Deep Brown Apathetic Scatology

THE BROWN SHOW: Scott Hadaller, Simon Hughes, Cathy Kuryk, Les Newman and Paul Robles
September 3 – September 26, 1998

a response to the exhibition by Blair Marten

Pre-linguistic universal truth ‘number one’: ‘Pinch a loaf’ too hard while defecating, and face the potential of a hemorrhoid-dappled event horizon.

Pre-linguistic universal truth ‘number two’: Give up and ‘go with the flow’, and meet the post-bathroom query “So, did everything come out all right?” with an affirmative response.

These contrasting positions delineate the scope of a scatological continuum that ranges from obsessive anal enthusiasm to apathetic indifference. Recently, five emerging Winnipeg artists focused in on the ‘apathetic indifference’ end of this shit continuum and put together The Brown Show at Ace Art from September 3rd – 26th, 1998.

Simon Hughes’ display of large-scale, brightly-colored oil/acrylic abstract paintings on 1970’s-era deep-pile shag carpeting embraces apathy in a decidedly direct manner. The titles of two of his works – I’ve Been Patient All My Life And Now I’m Going To Live What’s Left and Born To Lose – indicate the artist’s obvious commitment to apathy as subject matter, but there is another way in which Hughes¹ work generates apathy which becomes evident with extended viewing. When I stand in front of Hughes’ work, I feel like the artist has placed me in a space where the unreal is familiar, bright colors feel dull, excitement is boring, and my perceptions are on loan to me. Hughes has somehow loaned me the gaze of a kitsch-informed interlocutor absorbed in the act of staring at the unmoving mouths of Gumby and Pokey as they utter significant yet inaudible truths from the screen of a television set with its volume turned completely down. What is this place, this unreal familiarity of dull brightness and boring excitement? Of course – this is the place where I ‘live’ when I watch TV. The interlocutor is the bright scripted monotony of TV shows and advertisements that lend structure – the programmed structure of ‘buy this and feel that’ – to the fluctuation that is desire. Desire on a leash is apathy at its finest, and Hughes’ work places me in the center of apathy with great precision. Hughes’ art speaks decisively from the apathetic end of the shit continuum.

In comparison to Hughes, Paul Robles takes a less direct but equally effective path to apathy. Robles uses colored photographs, brightly colored paper, artificial-grass carpeting, and inner-tubing from rubber tires to produce floor sculptures, wall-reliefs, and identity-politics photos. His works present such a bright, optimistic, ‘bathroom air-freshener’ visual ambiance that I cannot help noticing his omission of the fertilizer that nurtured the rose, or the struggle that yields identity. The think positive’ presence of Robles’ work appears to deal with apathy’s enduring tendency to reoccur by speaking from the position that ‘apathy is all in the past’ – however, no amount of ‘NutraSweet’ eye-drops will make all the bumps in the road, and the apathetic feelings that result from ‘journey jolts’, disappear. This is because there is no one strategy that will ever make everything okay all the time. Robles’ work ends up speaking from the apathetic end of the shit continuum by promoting a stratospheric degree of optimism that increases both the distance one falls from grace and the apathy one feels when idealism is handed a flat tire by a ‘hole in the road’ of reality.

Cathy Kuryk’s large-scale oil paintings and acrylic-on-masonite cartoon panels resist the forces of apathy indulged in by Hughes and Robles. A typical apathetic looks once at a task, decides it’s not worth doing, and uses the idea of that task as an apathy signifier to justify more apathy. On the other hand, apathy is diminished when tasks, situations, and events are considered beyond this ‘once-over’ glance. Kuryk’s canvases resist the ‘look-away’ strategy of apathy by mounting an in-your-face analysis of flirting that is anything but passive. Lunch Breaks Are For Sissies presents a cartoon image of a young woman swinging a beer bottle into the side of a young man’s head because this is the only way she can admit that she likes him. Kuryk’s choice to represent the serious topic of violently-expressed affection with her decisively honest style of cartooning promotes fresh examination of difficult subject matter. Kuryk’s art is anti-apathetic in that it sees bumps in the road as more than apathetic signifiers.

Les Newman employs the full range of the shit continuum with floor sculpture that resists apathy just long enough to jump into it with both feet. Each of his five 3′ x 3′ x 3′ cubes are surfaced with road tar and bright yellow lines identical to the marks on highways that separate opposing lanes of traffic. This two-colored surface invites a ‘two-lane’ interpretation of Newman’s work. In one lane, a clean fresh asphalt surface and bright yellow lines offer the promise of an easy ride along a new road. In the other lane, the flimsy Styrofoam with which Newman’s cubes are constructed guarantees a bumpy ride: step up onto these strong-looking ‘road blocks’, break through the Styrofoam, and you’re stuck. Newman’s ‘first you’re free – now you’re trapped’ strategy uses the appearance of freedom to locate the viewer at the apathetic end of the shit continuum.

The untitled video/installation by Scott Hadaller monumentalizes apathetic surrender by embedding a video monitor in a three foot high pile of dirt and rabbit droppings and placing two large rings of rabbit turds on the floor around the mound. A video of the artist ruminating on certain events plays in the monitor on the mound. Hadaller gets the last word in on the ‘apathetic indifference’ end of the shit continuum by clawing his way to the center of a Jasper Johns-like art-historical turd target, giving up, and navel gazing.

The Brown Show could be accused of equivocation because it accepts apathy, resists apathy, and then turns around and accepts apathy, but this blatant use of equivocation transforms imprecise interpretation from a liability into a strength. By refusing to promote a one-dimensional ‘pro-apathy is bad’ and ‘anti-apathy is good’ value system, The Brown Show finds a diamond in the rough (or a toonie in the outhouse). Poets, artists, average everyday lay-saints, and plain old channel-surfers can get as much out of gazing from the top of a pile of shit as they can get out of cleaning up a pile of shit and/or making a pile of shit.