Lilly McElroy: 2009 was a Rough Year at Thomas Robertello Gallery
Jeriah: Lilly McElroy is a strange one. If you see any two of her pieces, you’d be forgiven for thinking they might be by different artists: my previous exposure to her work consisted of a drawing of herself kicking a dog (this later manifest itself as a sculpture), and photographs of herself doing flying leaps into things and onto people. The work in “2009 Was A Rough Year” is less physical humor and more of a dry wit. The stained-glass banner proclaiming the title of the exhibition relates to a video (more like a slideshow, really) of viewer-submitted photographs showing bad things that happened in 2009. Breakups, injuries, deaths, and the more mundane sort of melancholy cycled through like a one-year visual edition of F My Life. This contrasts with a video of McElroy doing stand-up comedy in which she reads jokes submitted by viewers. (A technical note here; this piece really needed headphones, as the open audio was barely audible, especially at the opening.) The darkly-funny confessional photos, contrasted with the awkwardly-funny stand up, reminded me of the Mel Brooks quote: “Tragedy is when I cut my finger. Comedy is when you fall into an open sewer and die.”
Steph: Like Jeriah, my first exposure to Lilly’s work was to the dog-kickerey and the “I throw myself at men” work. The dark humor threaded throughout these earlier works re-emerges in 2009 was a Rough Year, though less completely. The earlier work contained a child like playfulness, if always combined with a darker side (causing paint to an animal, or harming ones self through the literal act of throwing ones body at another person and potentially hitting the floor rather hard). This newest work moved away from the childish into the entirely adult (or at least adolescent, as related to the stand-up) world of let downs, pain, sadness, social awkwardness, loneliness, death, etc.
It is often hard to discuss our own pain through art with out coming off as self obsessed, overly literal (or alternately overly symbolic in a painfully terrible way. Think crying figure with one hand chained to a cross and the other to a heroin needle), or just plain boring to everyone else. There are obviously many ways to avoid this, and create fantastic works rife with personal pain (Jenny Saville immediately comes to mind). Lilly managed to avoid many of these pitfalls by allowing the pain of whatever happened in 2009 to be written by others, as seen in the slide show projected in the front of the gallery. I was informed that slide show viewers were supposed to hold hands while watching the tragedies roll on before their eyes, creating a (potentially awkward) bonding moment for those involved.
The other works in the show likewise worked toward making the pain of 2009 a public affair, being acted out before the public in the stained glass window and the stand up video. The video, though almost impossible to hear, was a painful reminder of the social faux pas the we (read “I”) stumble through on a weekly, if not daily basis. Mmmm…awkward silence. The window created an interesting context for interacting with the idea of 2009 as a rough time. One can turn and face it, writ in stone (well, glass), held aloft and imposing, or one can turn their back on it and simply enjoy the patterned light on the wall created by its glow.
S: “I met a traveller from an antique land
Who said: Two vast and trunkless legs of stone
Stand in the desert. Near them, on the sand,
Half sunk, a shattered visage lies, whose frown
And wrinkled lip, and sneer of cold command
Tell that its sculptor well those passions read
Which yet survive, stamped on these lifeless things,
The hand that mocked them and the heart that fed.
And on the pedestal these words appear:
“My name is Ozymandias, king of kings:
Look on my works, ye Mighty, and despair!”
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
–Ozymandias, Percy Bysshe Shelly, 1818
“This masonry is wondrous; fates broke it
courtyard pavements were smashed; the work of giants is decaying.
Roofs are fallen, ruinous towers,
the frosty gate with frost on cement is ravaged,
chipped roofs are torn, fallen,
undermined by old age. The grasp of the earth possesses
the mighty builders, perished and fallen,
the hard grasp of earth, until a hundred generations
of people have departed. Often this wall,
lichen-grey and stained with red, experienced one reign after another,
remained standing under storms; the high wide gate has collapsed.”
-excerpt from The Ruins, Exeter Book, 8th C.
Work like Woodward’s could be accused of being merely decorative. Plying this interpretation solely, however, fails to read the romantic tragedy of this work. By virtue of its scale and detail, this work is immersive, filling the viewers vision with a memento mori of bygone architectural elegance. It speaks to the ever changing, ever consuming nature of human progress, the destruction of the old for the sake of the new. They stand, like faded Daguerreotypes, Victorian woven hair mementos, or grave rubbings, as pieces of insight, incomplete, evasive, and yet riveting.
J: Woodward’s drawings are a great example of subtractive drawing, that is, creating a drawing by starting with a surface that has been toned dark with a dry medium like graphite and then using an eraser to create the light areas. This is normally a technique you learn once in Beginning Drawing class, maybe apply occasionally, but rarely make a primary technique. It’s got some parallels to another of Linda’s artists, Peter Drake, who makes paintings by covering a canvas with even layers of paint and then selectively removing them in areas with sandpaper. Woodward’s imagery has a distinctly mortuary feel to it, both because of the dreary, atmospheric feel created by Woodward’s technique, as well as the neoclassical architectural motifs which feel lifted from mausolea. Woodward’s subtractive process also evokes the practice of making rubbings of tombstones.
Jesse Butcher: Wet Affairs at Swimming Pool Project Space
J: I first saw Jesse Butcher’s work at Concertina Gallery, which formerly occupied the 2351 N. Milwaukee Ave. location now used by The Exhibition Agency. That show, Surrender Dorothy, was a collaboration with Corkey Sinks, and explored adolescence through popular culture artifacts. Wet Affairs shows an entirely different kind of work, and not only because it is a solo project. In this body of work, Butcher turns his eye on America and its values. The work on the walls takes the form of monochromatic printmaking, in which text appears only through a difference in sheen compared to the background (as in the cover of Metallica’s 1991 self-titled album, popularly called the Black Album for its black-on-black cover art). This material felt very much like “serious art” and like much serious art, made me feel like I was supposed to stand back from it, rub my chin, and nod sagely. This is of course in total contrast to the impression of Butcher which I’ve gotten from our few conversations, in which he revealed himself to be a fun guy with a great sense of humor. This spirit revealed itself more directly in two of the non-wall pieces in this show. One was a case of special-edition Busch beer which came in camouflage cans with the brand in blaze orange letters, evoking America’s rural hunting culture. Stephanie and I drank a case of this beer while camping at the Knob Creek Machine Gun Shoot, and so it had pretty direct cultural associations for us. The other piece that spoke to me was a pair of stacks of takeaway prints, Felix Gonzalez-Torres style. One read “A Body” and the other read “The Body,” and like the “White” and “Colored” doorways in the Smithsonian National Museum of American History, presents the viewer with a dilemma: to choose “A Body” or “The Body.” To me, the choice sounded like one between objectification and sexuality (“a body”) as opposed to gender and identity politics (“the body”). This was my read, not overtly stated anywhere in the piece, so other viewers probably had different interpretations.
S: I concur.
Tags: 2009 was a Rough Year, A Loss Like the Rome of Waiting, Carrie Secrist Gallery, Jennifer Presant, Jeriah Hildwine, Jesse Butcher, Lilly McElroy, Linda Warren Gallery, Matthew Woodward, Melodie Provenzano, Rachel Hovnanian, SAIC Graduate Photography Lectures, Stephanie Burke, Surface Tension, Swimming Pool Project Space, Thomas Robertello Gallery, Wet Affairs