Visual Arts

Do Me

Any scene worth its salt comes with cliques, and the coolest club in the Phoenix art world is Collective Gesture, a group of artists, curators, and writers who communicate mostly via an invite-only listserv. Sometimes they come out to play, and this month, they've launched a show, "Do Me," in which they've been (allegedly) randomly assigned another member and an IKEA frame and told to make art depicting the assignee.

Gregory Sale, an artist whose work is often conceptual and text-based, was assigned to "do" Deborah Sussman Susser, a writer/art critic. Sale decided an integral part of his assignment involved not just writing a review of "Do Me" that channeled Sussman Susser's perspective as a critic — he wanted to get the piece printed, and, in so doing, endure some of the challenges a writer faces to get published. Thus ensued a dialogue between Sale and New Times that results in this.

To prepare to write, Sale read Sussman Susser's work and listened to pieces she'd written for radio. He originally envisioned cutting and pasting her own words together to form his — but time got in the way.

And then his father died. Sale's perspective changed. He focused on the fact that Sussman Susser's work refers often to her own father, who died 11 years ago this month, and to family in general. He used that as one of the focal points for writing his piece, which he designed to look like a New York Times obituary — except in green, a color he says he's not been drawn to before. He usually works in red. (In the original, the entire piece appears in Sale's hand. Here, the first leg of text and the heading appear as illustrations for this story, but the complete text appears below.)

Culturally, high value is placed on the originality of the visionary artist. Yet often art is interpreted in relation to the influences of an artistic movement or the work of other artists. In Do Me, at Trunk Space on Grand Avenue in downtown Phoenix, a group of artists, curators, and writers actively dons the style or primary concerns of one of the other participants. Questioning originality and influence, their experiment further investigates what it means to be a collective.

Lately I have been thinking a lot about collectives. My earliest affiliation circled around my father. Wading out into the James River, he would tie a rope around my waist and those of my brothers, and then back to himself. He wanted to be able to fish us out if the current was strong or one of us lost our footing. It crossed my mind that if one of us slipped we would pull the others along. I trusted him and felt safe and adventurous.

Now I am part of a different kind of collective. Some years ago, Phoenix artist Sherrie Medina convened a group of local artists, curators, and writers to talk about how we might align to support each other in our art practice. There was light discussion about whether by-laws or monogrammed windbreakers were the better approach. Somehow we named ourselves Collective Gesture and settled on an e-mail listserv. Links to resources, opportunities, and the occasional discussion remain the mainstay of our loose-knit community.

Periodically a member will initiate a project — a series of on-line exhibitions, a group show. You Still Draw Like a Girl remains a highlight for me with thirteen collective members and a handful of artist friends. At my house in a downtown neighborhood, Garage S. featured four tons of fake snow, tables of studio cast-offs, installations and a garage band. Many visited because it was Art Detour weekend. Others stumbled onto the event as they were guided by signs to what they hoped might be a great yard sale.

Artist Jon Haddock led the conceptualization of Do Me, the latest endeavor of Collective Gesture. Nineteen participants were randomly assigned the name of another in the group. Each agreed to make work in the "style of another," and to do so using all their own training, habits, preferences, and personality to take on the concerns of the artist assigned to them. Jon Haddock assures us that the pairing of participants — who gets whom — was completely random. As each pairing suggests a potent resonance, I remain not entirely convinced by his assurances.

Like my father's rope, an organizing structure links the exhibition components together. Each participant agreed to create work that hangs on the wall and fits in a 22" x 16" frame. The completed work holds together in this way like the group. The structure provides context both to contain our ideas and to spring forth from them. As a further play on the name of Collective Gesture, the entire exhibition is considered one piece. If it sells, if it slips, or has a life beyond the premier, it does so as a whole.

Collectives by nature are fragile. People move on. Individuals shift focus. Systems fail. That might ultimately be the fate of Collective Gesture, but for now Do Me is breathing life and adventure into the group.

— Gregory Sale does Deborah Sussman Susser

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