someone else.

    Now that I know that he actually DID lose some of the cards in the mire before they could be read, I am even more impressed. I think the gesture would be ineffective unless it was done on video where it could be watched again, however. Hearing a story, after all, we may not know at first that the story is about the problem of even HAVING a story to tell, or a history to report, because history is a vast trash heap of fragments and misremembered anecdotes told by your informants, sitting there as useless and as potentially hazardous as the expired yogurt in your grandmother’s refrigerator. How the historian (personal or professional) sorts this out is what is at issue.

    It was profound of O’Donnell to perceive this, which is why this is a great piece even though the physical artwork isn’t all that original or well-composed, although it’s certainly physically engaging. (I love some of his other interrogations of history, such as the invention of faux-evidence for the existence of General John B. Gordon’s pet rabbit.)

    Likewise, Truett Dietz’s love for the mute raw materials of history (a.k.a. photographs and letters and printed narratives and objects such as masks) may have led him to an expression of the problems of the digital age in an outworn physical vehicle, the wall collage. (I remarked on first seeing it that it was hard to start interpreting the meaning of the thing’s randomness because we are so used to seeing the genre used as incidental decoration.) The connection to the Internet is conspicuous by its absence, and without further explanation we would never be able to figure out that it is a rather profound commentary on our inability to piece together a picture of history from our web surfing. Maybe putting a succession of images from the collage together as an iMovie on a laptop in front of the collage would have gotten this point across, but to do that you need a laptop you don’t mind putting at risk. Probably a different title would have done the job.

    But I’m not the artist, so who cares how I might have remade the piece? That’s like Clement Greenberg sandblasting those sculptures because he thought they should be about truth to materials. Whether the piece provides the needed context—that, the critic can comment on, and I thought I did so in the review.

    I took it for granted, overall, that if you need the curator or the artist to get you in the right frame of mind, why then, somebody, namely the curator, needs to write some wall text.

    It is one of the presuppositions of my reviews over the years (and part of my advice to artists and curators) that wall text should be limited to what is necessary to get the viewer up to speed with what is going on in the room or in the piece. But if you need to know the presuppositions behind a piece in order to experience the piece rightly, the presuppositions had better be spelled out someplace—in the title of the piece or somewhere else. There are artworks in which the title is a bigger part of the piece than the stuff on the wall, floor, pedestal or screen.

    I had to squeeze all this into 600 words maximum, which is like writing a sequence of haiku. Art reviewing is really the practice of making every word do many, many different jobs at once because you are never given enough space to explain in detail why you hold the opinions you hold, or even what those opinions are. If the writer is on a tight deadline, sometimes this just does not happen. Ideas take time to mature. Snap judgments don’t, but sometimes snap judgments are just plain wrong because we are all ignorant, only about different things, as Will Rogers put it, and the best we can do is try to know what it is that we don’t know, and try to remedy the situation in site-specific cases (such as asking questions in order to write a review).

    I personally detest critical commentary, because my usual reaction is “Who cares what you think? Give me an analytical reason for why you think what you think, at least.”

    And you did. This was useful information, because all reviews, all of them, are really reviews of the critic’s own blindness. Reading them, we see why the critic screwed something up, or why we think the critic screwed something up, which is the beginning of beginning to see why it is both we and the critic who may have screwed something up.

    And that is what I think the show was about, too. Mike Germon was the most reflective in juxtaposing potent shorthand for a bunch of incompatible belief systems, all of which have in common the effort to impose a grid of meaning on the mess of history. I’m not really sure Sarah Shipman’s effort to adapt existing mythic emblems to communicate the truths of feminine existence really overcame the existing historical baggage of the mythic emblems, which may or may not in themselves be meaningless when encountered apart from traditional connections. On this topic, see, for example, Umberto Eco’s comments on the symbol of the rose, for example. Roses have physical characteristics that make them natural symbols for some social or emotional states and not for others, but if you just saw a rose nailed to the wall, you couldn’t necessarily guess which symbolic meaning was meant, even if you got a gut reaction. This is the case with some of Shipman’s stuff, some of which I love and some of which doesn’t work for me at all—the operative words being “for me.” I have explained in the addendum to my review why I think it would be difficult to sort out the variables.

    Having just gone through a discussion in which one professional explained why he considered a piece unworthy for exactly the same reasons that I considered it worthy (starting from different premises and past experiences), I respect your reaction to Jennifer Morris’ bells, but for me they needed to be where they were, keeping us riffraff out along with whatever other Influences are meant in the title about keeping things out that she once willingly let it. If we were almost inevitably going to collide with the bells no matter what we did, they wouldn’t be doing a very good job of keeping us out, now would they? If they almost blocked the entrance or something, they would be communicating that the artist fails at all her efforts at self-preservation, which would be a message, but apparently not the one that Morris wanted to convey. I felt them, pre-title, to be magical objects not to be messed with, archetypal talismans as well as warning bells to “stay away.” But who cares what the hell I felt? What were they meant to be doing? Did the artist give us enough information to figure our whether our first emotional reaction was right or wrong?

