Lonely Are the Brave

Blue Star Contemporary Art Center

Ben Judson

Chris Sauter, Kitchen (far), 2009; photograph; 30 x 45 inches

Lonely Are the Brave, 2009; installation view, Blue Star Contemporary Art Center; photo by Justin Parr

In the fall of 2008, Art Lies devoted an issue to reevaluating the role of the curator, urging a freer reading of curatorial practice. Issue No. 59, entitled “Death of the Curator,” included a review of The Old, Weird America penned by Hills Snyder. Snyder, also an artist, gallery director and curator, was enthusiastic about the show despite admitting that his deep commitment to its subject—an exploration of American identity through the lens of folk music traditions—threatened to raise his expectations higher than any exhibit could reach.

Now it’s 2009. The silver foot has been superseded by a golden tongue, and yet the same ideologies—narratives that form our national identity—continue to haunt us, while being adapted, refined and abused. Amidst these wrinkles in American mythologizing, Snyder curated what he calls a “state of the union tableau” at Blue Star Contemporary Art Center. The work on view, by a group of four San Antonio-based artists, is framed by a conceptual Bermuda Triangle of Bob Dylan, Sam Shepard and Kirk Douglas channeling Edward Abbey.

Whereas curator Toby Kamps used Greil Marcus’ essay as a starting point for The Old, Weird America, Snyder invokes Lonely Are the Brave, an anachronistic Western pitting the Old against the New West. It stars Kirk Douglas as Jack Burns, a cowboy keeping the faith despite a rapidly modernizing world. Burns cuts through utility company fences, rides his horse across busy highways and pooh-poohs prohibitory signage.

Not just vague inspiration, the movie is physically incorporated into the exhibition. Snyder added what he refers to as “treatments” or “tweaks,” including a burnt-out campfire smack dab in the middle of a dusty living room rug. There’s also wall text swiped from Dylan’s “New Danville Girl” and a comfy viewing room complete with recliner for absorbing the curator’s influences, which are not limited to Lonely Are the Brave looping on an old TV set or the careful stacking of The Brave Cowboy (the Edward Abbey novel on which the movie is based), Marcus’ The Old, Weird America, Kafka’s Amerika and Suttree (Cormac McCarthy).

Densely woven references are typical of Snyder’s work, and this curatorial effort is no exception. A taste: the epic 1984 Dylan ballad “New Danville Girl” (later renamed “Brownsville Girl”) was co-authored by Sam Shepard, who also wrote True West, a play dealing with the fading mythologies of the American West. In this play, a character mentions that Lonely Are the Brave is his favorite Western; in Lonely Are the Brave, a one-armed man brawls with our hero; this one-armed man is played by Bill Raisch, who served as the one-armed man in The Fugitive, based on a true story involving a man named Sam Sheppard. The exhibit includes two photographs by Chris Sauter of the set of True West from the AtticRep production of the play in spring 2009. Now you have some idea of what we’re up against.

Kelly O’Connor, Mirror Magic, 2009; ink, colored yarn; 12 x 59 x 18 feet; photo by Justin Parr

Justin Boyd, Optional Obstacles (Lonely Are the Brave), 2009; video, fence posts, bailing wire, wire cutters, modified contact mics, sine wave generator, acrylic and vinyl on fiberboard; dimensions variable

In addition to the photographs, Sauter also cuts through walls like Burns cuts through fences—not so much destructive as defiant. He also offers up sculputural slices in two forms: a plow built of sheetrock segments harvested from the walls of the gallery and a telescope made of discs cut from a replica of the artist’s childhood bedroom. The telescope rests in the middle of the bedroom; holes cut for its creation hover like stars, allowing light from the gallery to stream in. We could try to analyze the genesis of the work by reading the spines in young Sauter’s bookcase or the toys on his shelves, but why bother? His statement is direct if abstract, and beauty is found in absorbing the concreteness of the thing—a commitment to the objects of memory and the ability to cut through them at will.

In Blue Star’s Project Space lines of colored yarn resembling the unlikely marriage of Fred Sandback’s sculptures and a laser light show emerge from a wall-size mural of monochrome Disney characters. In Kelly O’Connor’s Mirror Magic, cartoon friends (many based on folk tales) seem to be rushing happily through the mirror that frames them, apparently an amalgamation of Alice’s looking glass and the mirror that dropped the dime on Snow White. Which side we find ourselves behind—a portal to a mystical world or a prison for vanity—is up to us. Likewise, there’s an ambiguity about the intention of O’Connor’s references. Dark clouds hang above the dripping characters, reminding us that the Walt Disney Company is shaping childhood fantasies for profit, but O’Connor’s beams of yarn are genuinely magical to behold.

Back in the main gallery, Jesse Amado cut long lengths of colored fringe to hang in swags along the back wall of the space. Rows of sequentially numbered pins, equally spaced from top to bottom, imply a systematic approach, as if the composition were drawn on a grid or represented a musical staff with the peaks as notes or crescendos. At some peaks, overlapping ovals in gold paint bring to mind cactus, though we are told in the exhibition brochure that these forms reference bubbles common in Dutch vanitas paintings. Amado also gleaned gesturing hands from Internet porn which are painted in gold as well. Taken together, we have aimless caresses, clustered bubbles that will never pop and fringe without curtains—a landscape of the emptiness of desire. Amado’s flawless composition moves brazenly over the grid of numbered pins, either at home in the system or, like Burns (our hero), resisting organizing strictures.

At the end of a loud, droning performance inspired by Alvin Lucier’s “Music on a Long Thin Wire,” Justin Boyd cut the wires carrying his sine waves. The wires are part of a fence jutting out from one gallery wall, behind which a sequence from Lonely Are the Brave runs in a loop. Boyd’s gesture mimics Burns’ fence-cutting, liberating the audience from a relentless onslaught of sound pumped through the wires via contact microphones.

Snyder’s tweaks, which visually and thematically tie together these disparate works by Sauter, O’Conner, Amado and Boyd, represent an aggressive form of curation. Although several of his pieces predate the concept of the exhibit, Snyder’s reference points do more than simply bind the work together; they also serve to mediate, interpret and influence the materialization of the art. He brings the work in Lonely Are the Brave into dialogue not just through its placement but by filling in the gaps, inserting objects and text into the exhibit that serve as mortar. Snyder has successfully activated some of the approaches proposed previously in these pages and given new life to the role of the curator.

Ben Judson is a writer and poet based in San Antonio.

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