Back before the age of industrialization and career specialization, artists offered their services to whoever needed visual smarts and problem-solving skills. Artists of Renaissance Florence, for example, were almost as likely to be spending their time doing architecture, furniture design, or even party planning (banners, decorations, costumes) as they were creating paintings and sculpture.
The artistic trio known as SuttonBeresCuller (John Sutton, Ben Beres, and Zack Culler) sees itself in a similar light. Their current show at Lawrimore Project is their first-ever conventional gallery exhibition, even though they have been engaged in full-time artistic collaborations for ten years. Here with his review is KUOW's art critic, Gary Faigin.
Both their social and aesthetic goals are clearly on view in the centerpiece work in the show, a display regarding the projected conversion of an appallingly derelict and polluted gas station site in Georgetown into a civic park. The creation of alternative parks and public space have been a recurring theme in SBC’s work, including a park on wheels called, "Trailer Park," a portable living room called, "Their Goes the Neighborhood," and a notorious and short-lived floating island "The Island," which survived less than a day before its rescue by authorities.
The "Mini-Mart City Park" project is represented by a handsome scale model and accompanying digital slideshow. Assuming the trio can surmount the numerous technical, political, and economic obstacles still in the way, the finished park would literally embed the grocery store portion of the old business into a newly built grass-covered hillside. In the model, the miniature store, transformed into a clean and pristine display hall where there were once major toxic remains, is surrounded by a pleasant, but unremarkable greenspace, with paths, trees, and benches. I wasn’t impressed by the original model for the downtown library either; years from now, should SBC ever succeed in actually building the park (I’d put the odds at 50/50), it will no doubt only vaguely resemble the current projection.
Part of the tension in SBC’s work (and still to be determined with the Mini-Mart Park) is the extent to which they do or do not succeed in transforming the banal into the exceptional. The most effective example of this strategy in the current show are two installations featuring store-bought electric fans, bearing titles that reference the Dylan song, “Blowin’ in the Wind” (The Answer, my friend..” and “Little Answers”.) The note of ambiguity struck by the Dylan lyrics is a perfect match for the provocative but ultimately impenetrable message of the two fan pieces as well. Impenetrable, in fact, is an appropriate word; the key element of both works are a hermetically-sealed plexiglass boxes inside of which store-bought electric fans spin away at the trapped interior air. One phone booth-sized box contains nine assorted models, including a ceiling fan, a giant steel fan on a pole, and several smaller box and oscillating fans; the other piece consists of nine tiny oscillating fans in nine one-foot plastic boxes mounted on individual shelves (and sold separately). Both works drove me crazy, but in a good way; something as simple as putting a working fan in a sealed box brings up all sorts of ruminations on futility and isolation, tail-chasing and ivory towers, while at the same time being funny and strange. I couldn’t stop from wondering if the fans would run out of air, or why couldn’t I feel a hint of a breeze. And, was “work” happening inside the box, or not?
Much less successful, but fun to look at, is the most overtly political piece in the exhibition, "Flight Path." A sort of (I guess) anti-war piece, the work is a grey, full-scale MDF replica of a vintage anti-aircraft gun, with a swarm of identically-painted plastic airplane models bursting from its muzzle. The airplanes, strung on wires that double as action lines, are a mix of vintage and cutting-edge types scrambling aloft like a cartoon image of technological aggression. But there’s no punch line here, no payoff, nothing new to offer on the fraught subject of modern warfare and the U.S. role as world enforcer. It’s also, as far as I can tell, the only time that SBC has taken on such a broad, geopolitical topic, and it’s not a great match-up of artist and theme.
The group is on much firmer ground on the subject of art about art: works that use irony and surprise to reference current hot button issues regarding authorship, art economics, and the role of the museum in assigning art its presumed value. It’s also art that references other contemporary artists, but a knowledge of earlier precedents isn’t necessary to enjoy the results. There are other artists, for example, who have replicated ordinary objects in bronze, but that doesn’t make the SBC mock masterpiece gallery with bronze electrical outlets, light switches, security cameras, and rope and stanchions – not to mention the banana peel on the floor – any less of a hoot. The only thing missing in this collection of the immortalized ordinary is the “art” itself; the melting (why?) bronze picture frame the whole enterprise is meant to enshrine, in fact, surrounds nothing but blank wall. The nature of the missing painting, the point of all this infrastructure, is besides the point; the object here is to foreground the background.
I was also on board with their “editioning” an ugly graffiti-covered mirror from a local bar in five perfect replicas (the original is still at the bar), the bar chart made from a thick stack of one dollar bills cut into segments representing the distribution of sale proceeds, and SBC’s artistic rebuttal to a negative review. SuttonBeresCuller are not the only Seattle artists following the “great minds operating in many realms” career track pioneered by much earlier practitioners (Roy McMakin comes to mind), but at this moment in time, they are certainly the most interesting.