Young Bloods, Fluxx
Works by Chiavetta, Tabakovic, Watson, and 5AM.
June 14 2012
What is art? The philosophy of aesthetics has long tried to answer this question. Perhaps the most frequently discussed contemporary answer is the institutional theory, which explicitly rejects philosophical ambitions to find a definitive or comprehensive description of what counts as “art.” Rather, in its basic form, the institutional theory holds that almost anything can be art so long as members of an art scene—including artists, gallerists, critics, and art appreciators—can all give reasons for calling it art.
On the one hand, the institutional theory is liberating. Because there are no absolute criteria for what is or is not eligible to be art, artworks are freed from traditional constraints regarding form, media, display, and so forth. Yet, on the other hand, the institutional theory is somewhat cynical. It dismisses as naïve the attempt to ask what art “is” or “means” beyond a given social context. For example, no institutional theorist would seriously return to Plato’s notion of the eternal form of beauty, or to Leo Tolstoy’s idea that artworks form a quasi-spiritual link between the consciousness of the artist and that of the viewer.
With all this in mind, I’d like to offer some philosophically motivated reflections following the recent anniversary show at FLUXX Gallery in East Village. In many ways, I see this anniversary show, and the year’s worth of shows that preceded it, as the record of a gallerist looking for new, and non-institutional, answers to the question of art.
Even a brief conversation with gallery owner Jordan Weber reveals his enthusiasm for existential questions, his openness to philosophical speculation, and his optimism over art’s potential to teach us something new about the human condition.
Weber’s vision for the kind of art space he is trying to create has changed over the last year. Early on, he envisioned a collective of activist-artists united around the causes of environmentalism and anti-consumerism. Although these ethical and political motivations still guide Weber’s approach to running the gallery, they do not determine his choices of works to feature. Several FLUXX shows from the past year have foregrounded socio-political themes—for example, three shows have dealt with issues of critical race consciousness—but other shows have had no explicit political angle.
Works by Kelley, Pearson, Gardner, and Newman.
The recent anniversary exhibit speaks to the variety of media and styles that FLUXX has hosted in its first year, including photography, installations, sculpture, and abstract paintings. The anniversary show, hanging until the end of June, features eleven new pieces and several works acquired by the gallery from past shows:
· Graphite drawing by Nate Young. This piece originally appeared in Young’s solo show in April 2012. In that installation, including sculpture and drawings, the artist reimagined the history of black culture in America as a people’s mythic journey of apotheosis. The drawing on display in the anniversary show is a conceptual map of the relations between knowledge, wisdom, and understanding.
· Ink drawings by 5AM. In these drawings by a Los Angeles street artist, obsessively detailed humanoid figures seem to be unfolding while bulking up—like wobbly Transformers—against an urban backdrop. The images capture the frenetic undercurrents of everyday city scenes.
· Installation by Emily Newman. Her wire sculpture of a common plastic chair hangs at an awkward angle from the ceiling, its shadow captured in overlapping charcoal drawings on the wall behind it. It brings to mind both the nostalgia of ephemerality and the eeriness of an object frozen in time and space, obtruding on us outside of its usual context.
· Sculpture by Edward Kelly. A smooth, white, solid rectangle, punctuated by a single circle of neon light, is leaning against the wall atop two hand-carved marble wedges. The piece problematizes the relation between the unique and the mass-produced, or between the process and the product of the sculptor’s art.
· Painting by Christopher Chiavetta. If Kelly’s work deals in some measure with the art of sculpting itself, Chiavetta’s painting deals with the properties and problems of paint. Its baroque detail suggests an epic scene—perhaps, an inferno—although it resists viewers’ attempts to read it as “representational.”
· Sculptures by Ben Gardner. The multi-colored structures invoke elements of folk art—the patchwork of a hand-stitched quilt or the jumble of a junkyard sculpture. The standing pieces especially bring to mind a rural landscape, suggesting the monumental or even shrine-like stature of windmills and weathervanes.
Sculpture by Pearson
· Sculptures by Jonathon Pearson. In a piece titled “Catharsis of Christ,” three uncomfortably pink Christ figures emerge, partly embedded in the wall or in their cement stands. The fleshy tones, and the bodily damage to the figures, emphasize humanness and vulnerability.
· Paintings by Senid Tabakovic. A collection of small, tidy images seems perfectly in order, except for the three outliers in the bottom right corner. The repeated use of fake wood grain and of grids that resemble machine-woven fabric speaks to the problematic reduction of quality to homogeneity.
Painting by Free
· Paintings by Molly Free. Free’s stylized figures make use of the expressive qualities of color and line. Both paintings recall the style of a graphic novel, inviting viewers to fill in the narrative.
· Installation and paintings by Jordan Weber. Weber’s work reflects elements of pop art, exploiting the pervasiveness of the corporate logos, signs, and images that have become the iconography that defines the racial landscape in America today.
Works by Atherton, Renno, Young, and Kelley.
· Photograph by Bob Renno. This humorous but provocative image—a nude woman sitting on the shoulders of a nude man, drizzling him in what looks like chocolate sauce—was acquired by the gallery after its international photography show in September 2011.
· Photographs by Dennis Atherton. Atherton’s photos emphasize the ability of the camera to preserve passing moments, freeing them for the possibility of sustained reflection. In one, naked mannequins from a storefront stare back at the viewer; the other two capture moments from the ongoing public dialogue amongst street artists.
· Photographs by Mike Watson. These photos by local artist Mike Watson show a series of houses in various stages of repair and disrepair. The images are evocative—of home, of decay—while not being overly sentimental.
Artwork by Jordan Weber
Although FLUXX features an eclectic mix of artists and art forms, Weber’s ethical and political commitments continue to shape his vision for the gallery and its role in the Des Moines art scene. For example, he and gallery co-owner Julia Frey have plans for community outreach programs in the future, potentially partnering with other local organizations to host free after-school art programs for local children and teens. They also have ideas for mobile or pop-up galleries that will bring creative spaces to communities. These projects reflect their shared conviction that art-making and art appreciation should be accessible to everyone, and that art can play a transformative role in people’s everyday lives.
The institutional theory is not necessarily linked to consumerism, but it nonetheless provides a useful theoretical framework in which to understand today’s marriage of the artworld to market economics, and the resulting commodification of art. However this theoretical framework masks, I think, an unavoidably tense situation. Aesthetic appreciation—the valuing of an object or experience for its own sake—is in essence at odds with a consumerist culture that assigns all value a monetary measure. In other words, art is in conflict with itself when it becomes both art and commodity. FLUXX joins a robust and growing art scene in Des Moines, which, like any art scene, is the arena in which the internal tensions of art are displayed, discussed, and potentially transformed. FLUXX’s message, its political commitments, and its optimism for art’s ability to empower people and their communities, promise to make it an enthusiastic participant in the ongoing conversation on art in Des Moines.
Leah Kalmanson is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Philosophy and Religion at Drake University, where she teaches classes in aesthetics, continental philosophy, and East Asian religions.