Your Dreams Were Your Ticket Out
By Michael Fallon
Sometimes less is more. Some people say that quiet is the new loud. Often, the best art is made by artists who have the most modest agendas. These are all different ways to acknowledge the two things I realized when I recently saw “Threads from There to Here,” a show closing at the Umber Studios on January 22 of work by a group of artists who call themselves the Burning Artist Co-op. First off, I was completely charmed — despite all of my preconceptions and expectations — by this group’s art and by the humble, but quaintly elegant gallery space of the Umber Studios. I was, owing to what I thought I knew, fully prepped to dislike the show, to find fault in the whole enterprise. I was sharpening my quill and sizing up my various ideological misgivings, but then a funny thing happened. This turned out to be just the kind of show I have been desperate to see of late — full of pleasant, pleasing, non-dogmatic, unpretentious art made for the sheer joy of it. Further, in acknowledgement of the first realization, it appears the best thing that ever happened to the Burning Artist Co-op is when they disbanded and each went their own separate artistic ways.
This group of five young artists had been founded in 2001, while they were undergraduate art students at the University of Wisconsin, Stout , and operated in Minneapolis for a short time. However, even before some members of the group showed in a rather mediocre exhibition at Rogue Buddha Gallery in the fall of 2003, other members had already begun to head elsewhere. Andy DuCett entered, in the fall of 2003, graduate school at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. Other Burning Artists, in time, moved to far-off lands like Nebraska, Wisconsin, and California, and the five now currently live in four different states. So divergent have been their paths, DuCett called this show “a homecoming in a way, when old friends get together and swap stories of their travels.” He suggested that the work they were showing in “Threads…,” a title that hints at the group’s “unraveling,” comprised a bit of a “visual travelogue” for the friends. That’s not to say that this work is the stuff of artistic legend, museum-worthy and bound in short order for either the Whitney or the Walker. There’s not much that connects these five artists in this show. There’s no overarching theme, no big-ticket art philosophy, no curatorial agenda of the sort that moves you ahead in certain circles. But this lack of calculation and strategizing is refreshing. What’s on display instead is a cool and general sense of wonder about things, as well as plenty of invention, a lively spirit of fun and play, and much joy in the process of making art. The overall result of this toning down of theoretical jargon and academic mumbo-jumbo is a batch of well-made art that is perfectly in tune with the space and with the viewers who enter the space.
To speak of some specific images, Andy DuCett’s work, hands down, was the most enjoyable in the show. In fact, DuCett, who returned to the area a few years ago after finishing graduate work in Illinois, may well be one of the local art community’s undiscovered diamonds — though he is slowly becoming more well-known. His pen-and-ink, mixed-media drawing on paper, “Far Away Places That Are Closer Than You Think,” for instance, is reminiscent of an updated Rube Goldberg illustration (of a Byzantine and functionless contraption) or of 1960s-era children’s books illustrating the mechanics of modern machinery. DuCett employs tight illustrative pen lines along with dabs of watercolor or colored pencil, giving these the feel of old Sunday comics from the days before editors shrunk the space allotted to artists to make room for more advertising. In this particular image, a crazy, impossible, near-Cubist backyard is filled with toys, architecture, plumbing, pyramids, blenders, and other inexplicable items. DuCett gives objects and characters in his images funny little captions that, rather than serve to illustrate what’s going on, muddle interpretation and create an open-ended sense of meaning(ful/less)ness. Just to give one example, next to an image of a boy shining a flashlight on some small toys is the caption: “Holy crap, dad, look at all the tiny cars and big garages.” Ha ha! Um, what? What I like most about DuCett’s work is he records on paper the stuff that most of us grapple with-the crap that surrounds us, the maddening triviality of so much in life, the mechanization and architecture that dwarves us — and he simultaneously captures our angst about all of this and spins it into wondrous whimsy. He doesn’t deign to have all the answers, and this is nice. I’ve always preferred art that illuminates and examines the wonder and beauty of life, or that makes beauty out of life’s ever-present hard realities, but I’ve noticed lately that such work seems to have become shorter in supply (like much else in the country these days, I suppose). I’ve noticed that many artists operate as if they were some kind of paid visual pundit, much to the, IMHO, ultimate detriment of art.
