There's something about the daily ritual of commuting via subway that encourages strategizing. Especially when the LED display says that the train is still five minutes away. Time, therefore, to plot your moves. I experienced this firsthand for many years. Constantly weighing my options: Where can I stand on the platform to maximize my chances of getting a seat when the train doors open? If I walk away from the center of the platform and head toward one of the ends, do my odds of scoring a seat increase? Where can I stand so that I am in the exact spot where the doors open? Over time, it was almost an obsession. I would mentally place people into camps of "amateur" or "pro" on how they conducted themselves as they jockeyed for position.
This is exactly the head space explored in Chicago artist Jonathan Gitelson's multimedia piece The Sweet Spot. Gitelson detailed his attempts to find the optimal spot in which to wait for the train in his Chicago neighborhood over the course of 50 morning commutes in five months. He took his data and translated it into a work of art that includes a large diagram, seven photographs, and 50 pen-and-ink drawings.
This piece is just one of the "stories" featured in the Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art exhibition "Artists Tell Stories (Mostly About Themselves)," which features the works of five artists — each of whom shares an idiosyncratic, narrative component with his or her visual art.
"Artists Tell Stories (Mostly About Themselves)" is on display at Scottsdale Museum of Contemporary Art, 7374 E. 2nd St., through January 2. Admission is $7 for adults. Visit smoca.org or call 480-874-4666.
Part of the fun of the Gitelson piece is its relatability — standing back and observing someone else's obsession. We get to see his attempt to try to impose order and control in his daily life, something that — when you get right down to it — none of us has much control over.
Similar satisfaction runs throughout this group show because of this quality of being "let in on the story." "Artists Tell Stories (Mostly About Themselves)" straddles the line between performance and object-making. But don't let the title lead you to think the show's mission is overly literary. It's more interested in artists making rational art of irrational, internal anxieties. The work is absorbing because of this inclination toward the personal, but it also has conceptual focus. The artists included here bump up against each other in interesting ways. And who doesn't like being let in on a secret?
Another artist in the show, Andrew Kuo, employs methodically plotted structures such as charts and graphs to get at the deep undercurrents of emotion in his life, from diagramming his feelings about his own drinking habits (in Drinking as of August 20, 2008) to the feelings of helplessness and anger over a racist comment (The Walk Home After Being Racially Slurred/I'm Not Tall, Dark, or Handsome). His work features timelines rendered in stylized graphics. They begin matter-of-factly before spiraling into reflections on his own self-worth.
Kuo's graphically logical charts act as a map key. His clean, precise lines, and their strict form, serve as explanatory ciphers to understanding his fluctuating state of mind. All this classification and breaking down of events is done with humor and a narrative arc.
And then there is artist Deb Sokolow, who takes the idea of telling a story and pulls it in a different direction. "Telling a story" can also be synonymous with bending the truth or embellishing facts.
While researching conspiracy theories, Sokolow stumbled upon several references to the intrigue surrounding Denver International Airport: Are there deep underground military bases and tunnels big enough for trucks to drive through? She began a year of intense research, which culminated in June 2011, when she flew round-trip from Chicago to Denver to investigate, arriving in the morning and returning late in the evening. She had 16 hours at the airport to collect data and conduct field research, as well as explore the grounds in a rental car. All this is represented in Sokolow's multimedia piece Denver International Airport Research Notebook. But here's the thing: Sokolow the artist can spin a yarn. Her text narratives reel you in with threads of suspicion, mystery, and high jinks, and they leave you wondering: What is fabricated and what is authentic?
There is something cinematic in the settings and the quests she presents, paired with an anonymous, somewhat unreliable narrator. It is hard as a viewer not to feel engaged. The combo gives her work vibrancy: What is going to happen? In Sokolow's world, there seem to be both truths and fictions unfolding simultaneously.
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Another nod to the cinematic is William Lamson's Hunt and Gather, which features a 15-minute, high-definition, two-channel video of the artist biking through the streets and alleyways of an urban neighborhood. However, his bike is no ordinary bike: It has been customized with a six-foot ladder welded to its frame. The modification turns the solitary and nameless character, played by Lamson, into a solemn urban warrior.
With no dialogue and only ambient sound, this mysterious character (is it Lamson's alter ego?) is armed with a bow and arrows. He parks his cruiser bike, secures it, and climbs the six-foot ladder. From the upper rungs, he aims custom-made box-cutter arrows at a pair of discarded shoes hanging from the phone lines. The shoes fall to the ground, and our warrior swaps them for his own shoes. Then he throws his old shoes back over the telephone lines and rides away. The same scenario is repeated as twilight descends on the city. The video is odd, yet somehow captivating, enhanced by the seamless camera work and the fact that almost no other people are seen in the industrial landscape in the background.
Finally, the show features work by artist Simon Evans. His large collage, Shitty Heaven, creates a physical map to represent psychological experience. When you look closely at the collage, you see that it is constructed entirely of fragile layers of cellophane tape holding together intricate layers of paper scraps, receipts, and other detritus. Evans mines his personal memories in their minutiae. There is much whiting-out (correction fluid is listed as one of the materials), and erasing seems to be an important part of the process.
In fact, I'd say this is one of the unifying elements of the entire show — besides the works being driven by narrative and self-referential in nature — the visible re-considerations, editing, and do-overs are an important part of the process of the "stories" these artists are telling (uncovering). Trying and failing and trying again to get at some everyday human stuff — feelings of inadequacy, suspicion, mystery, and feelings of longing. Complete with plot twists, anecdotes, conceits, folly, and — in the case of Deb Sokolow — just a touch of barroom embellishment to maximize the entertainment.