    The show would have been better, yes, if the curator had written something about how interesting it was that the artists independently came up with ideas about family and putting pieces together and such, and only tangentially (some less tangentially than others) about the traditional “supernatural.” Then we would have had a clue to guide us through the labyrinth. But I thought that was implied by my original review, and I was interested in what the show revealed about contemporary consciousness, which would have had to be incorporated in the curatorial statement.

    Instead of saying she should have written a curatorial statement, I wrote one for her. It was my review.

    We are now at three thousand words and counting, but I think we are close to unpacking the implications of this show. I appreciate the chance to do that, since the opportunity is rarely offered.

  • Nathan Sharratt
    October 5, 2011 at

    @Jerry Cullum Thank you for your expanded thoughts, they give a lot more context and personal connection to the review.

    @Jeremy I was able to see the show, and James O’Donnell’s performance. Because you asked, I’d be happy to share my thoughts. And also because I know how closely we artists identify ourselves with our art, I’d first offer the caveat that these are only my thoughts on the artworks as I experienced them, not on the artists personally, nor on their work as a whole. It’s my personal philosophy to be as honest as possible because I respect the artists and their dedication and hard work.

    I had trouble connecting with most of it, and the curatorial theme seemed a bit arbitrary. I noted in Jerry’s expanded review that he had to be clued in by the curator to some of the show’s connecting themes, but for me, if the central thesis needs to be explained then it loses a lot of its impact, and perhaps needs to be reexamined.

    I agree with Jerry in that there were a lot of stylistic throwbacks, and this probably had a lot to do with my feelings of disconnect. With much of the work shown, I didn’t get the personal connection to the artist that is so necessary when retreading a path that has been well worn.

    Collage is always a challenge for me, because it’s been done for so long by so many so effectively. Collage is about juxtaposition, and making novel connections between previously disconnected pop media. Pre-internet, this could be a very effective method of expanding our awareness and creating meaningful content, as most image assemblies were truly never seen together before. Now, however, it is less effective, because all we have to do is look in a Google image search to see any combination of images we desire. Because of this, I feel like collage has a great hurdle to overcome right off the bat. It’s easier than ever to make, but harder than ever to find new meaning in. Mike Germon’s art worked much better for me than Truett Dietz’s wall. This may be because of Germon’s segmentation and micromanagement of the collage elements, isolating small sections whose meaning could be contemplated both individually and collectively. Then he provided some viewing context with the installation elements. Books and other objects gave both a cultural rhythm as well as a visual rhythm. Dietz’s wall felt more like white noise, which, rather than being accosting or aggressive, felt inoffensive and faded into the background.

    James O’Donnell’s performance really missed the mark for me. I was excited to see what was going to happen as I waited for him to start. Here in front of me was a vintage refrigerator, knocked on its back with some cloudy goo pooled inside, and chipped clay faces shoved into nooks and crannies. What was he going to do with this marvelous sculpture? How was he going to make my brain melt with this awesome raw material? My mind raced with possibilities. When he finally came out in pajamas (pajamas? is he going to take a nap inside the fridge??), and then proceeded to read a monolog from a thick stack of notecards, my heart started to sink. I still held on for some sort of unexpected and wonderful interaction with the fridge, or at least the liquid inside the fridge. Instead, the only interaction the fridge received was to be a trash bin for discarded notecards. At one point, he dropped two in by accident, panicked a moment and tried to fish the unread card from the goo, realized it was smeared and unreadable, and then gave up, left it in the goo and continued reading from the next card. This brief act of insecurity epitomized the entire monolog for me. I have difficulty calling it an art performance, because I felt a disconnect between the artist and his art, and because of that I was also unable to connect with it. Instead, I felt talked at. The story he was telling didn’t need to be trumped up with props and costumes, and would have been more comfortable and effective as written prose. I stayed through the whole talk out of respect for the artist and his art, though I honestly didn’t want to.

    I felt that Jennifer Morris’ installation missed a great opportunity in being pushed back into the corner. The gold bells just screamed to be placed in the viewers’ path, but instead they were safely tucked into a corner. The most likely reason I can think of for this is so no one would run into it. Which, again, seems like a greatly squandered opportunity for interaction and connection. Putting it off to the side means people wouldn’t be forced to interact with it. Maybe she didn’t want it damaged, but so what if it was? It’s string and bells, not exactly expensive or labor-intensive materials. The benefit from viewer interaction seems greater to me than the benefit to traffic flow. Maybe Cathy Fox was at least partly right when she bemoaned Atlanta’s preference for the opening party than for the art that’s left behind. Had these bells been forced upon me as I entered the gallery, it would have completely changed my perception of the show as a whole, and would likely have enhanced it by setting the tone of what’s to come. But as it is currently installed, I walked in, saw some gold-painted bells on strings, and walked on by.

    On the whole, for me personally, fewer artists with a more tightly conceived and executed thesis would have been more effective. It would have allowed each art to carry on a more in-depth conversation with its neighboring art and not felt as arbitrarily placed or forced in the gallery’s limited floorspace.

