I have a vague childhood memory of being in an art museum while on vacation with my family. I don't know where we were, but I remember approaching an old oil painting and sneakily running my finger over the rough, cracked texture of the dried pigment. I sort of knew I was doing something wrong, but it wasn't until later, when my brother scolded me, that I felt embarrassed and ashamed. When visiting an art show, there are prescribed rules for viewing, and that formulaic way of experiencing art is what I've come to expect.
That is why ASU Art Museum's "Jarbas Lopes: Cicloviaérea" collaborative exhibition in the Kresge Gallery is so exciting. The place looks like a frantic artist's studio not a stuffy museum gallery. That's the point. It's all part of ASU's ongoing project, "Social Studies." From September 7 to October 12, the space was handed over to Brazilian artist Jarbas Lopes to be used simultaneously as his art studio and as a viewing gallery of his work in progress. Lopes was an excellent choice as the first resident artist for this endeavor. Breaking down barriers, particularly between artists and viewers, Lopes has created past projects that focused on outside participation and openness to ideas.
During one of my visits, I popped in a DVD that chronicled one such project. I watched as Lopes joined a Brazilian parade, gathering volunteers off the street to carry a large Styrofoam structure he had built as if it were a parade float. After displaying the piece proudly in the procession, the float-bearers suddenly tore the structure to bits in a mad frenzy. Admittedly, I didn't catch the whole story because the DVD wasn't in English, but I got the idea. Lopes is a dynamic artist who likes to involve people in abnormal activity. The group action the collective moment of expression he is able to conjure is his art piece.
That's not to say Lopes never creates art in a more traditional sense. In fact, he used this makeshift studio to dismantle and investigate the eco-friendly alternative mode of transportation, the bicycle. Lopes used the gallery to make art just like any artist would, but he also worked together with students and viewers during his 11-5 daily "shifts." Additionally, the gallery was open to anyone who wanted to bring supplies and make their own art. The results are now on display.
Visiting assistant professor and local artist Gregory Sale had the opportunity to get involved with his two studio classes consisting of 27 ASU art students. It's no surprise Sale took an interest in the project. He, too, has worked with the unpredictability of art viewership, as with Looking for Yoko Ono, which showed at Lisa Sette Gallery over the summer ("Forever Young," August 9). In the piece, he recorded random telephone conversations with people visiting an Ono retrospective at the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art in 2002.
Sale's class visited the gallery several times a week in groups or individually to meet with Lopes and the exhibition's curators, John Spiak and Marilyn Zeitlin. Sale tells me that the parties discussed and embraced the unknown. No one was sure in which direction the project would ultimately lead. From what I can surmise, it sounds like an enriching experience for those involved, but from a viewer's perspective, lands all over the map.
Lopes' residence resulted in a show containing two parts: bike-inspired art and the decorated gallery space itself. Following its bipolar example, I simultaneously loved it and hated it. The energy created by the participants was infectious, and I was jazzed as I wandered aimlessly, curiously inspecting the countless marks made by the people who passed through the gallery. But I found it tough to decipher common ground between Lopes' bike project and the participation.
That said, on a recent visit to the exhibit, watching other visitors literally drawing on the walls, I got pumped. This is an art show that breaks tradition, and with experimentation comes both success and failure. The show is a success in that it got people involved and energized. Viewers experience the gallery as a collective art piece that maintains its malleability, as everyone is still invited to make contributions. Truly, it is the visual leftovers of everyone's art-making participation that creates an irresistible energy. The trouble lies in the conceptual gap between the participation and the bicycle exploration. The themes were unrelated, making the show difficult to digest as a whole. It was like eating a piece of steak topped with a scoop of ice cream.
When I initially saw bikes attached to the grate that surrounds the outdoor sculpture garden, I assumed that a shortage of bike racks made students get creative. But as I entered the front courtyard and saw the rows of bikes parked along the walkway, it became obvious that this was the introduction to Lopes' theme.