Fortunately, there’s still more joy and whimsy, and little preacherly punditry, to be found in this little show. Marq Spusta’s illustrations are full of hard-edged fun. Since leaving Minnesota, first for Madison, then for California, Spusta has worked as a freelance illustrator and graphic artist for a whole host of rock bands, authors, and businesses. His style might be considered a cross between classically trippy rock imagery and a more tricked-out, rococo Dr. Seuss. And while, again-as with DuCett-this is not the most theory-laden or meaningful work, this does not diminish the fact that Spusta has some serious artistic chops and these are compelling, extremely well-crafted images. “Branch with Birds,” an acrylic on canvas, depicts two humorous little birds with stylized feathers and other elaborate decorative flourishes sitting on a tree branch. The birds are so eloquently rendered and fully realized that they seem to exhibit real emotion. I swear the fatter one is mildly frustrated and agitated, poised on the verge of squabbling with someone, and the other, with a massively elaborated tail feather, is overcome with ennui. And while it’s unclear what the purpose of the image is, if any, these birds would make fantastic children’s book characters, and Spusta could be, if he put his mind to it, a top-notch visual storyteller. I suppose he just needs the right story to tell.
With so much joyful obliqueness and ambivalence toward context occurring in this show, it almost seems pre-planned. At the very least, the removal of a larger agenda in favor of obscure fun is what distinguishes the groups’ current efforts from that of its earlier days. “Early on in the Co-op’s life,” said Andy DuCett, “we tried a bit too hard to come up with one thing that we could rally around, manifesto-style. What we were overlooking was what we feel our core strength is now: diversity. Which is probably why we decided to have a group show now, to celebrate those differences and unique investigations while nodding towards our collective past.” And so we see this carried through in the diverse images of the other three Burning Artists. Ric Stultz makes illustrative acrylics on canvas of anonymous, cartoony people. Again, these are rather slight in context and content. They could be from some obscure late night Cartoon Network show that no one but the most hardened insomniacs has ever seen, or they could have come from the back pages of /Juxtapoz /. Whatever the case, in “Life During Wartime” and “Demonize” and several other images, a number of mute, anonymous cartoon humans interact with computer monitors and technological items that have large eyeballs and other anthropomorphic features. There’s not much else to say about them, except that, while context may be unclear, the images are still strangely appealing. Noah Norton’s small wood sculptures, meanwhile, are also just as cheerful, and just as oblique — especially considering Norton usually designs high-end furniture and other products. “Technology’s Unintended Consequences” is a small ten-inch black Sasquatch figure with a red splotch (bird droppings?) on his head. He’s holding a real dried flower for good measure. Another of Norton’s works, “Untitled,” is comprised — it should be noted — of four small four-inch busts of cheerfully demonic satyrs flanking a little plate of white powder and little red berries. And that’s all there is to say about that. The works of the last artist, Joshua Norton, are well-crafted and rather large multi-color wood-block prints that appear to depict, inexplicably, the interactions of several groups of zombie cowboys. The various technical effects Norton is able to wrest from his medium are stellar on the whole. In particular, look for the blood spatter that haloes a cowboy’s bullet-riddled head. However, it remains to be seen what the artist will do with the, um, mildly silly subject matter.
If you missed this show, you didn’t exactly miss a once-in-a-lifetime event. But you did miss an interesting little bit of local history and a chance to find out what happens when a group of young and hopeful artists begins to grow up and develop real skills and a sense of perspective about the function of art in the world. I was more than pleased to see that these artists, having eschewed their dreams of changing the world and making it safe for art, are settling now into more realistic and sustainable artistic careers. If you’re one of those people who’s looking for art to raise your dander about things that art will never be able to change, not to worry, you’ll have plenty of chance for that in any number of shows going up these days around town-just not here. “Threads from Here to There” is in the end just an appealing show of unpretentiously well-made and fun art. And that’s enough for me.
-Michael Fallon, Your Dreams Were Your Ticket Out
Secrets of the City, January 20, 2009