On a recent monsoon-ravaged July evening, people were showing the love on Marshall Way in Scottsdale. The Thursday night art-walk crowd was sporting white buttons with phrases like "your thumb print on my skin," "I could jump into you . . . and land without consequences," and "you could give her flowers, flowers dry up and blow away, she would know you love her" printed in green text.
They were a part of Gregory Sale's project Love Buttons.
Sale is a local artist who has worked in seemingly every medium under the sun. Last summer, Sale's piece Searching for Yoko Ono wowed viewers at Lisa Sette Gallery. The video installation chronicled phone conversations Sale had with museumgoers to the SF MOMA's 2002 Yoko Ono retrospective. The catch was that the conversations took place via a telephone that was part of a Yoko Ono artwork on display there. Sale somehow obtained the number, called the phone once a day and chatted with visitors who were expecting Ono to be on the other end of the line. The work showed Sale's interest in engaging the public and creating art out of an unpredictable experience.
His current project is a little less complicated but no less successful. Love Buttons debuted at a music festival in Scottsdale in April. Sale made a series of white buttons, drawings, and aluminum signs with short bursts of poetry in green text that convey messages of love. The project encourages viewers to become part of the artwork. And, in fact, the piece wouldn't be a success without participation. Viewers get to choose buttons (some are free, some can be traded, and some cost just a buck) and wear them for everyone else to see. The idea is to launch deliberation, dialogue, and exchange of ideas of love — whether spoken or just quietly observed.
At first, the idea made me cringe. A public dialogue about love? Way too granola-sounding for me. But now, I have to admit, I love Love Buttons.
When Sale debuted his interactive artwork, more than 9,000 buttons were picked up from his button cart or handed out by his "love agents." Since then, he's taken the project to Glendale and the University of California-Santa Cruz. The latest installment, a July 10 appearance at the Scottsdale Summer Spectacular Art Walk, is part of the "Local Produce" show at Lisa Sette Gallery. The exhibition, which includes local artists such as Angela Ellsworth, Carrie Marill, Mayme Kratz, and Matthew Moore, is an excellent exhibition in its own right.
Any project about love can be easily dismissed as hokey or corny. And, to be honest, that's what I expected to see: a bunch of people getting all squishy over sharing their idealistic notions of love. Lame.
But Sale knows this risk as he aims to craft the opportunity for a public discussion that is honest, revealing, and atypical. And he succeeds. The language he chooses (provided by an informal collective of poets and Spork Press in Tucson) is ambiguous and unique. The buttons display new directions to approach the subject matter of love. And they open plenty of room for individual interpretation. It is this open space that gives participants the liberation to embrace certain messages as their own without the phrases feeling generic the way tired symbols like flowers, boxes of chocolate, or heart candies do.
It's impossible to describe this artwork without getting personal, which is the project's intent. I first chose a fickle pair of buttons that read, "right here" and "no, here." I figured it was an accurate reflection of my recent hesitations and hang-ups with love.
Then, one of the "love agents" handed me another pair that totally blew me away. The first read, "I could be the sound," and its mate said, "you can't pronounce." That phrase may as well be tattooed on my heart right now.
But as soon as I had the urge to pin them to my shirt, I held back. Though the message filled me with hope, actually wearing it for the world to see would make me feel like a desperate hag. I went from feeling inspired and hopeful to cowardly and depressed.
Such a range of reaction in the matter of about two seconds is quite an accomplishment for two teeny buttons. So I shoved them in my purse and wondered whether anyone else was too chicken to show off the buttons that hit close to home.
The range of reaction continued throughout the evening. The overly enthusiastic button that said "radiating" made me roll my eyes. But when I saw cute girls sporting the message proudly, their happiness was infectious. I chatted with another surly soulmate who was wearing the pair that started with "So, thorn," and ended with, "When did you enter?" We found a little solace in our commiseration.
My favorite moment involved a middle-aged man. I crudely assumed he was the dopey dad-type, grudgingly dragged along with a group of ladies. He hung in the background and kept quiet as the women gabbed and grabbed the buttons, chattering about which ones they liked the best. Surely, this was a guy who, just on principle, wouldn't participate. Then he quietly leaned over the cart, sneaked a button and mumbled, "This one speaks to me." It simply read, "familiar."
I was touched. I was humbled. And I was sold on the project.
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Sale and his love agents created an opportunity for everyone who attended that night to have an experience. Though we'll have to wait until his next event to get the full experience, you can still pick up buttons at Lisa Sette Gallery (where a button cart is displayed) and take a look at Sale's related art pieces, which depict the same poetry.
Love Buttons empowers viewers and makes them comfortable enough to jump in and be part of the art. A standing ovation to Sale for his ability to edit his concept, capture the subject's complexity, and, most importantly, give up control of his creation by allowing his audience to take the idea and run with it.
The experience is an all-out exposure. In a lot of ways, we may as well have been playfully flipping up our skirts or mooning one another on that rainy Thursday night. It's an openness that is unifying, isolating, vulgar, and beautiful all at once.
And it's a spot-on portrait of love.