The lobby displays only a couple of Lopes' completed works, in which he covered bikes with unexpected substances. Ciclovia Aerea, for example, is a bicycle wrapped in osier, a twiggy variety of willow. The beautiful, wicker-like weave follows the form of the bike, bringing out the aesthetic quality of the contraption's design. The mechanical pieces are completely covered surely rendering the bike useless. This is a completed work and, so far, it's apparent that Lopes was thinking of ways to transform the object from a device of function to an aesthetic entity. And while I never before realized how pretty a bike's shape could be, I was hard-pressed to find a more conceptual read of the piece.
Upon entering the gallery/studio, I found similar works. The difference here is that, much like the labor on the walls, there is no way to know how much Lopes is responsible for. One bike frame was covered with packed and dried soil, secured with netting and wire. The bulbous mounds of earth were molded to the bike frame, erasing the geometric harshness of the design. The message is pretty obvious: Earth and bike have a beneficial relationship. Again, I wasn't blown away.
Other bike-inspired works were everywhere. A makeshift racing ring made of black floor mats, covered with painted bike wheel tracks, circled the gallery. There was a Jolly Green Giant-sized bike made entirely of wood. And a canopy of bike wheels, interconnected by thick chains, hung from the ceiling. Once more, I just didn't see the bigger message. It really just looked like someone was goofing around with bike parts.
It's impossible to know what Lopes created, and what is the work of his collaborators. But it's obvious that with so many participants trekking through his workspace, leaving their mark, this artist was working with an unpredictable atmosphere. The walls are effed up with random scribbles and painted graffiti. Objects such as shoes, sticky notes, and decorated papers are hanging from every direction.
High on the west wall of Kresge Gallery is an installation of sorts. Four pairs of red shoes are affixed to the wall, forming a circle. Extending from each shoe is one red shoelace that meets the others in the middle just like the spokes of a bicycle wheel. To the left of the shoe wheel, two violin bows are set vertically one on top of the other. Written on the wall in cursive is, "To be played on red string while traveling." I'd like to imagine that some college student made this to represent a recent trip to Europe, playing music to earn a little cash scrimping by and experiencing adventures on a shoestring budget. Regardless of the meaning, it is evident that someone brought specific materials and spent time thinking about how they wanted to use the space.
The shoe wheel was an exception, as most of the crowd participation was spontaneous and less thoughtful but enjoyable nonetheless. On one of my visits, I spied (among the scribbles, poems, and children's handprints) a huge squid, painted in thick black lines. Next to its writhing tentacles the contributing "artist" wrote, "Mmm whale!" I couldn't help but chuckle. In a different area, someone drew a delicate purple flower. Next to it, a scrawl of girly handwriting reads, "There's always the person after." Another contribution I enjoyed is a piece of cardboard, nailed to the wall, on which someone wrote, "I am in love with the following women:" and then listed six names. It was those zany cartoons and anonymous confessions that brought the room alive and inspired me to get lost in the random decorations, discovering words and images laced with expressions of humor, rage and heartbreak.
The place is filled with evidence that people are getting into it they've fully embraced the opportunity to participate. The idea is working and the energy is exciting.
But how does Lopes' individual studio work fit in? My excitement about the gallery's frenzied state was diminished by the bicycle project. It seemed to come totally out of left field. I couldn't find a way to bridge the dramatic gap between the participation and Lopes' bicycles.
The bike pieces, as a whole, were disappointing. And it may be that the participatory energy I loved didn't depend on Lopes' work. Couldn't simply offering up the gallery to a public free-for-all produce the same energy? How much did Lopes and his work really have to do with the visual buzz left by participants?
I couldn't reconcile these questions, but ASU surely deserves credit for taking such a huge risk. The show is a unique experimental experience that is compelling enough to entice a collaborative effort. And that is where the exhibition's real artistic merit lies.
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