Radical Abacus: Off Sites, Arte Povera and the Persistent Object
As I drive toward Calle Comercio from Siler Road to see Utilities, the first exhibition by curator John McKissick at Radical Abacus, I’m struck by my readiness to conclusion over experience, a sort of a priori compound gamble in which an attitude of expectation risks pre-determining both vision and response.
There are invitations on Facebook to events in this part of the town much, much more frequently now. There are Java Joe’s and Duel Brewing joining the muffler guy on, or south of, Siler. There’s the yes-or-no of an organic food co-op starting up where Plants of the Southwest had been. There’s the former wastewater treatment plant being considered for artists’ lofts by Creative Santa Fe, Daniel Werwath’s development firm, and the city.
There is of course Meow Wolf in the former Silva Lanes, with the likelihood that when The House of Eternal Return and CrSFe artists’ lofts have finished build-out, new signs identifying “Lower Siler Road Arts District” (a parable to “museums five miles that way”) are likely to reflect city pride in and ownership of this newer off-center.
Adding to “innovation”-minded Startup Santa Fe and MIX Santa Fe, there’s FRESH Santa Fe and MAKE Santa Fe also down here; I’m never sure why everything has to plop the city’s name into the title. Sotheby’s placards market $430k lofts (“the SoHo district of Santa Fe”) on Harrison Road, catty-corner from Pete’s Pets homeless shelter. And there’s a coming rumble at a city council meeting on June 24th over the maybe-maybe-not El Rio development, on land some Agua Fria opponents are still calling “EcoVersity” despite owner Frances Harwood’s death in 2003, and changes of plan by her heir to her environmental philanthropy.
In other words, I doubt I’m alone in feeling that Yogi Berra-ish sense of deja vu all over again.
Calle Comercio itself shows signs of gentrification — a pet day-care center’s oversized sign, nearby garages and other longtime machine shops. Radical Abacus is in the back of a ‘70s four-plex with a Cracker Barrel-ish staved embellishment.
So. Radical Abacus. Utilities. The word could be said to denote city services— water, gas, sewer. But because John McKissick is somebody I know to have been a philosophy student, I read both his press release describing “nine younger artists with affinities for lyrical high-desert conceptualism,” and words he penned to help shape the idea of Utilities as including “emplacements” (artillery housing.)
I begin to think maybe McKissick means “utilities” in an economic or game theory sort of way. “Expected utility theory” deals in ideas that anticipated decisions regularly encounter problems — get ready — such high-concept stuff as human preferences not obeying assumptions of the theory, and “violations of axiom” and “violations of invariance.” The basic gist is there are many obstacles to agents acting cooperatively in what becomes a compound gamble, en route to an outcome.
Some of the disequilibrium I perceive in the exhibit Utilities, has to do with what I referenced first: My own (perhaps lamentable) tendency to see always something else in what I’m looking at.
The aesthetics of Utilities are arte povera, an Italian school of sculpture (started 1960s in Genoa, Italy; Germano Celant coined the term in ’67 ) distinguished by using “poor” materials and juxtapositions like cast classical sculpture and brightly colored rags (or welded steel panels and delicate scarabs in a Jannis Kounellis sculpture seen at Laura Carpenter in 1993.) If the gist of arte povera was absurdist — interpolations of Joseph Beuys meeting anticipations of MEMPHIS design group — the real art aesthetics of 1967 included Eva Hesse’s latex Schema (brilliance), while in 1966 she’d begun making repetitions in monochrome drawings on graph paper.
It’s certain that all of the young artists here know this history of repetition, monochrome, absurdities.
Their objects present themselves, mostly black-and-white or neutrals that evade any neural associations to “nature.” They subsume an unfinished quality that is quasi-gestural. Amy Albracht’s N. Henry and Meeker (Ikebana), 2013, juxtaposes a plaster ceramic (edition forthcoming) with a “soft” tuft of moss. It’s clever and funny, a little bit fur-lined teacup.
If I stand away in front of two of Martha Tuttle’s sculptures, Concomitance 1 and 2, I am put in mind of a Bruce Conner assemblage in which a twisted nylon stocking is all snarled up with cardboard and a flat bicycle wheel. (Spider Lady, 1959.) Conner was after pin-up debauchery, a kind of a “dirt-y” exhibitionism as discussed in a recent CUNY dissertation called “Dirty Art” by Natasha Poor , who considered the way late 1950s artists took on taboos and dirty subjects when the whole society was fixated on “germ-free” cleanliness.
Martha Tuttle’s work by contrast evokes a darkened feminineness in cotton, aluminum tape, plastic, pigment, and aluminum thread drawn over a steel support. I like it very much, although I don’t think that either she or any of the other artists in Utilities are having a purity versus pollution conversation. Tuttle, who has just received an MFA from Yale, has a sensibility to her art that could derive from New Mexico nurture meeting east-coast higher-ed: her parents are artist Richard Tuttle and poet Mei-Mei Bersenbrugge.
I read Roger White in the New Yorker, about the Roski School mass-dropout, that “more people now go to M.F.A. programs to learn to be artists than to learn to teach: getting the degree is a way to acquire the conceptual and social skills needed to navigate the professional art world.” Of the New Mexico-New York “younger artists” here, at least three (Tuttle, Nicholas Chiarella, and SCUBA) have east-coast credits to go with Santa Fe dot alt. McKissick, who has written for AdobeAirstream, was selected for the Young Art Critics’ mentoring program at CUE Art Foundation in Chelsea.
Three rectangular sheets of paper bow off the wall slightly. (66 Persimmons by Amy Albracht.) The slightly gaping top edge makes the randomness of the fruits inked on paper turn repetition haphazard. Disorderly conduct?
In the peripheral view hangs a long, luffing scroll of fabric (Untitled, Gabbione, 2015) by Bea Varnedoe Verrillo, who “practices futility.” The slack quality formally fulfills her aesthetic. More undeveloped is Sean Di Ianni’s Wash Sand Ramp, 2015 — a piece of sub-floor of the former Silva bowling lanes (being retrofitted into Eternal Return.) The slab section nests inside a cast and tinted plaster armature whose purple stripes suggest a Daniel Buren impulse (“price upon request.” Really?)
I wish on reflection McKissick had edited out the we’re-not-in-the-market inside jokes (The $1 with nine zeros after it.) Works by Benji Geary, SCUBA, Lara Nickel and Nicholas Chiarella also appeared.
The show as a theory of how agents violate axioms makes an interesting idea. That Radical Abacus is riffing off a self-conscious bohemianism seems accurate. That Meow Wolf’s nearby anchor presence as startup-funded “alternative” may be problematic, given the tendency of centers to want to absorb edges, is not the fault of Radical Abacus. But it may be a sign of how hard it is to discuss complexities when the vague expression, “so many things are happening” becomes code for not asking too hard about who’s building the platforms and what that portends for aspirations to stay outside of systems.
It’s a confusing time for art, and it sure ain’t 1967 all over again.