  • Jerry Cullum
    September 30, 2011 at

    I’m really glad to see all the interest swell up around this review. Thanks to everyone who’s sent in feedback. I sat down to try and address more of the issues, so hopefully this extra part will shine more light on what I thought:

    Presented with a major curatorial challenge to their personal comfort zones, the artists of “supra + natura” revisited painfully familiar aesthetic territory in order to explore depths of social and intellectual history. Not surprisingly, some of the best-executed works were the ones rehearsing the rules of the most firmly established aesthetic territories. They were also the ones with the greatest gulf between their emotional content and their intended intellectual or informational content.

    Absent explication that wasn’t present on the wall, Caroline Worth’s interwoven threads are only another of those matrices on which almost any meaning can be projected. This is perhaps the work’s greatest strength, since a good visual metaphor, even one as frequently repeated as this one, holds up well in multiple intellectual contexts.

    Sarah Shipman’s work is at its best when its formalism overcomes its use of well-worn stereotypes—and it certainly does this in its sculptural snake and genuinely mysterious video piece. Her symbols have been part of ritualized mythic art to the point of saturation, but her visual specifics rescue them from cliché. They may, however, fail to communicate Shipman’s much more secular and very un-mythic messages about gender relations like the one played out in this very paragraph. (How can an older male possibly pass a useful judgment on work that is precisely about the family relationship between a father and daughter? He can’t, simply by virtue of his own subject position and socially mediated role as purported dispenser of wisdom. He can, however, say that he would have simply looked on with aesthetic enjoyment had he not been clued in by the curator. He can also say that he doesn’t understand the visual vocabulary of the collages, which may mean that they are successful.)

    Truett Dietz’s wall-filling collage is a self-fulfilling embodiment of its message. Sometimes compositionally successful, sometimes all over the place, it allows for hours of exploration of possible meanings, though it helps greatly to have the media-mediated nature of the “ambiguous feelings” explicated first. There isn’t anything in the collage that would make us think of the Internet instead of the longstanding technique of conveying meaning—including meaning about the lack of meaning—by juxtaposing found images. (I myself created a very similar wall collage once—my first real work of visual art as a literature major—at age twenty, so old visual habits of interpretative analysis come back easily.)*

    James O’Donnell’s performance is a rather profound piece of hermeneutics and New Historicism that more than makes up for the conceptual perplexity of his installation. Once his grid of perceived historical ambiguities is overlaid on an artwork that is otherwise very much a first exploration of a genre, we have something that is distinctly ready for prime time. This is the case with a great deal of performance art, which isn’t mostly about the hard-copy art; James Luna or Guillermo Gomez-Peña aren’t given to great visual success in their performance props, though like O’Donnell, both have produced impressive freestanding sculptural examples of conceptually informed art.

    Mike Germon’s wall installation also reminds me of the work I first saw from my peer group in the 1960s, which is appropriate for a piece so devoted to the certainties and ambiguities of that bygone era. What one epoch-defining anthology called The Discontinuous Universe is aptly symbolized by all the antique emblems of deep space and kitsch-laden inner space, bric-a-brac and bookshelves that are emblems of the incompatible mental worlds all of us have inhabited concurrently for half a century now. Like Dietz’s ambiguous feelings, these realms of inbuilt ambiguity are more likely to create muddles than enlightenment, and Germon has done a yeoman’s job of keeping them all apart. (Sorry, that’s a James-Hillman play, if I remember rightly, on “getting it all together.”)

    Jennifer Morris’ installation of bells and drips is another one of those repetitions of well-worn visual tropes that are repeated because they deliver the goods. It is impossible to extract an unambiguous message from this work without first reading the title, but the title gives the viewer all the clues needed to interpret the likely intention. The work itself simply works on a subconscious level, no intention necessary.

    One could ask why the show has such a retro look and feel, as though one had fallen into a time warp (I’m afraid I never acquired the chemical underpinnings to claim an acid flashback). Except for the technology used to deliver the video, there is nothing here that would have seemed out of place in 1969, even though the largest work in the show is devoted to the emotional and intellectual consequences of the digital era.

    *Back in the Middle Paleolithic circa 1968, all of us literary types were making not only wall collages but 8 mm films, and doing extracurricular things like performing in Happenings in addition to pursuing our main identities. Knowing the context of that multimedia experience makes it difficult to interpret what all these retro visual strategies might mean in 2011, coming at the tail end of half a century of history, including the radically altered modes of childhood and adolescence that preceded the making of the artworks in “supra + natura.”

  • Jeremy Abernathy
    September 28, 2011 at

    Correction noted. Thanks!

    @ Nathan – were you able to see this show? I’d love to hear your thoughts on the work.

  • Sarah Shipman
    September 28, 2011 at

    I’d like to correct my name… it’s Sarah Shipman, not Susan.

  • Mike Germon
    September 28, 2011 at

    In addition to the description of the show, he offers an interpretation as to the meaning of the work which I appreciate. While I’d love to hear a more critical response to the show, I do think this offers more than a simple account of what the work looks like in the space.

  • Angela Bortone
    September 28, 2011 at

    Oops! Her name is Sarah Shipman not Susan.

  • Nathan
    September 28, 2011 at

    Is this a review or a description?

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