Gallery I & II, Texas State University, San Marcos

S.E. Smith

Jeanne Quinn, A Thousand Tiny Deaths, 2009; black porcelain, balloons, string; 156 x 96 x 96 inches; courtesy the artist and Gallery I & II, Texas State University, San Marcos

Dario Robleto, Words Tremble With The Thoughts They Express, 2008; feathers made from stretched audio tape of the last recordings of now extinct birds and of now extinct languages, glass inkwell, homemade ink (lamp black, ground fulgurites [glass produced by lightning strikes when heat from blast melts surrounding sand], cuttlefish sepia), homemade paper, volcanic ash from Mt. St. Helens, ink dyed willow, brass, typeset; 63¾ x 25½ x 24½ inches; courtesy of the artist and Inman Gallery, Houston

This is how your university-supported art sausage is made: after long hours of drifting conversation, an educational objectives committee settles on “sustainability” as the “key concept” for the academic year, one that will issue forth from every freshman seminar syllabus and propel university rhetoric in the semesters ahead. Special grants and projects, whether they pertain to landscaping or visiting speakers or gallery shows, are asked to bear up under the “key concept,” whether the resulting arguments are tenable or not.

I mention this in relation to SUBstainability, a group exhibition currently showing at Texas State University, because it’s difficult otherwise to understand how the works on view relate to the objectives stated in the accompanying press release. Co-curators Mary Mikel Stump and Andy Campbell purport to “take an expansive approach to [sustainability] so as to subvert and complicate the dominant deployments of (environmental) sustainability,” by tacking the term “sustainable” toward more personal terrain. The press release declares, “Let’s be clear: we believe in love, dancing, vomit and sweets,” a notion that is, while exuberant, a little too expansive to fit within the context of environmental sustainability, even as a challenge to its “dominant deployment.” It appears that the curators simply altered the word slightly in order to fit their interests into Texas State University’s “Common Experience” topic: Sustainability: Science, Policy & Opportunity. Just as the curatorial goal here seems to drift away from the university’s stated objective, so do many of the works included in this show, resulting in an enjoyable (if somewhat unfocused) exhibition.

In an excerpted 1995 ArtPress interview with Felix Gonzalez-Torres displayed as wall text in the gallery’s first room, the artist describes his reasons for making “Untitled” (Placebo) (1991), an installation of wrapped candies on the gallery floor that visitors are encouraged to take: “I made ‘Untitled’ because I needed to make it. There was no other consideration involved except that I wanted to make artwork that could disappear, that never existed, and it was a metaphor for when Ross [Gonzalez-Torres’ partner] was dying. So it was a metaphor that I would abandon this work before this work abandoned me.” Rather than approaching the work through the critical language of challenged paradigms, Gonzalez-Torres casts “Untitled” (Placebo) as part of a private correspondence. The viewer is invited to glimpse and even experience it directly without the responsibility to make meaning. Pleasure, construed broadly, is the engine.

Jeanne Quinn’s installation A Thousand Tiny Deaths (2009) relies on a similarly basic pleasure, watching things break, as its means of engaging the viewer. Dozens of matte black ceramic vessels hang at various heights just above eye level. Each contains a partially inflated balloon attached by string to the ceiling. As they deflate, the balloons slip from the vessels’ mouths, leaving the pottery to fall and shatter. Moving subtly like pendulums, the vessels amplify the constantly shifting tensions of the balloons that keep them aloft. The installation is brilliantly staged with partial walls that make it impossible to examine the work without stepping over the polite conversation-distance barrier you become accustomed to in galleries. Such physical closeness ups the sense of impending action, and it’s easy to lose time watching the installation. I suppose an argument could be made that the work presents a metaphor for the impossibility of self-sustenance, as it contains the means of its own destruction and unmakes itself over the course of the exhibition. However, the tactile pleasure of A Thousand Tiny Deaths supersedes this possibility. In both it and “Untitled” (Placebo) there surfaces the notion of needing to make something (a work of art) in order to parse a semi-visible problem, therapeutically and without exterior motives. If we are meant to see art’s capacity to address personal and interior problems as a method of human emotional sustainability, there is no limit to the potential scope of this exhibition. But because SUBstainability is, of course, limited (in the standard spatial-temporal sense), this expansive logic never quite coalesces in SUBstainability.

SUBstainability, 2011; installation view, Gallery I & II, Texas State University, San Marcos; foreground: Felix Gonzalez-Torres, "Untitled" (Placebo), 1991; candies, individually wrapped in silver foil and cellophane; dimensions vary with installation; courtesy the Museum of Modern Art, New York and Gallery I & II, Texas State University, San Marcos

In its most on-message moments, SUBstainability posits an alternate world where even the scientific method is not separated from sentiment. Dario Robleto’s Words Tremble With The Thoughts They Express (2008), a sculptural work whose materials include volcanic ash from Mount St. Helens and audiotape of the last recordings of extinct birds and nearly-lost languages, evokes both museum-quality preservation and private totem. The audiotape, stretched into fine, wiry thread, is fashioned into eight ornate gray feathers arranged around a beveled glass pot of cuttlefish ink and displayed flat in an octagonal frame. Each feather memorializes a sound lost from this world, blurring the documentary function of audiotape with the representational capacity of the crafted object. Imbued with the care taken in their meticulous construction, the feathers insist on a form of knowledge that contains both objective data and private expressions of loss. In Robleto’s works composed of salvaged, often historically charged materials, it is easiest to see how the notion of “sustainability” might benefit from revision.

To be frank, the exhibition’s curatorial angle forces these connections. It’s difficult to unite SUBstainability’s curatorial impulses toward exuberance and revamped sustainability, or to meld its rhetorical premises. Ultimately it was most rewarding to view the works without trying to hold together their ill-fitting curatorial underpinnings. Mark Mumford’s There Ought to Be More Dancing (2007) delivers the most succinct injunction to the pleasures of not giving a damn, zigzagging down the wall in tall vinyl letters, so insouciant as to hyphenate “DANC-ING” and split the word between two italicized lines of text. Forget about environmental rhetoric, these are the goods.

S.E. Smith is the founding editor of OH NO magazine. Her work has appeared in Fence, jubilat and elsewhere.

This exhibition will be on view through March 1, 2011.

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