The Beginning of the Middle
The New SuttonBeresCuller: A Review
courtesy lawrimore project
Twelve electric fans, arranged like a standing figure, run furiously inside a large acrylic vitrine. All that energy, and for what? The air never circulates out of the box. Is this SuttonBeresCuller's sly statement about being an artist in Seattle—a solitary figure all locked up and whirring and whirring? The piece is called The Answer, My Friend... How many roads must a man walk down?
SBC's new show at Lawrimore Project is marked by frustration and exhaustion. This is the beginning of the middle for these three artists, who were hailed as historic almost the moment they burst onto the scene after graduating from Cornish College of the Arts, and who were chosen as Stranger Geniuses in 2005. At this point, they are past their first rush of fame—and past their first backlash. Something new, and more real, is happening.
To Make Ends Meet, leaning on one wall, is a stubby revision of a giant pencil sculpture they showed in 2006 when Lawrimore Project first opened. Back then, the pencil was as tall as the ceiling, and it towered over a piece of paper on the floor—its own wishful phony receipt of sale made out to the Whitney Museum of American Art. It announced the fresh ambition of the artists (and of the new gallery, too), but the Whitney has not yet bought that pencil, or anything else by SBC—and the art market, along with the rest of the world economy, has crashed. Now, the pencil (again built around a real core of graphite) has been whittled down to the height of a stool and on it is printed (as a reference to the type of graphite, but also a double entendre) "Hard." Hard to make ends meet. Hard to keep whirring in a box. Hard when a decade takes a dive.
SBC has seen its share of success in the last three years. But on either side of To Make Ends Meet are some explanations for the frustration and exhaustion.
In one corner is a scale model of the monster project that has been consuming most of their time for more than a year: the Mini Mart City Park they're building in Georgetown. They're transforming a vacant, highly polluted gas station site from the 1930s into a community center and pocket park, and the process has been almost farcically onerous. King County is involved. Community councils. The EPA. And beyond the environmental-cleanup factor (a tester who came out and drilled 16-foot holes into the ground told the artists, "This is a good demonstration of worst-case scenario"), the site is unstable fill over an old riverbed in a liquefaction zone. "Everybody has told us to stop," Ben Beres told me when I visited this summer. "But we intend to persevere, to exhaust every possibility," John Sutton said. "It feels really good to be working on something that's larger than us."
SBC's plan is to build the park and then give it to the city or the parks department, to be run by a community group, like an arts P-Patch. The project is a major public gift and has support from the New York City–based granting organization Creative Capital as well as local partners (the artists have sunk thousands of their own dollars into it already).
The scale model of Mini Mart City Park is displayed on a sawhorselike pedestal, with a winking, spotlighted puddle of oil staining the floor below. Photographs of work already done on the site play on a monitor on the wall. If they're able to pull it off, SBC will join the company of other artists who've made monumental, lasting contributions to the local landscape: Robert Morris, Herbert Bayer, Buster Simpson, Mark Dion—giants all.
But becoming giants means taking heat. On the other side of the gallery from the park model is A Dissent, which references an unpleasant brush with criticism. The installation has the same title as a review I posted to The Stranger's blog on June 18, 2007, in which I dissented (harshly) from the uproariously positive reception of an SBC performance at On the Boards. The artists have turned the review into a heap of stones, 535 stones to be precise, each one hand-sandblasted with one of the 535 words of the review. It's a Zen exercise, actually. (Given that I never want to be part of any club that would have me as a member, I'm ambivalent about being part of their work. It's not uncommon for artists to respond to critics, but in a strange coincidence, artist Jim Riswold currently has a piece in a Portland show that also reprints a negative review I wrote about his work.)
The message here is that these artists intend to endure. A Dissent is not reactive, it's transformative. Throw 535 words at them, and they will spend hours of painstaking labor changing them, working through them. A Dissentdoesn't come from nowhere: It connects to Beres's solo work—exquisite and highly social prints of nervous, obsessively squeezed text.
Working socially—internally as three individuals and externally as a trio—is the underlying condition of SBC. They've been dubbed "the boys," and in this show they use boyishness to describe American naiveté toward war. Flight Path, their most serious sculpture (a departure, really), is made of model planes they sat around and assembled, like men separated from the realities of war (grandfathers remembering and reassembling, or young boys playing at their futures).
Flight Path is an MDF (wood composite) reconstruction of an antiaircraft gun, painted gray and pointed toward the highest concentration of U.S. military forces in the world. (Currently, it faces Iraq and Afghanistan.) It sprays a shower of model airplanes at the wall (they're suspended on a system of strings), with the planes getting larger the farther away from the gun (and the closer to their target) they get. It's a reversal of the way seeing works (things look bigger when they are closer), but a demonstration of a different truth—the weapons we abstractly send into other countries quickly grow into realities when they hit actual bodies.
This is a big show. SBC has morphed the white-cube room of the gallery into the bronze room, a whole space devoted to that most serious (and self-important) of mediums. The light switch is bronze. The wall outlet is bronze. It's like the interior of a mansion or a museum. Bronze surveillance cameras have polished "lenses" that look like pure gold. A convex surveillance mirror made entirely of polished bronze—it's so gorgeous it may as well be a Brancusi—is a funny perversion of the aspirations of abstractions like, say, Brancusi's or even contemporary artist Anish Kapoor's.
At the far end of the bronze room, a sagging bronze frame hangs on the wall (Masterpiece) with a solid bronze stanchionin front of it. Even touching the cold bronze of the "velvet" rope doesn't quite make it believable. On the floor nearby is a banana peel—a reference to critics on the blogosphere who have indicted SBC as mere pranksters—with a big chunk of banana dejectedly still inside it.
The artists seem more relaxed in this new work. Their labor is conspicuous (it takes hours to cast those bronzes, just as it took them days to build a Chinese restaurant inside the gallery in 2007), but arch and self-mocking. They are digging deeper into art history, beyond old standards Duchamp and Beuys—these new works associate with, among other artists, Gavin Turk (the bronze castings of everyday objects), Charles Ray (expressionlessness), and Robert Rauschenberg (their series of copies of a graffiti-covered bathroom mirror taken from the Summit Public House follows Rauschenberg's send-up of gesturalism, Factum I and II).
And they've withdrawn their own performing selves—their visages only appear in this show behind gas masks, in postapocalyptic photographs of them paddling down the Duwamish River (these are some of their best photographs)—to address, in an ironically more subjective mode, what has really been going on in their lives as artists (and Americans) in the last three years. They are settling into the hard business of being artists and trying to be gracious about it.
This show is not their most fun or free-spirited. But it is layered, sincere, undefensive, frustrated, exhausted, and funny: complex. This show is a great sign, a sign that they intend to do much more than just survive their own fame.