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True Lies?

Art Review


Published January 19, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: "Trickle Down '05," a group show curated by artists. Firehouse Gallery, Burlington. Through February 6.

ARTWORK:"Work in Progress" by Jonathan Laib

The premise of the current Firehouse Gallery exhibition, entitled "Trickle Down '05," seemed promising. Firehouse curator C. Sean Horton invited five artists to exhibit together on one wall, and delegated further curation duties to those artists: They each chose five more artists for mini-shows on other walls. Horton's scheme filled the gallery with work in multiple media by a total of 30 individuals. The result is surprising -- that is, surprising that such a good idea could result in such a bad show.

The concept's flaw is that, like Horton, none of the artist/curators seems to have reached beyond his or her own circle of arty young friends. Horton is originally from Houston, and two of his selections -- sculptor Robbie Austin and collagist Emily Joyce -- are from his former hometown. Jonathan Laib hales from Brooklyn, and Brian Gershey is in Boston. The only Vermonter is current Firehouse Artist-in-Residence and former snowboard painter Randy Gaetano.

The wall curated by Horton bears the title "Terra-Plastique." Its most plastic work is Laib's large purple-and-turquoise acrylic comprising three tubes stuffed with Polyfil. It resembles an inflatable pool and is described as a "work in progress." Hard-edged shapes decorate its surface with spider webs and pudgy blobs.

Laib's website indicates he's only recently adopted the kitsch aesthetic of his peers in this show; his roots are in minimal abstraction. Considering the bandwagon he jumped onto, it's no surprise that Laib's mini-show includes some of the most derivative works on the premises. Joshua Gleason's "Fresh Kill," for example, is a neo-Dada faux-fur rug stuck into the wall with an arrow.

Dada is totally misunderstood -- no wonder Marcel Duchamp quit the art world and devoted his later years to chess. In its first generation 90 "cutting-edge" years ago, Dada protested all rational explanations of art. In stark contrast, decadent neo-Dada doesn't eschew haughty art-speak explanations -- it requires them. Given its contemporary context, "Fresh Kill" is as fake as its fur.

Kevin Ford's untitled construction, made of model wooden dinosaur skeletons and other die-cut model shapes, is formally interesting and visually engaging. But his de rigueur pop-culture reference is dopey. A technically similar piece devoid of rehashed sauropods would be stronger. Perhaps the notion of formalism beyond objective content requires a leap of faith that modernists can no longer conceive of. Maybe it's just easier to be trendy than original.

Gaetano's ink-jet photo of the corner of a building forming a triangle looks like something from a Photography 101 class. A small cluster of leaves in the upper left of the shot blunts the impact of his composition. Gaetano's curatorial eye for detail is no better. It includes two amateurish photos by New Yorker Tim Barber of a 1997 high school prom. Of course, the non-art-aesthetic argument can be used to explain Barber's contribution to the show, but why bother?

One of Brueghel's Netherlandish proverbs -- "to pretend that horse droppings are figs" -- describes the sort of intellectual conceit that has become standard operating procedure among too many curators and artists these days. "Trickle Down '05" illustrates what is wrought by that kind of intellectual flabbiness: cronyism rather than veracity.

The worst sub-exhibition is "Transmissions from Dreamland," curated by Gershey. His own acrylics of hard-edged, robotic forms limned onto swipes of glaze suggest that his selections might be based on a limited vision.

Ria Brodell's pencil drawing "Man and Worm" is indescribably bad, yet "Catcher/Samurai" by Chris Sanderson is somehow worse. It's a clumsily inked comic of a baseball catcher and a samurai warrior doing battle. Anyone who buys Gershey's curatorial statement that the works in "Transmissions from Dreamland" "represent fictional spaces that potentially mirror our reality but have been transformed by each artist..." has a real taste for horse figs.

The subtitle of "Trickle Down '05" is "an infinite exhibition." However, fin de siecle postmodernism has become so glib that it may well have already rendered itself irrelevant. For his part, Horton is terminating his short stint as Firehouse curator and is moving on to a gallery job in Manhattan. Unfortunately, the schedule he created is continuing, and destined to include more faux fur and another "emerging artist from Texas." We can only hope that his successor will be more in touch with a community that used to pride itself on being one of the best small art towns in America.