SBC's latest show at Lawrimore Project is marked by frustration and exhaustion. 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 ceiling-height, and it towered on top of 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 ambition of the artists (and of the new gallery, too), but the Whitney has not yet bought that pencil, or anything else by SBC. 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.
In one corner there's a scale model of the monster project that has been consuming most of the artists' 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."
Here's a video I shot of the model, with Ben "performing" at the end.
SBC plans to build the park and then gift it to the city or the parks department, to be run by a community group, like a P-patch. The project is a major public gift, and has major support from the New York City-based granting organization Creative Capital as well as numerous local partners (the artists have sunk several thousand dollars of their own money into the project already).
The model of Mini Mart City Park is displayed on a sawhorse-like pedestal with a winking oil stain on the floor below. A slide show of work already done on the site plays 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 not only navigating bureacracy, it means taking heat. SBC has, this show documents. On the other side of the gallery from the park model and To Make Ends Meet is A Dissent, which references an unpleasant brush with criticism.a review I posted to Slog on June 18, 2007, in which I dissented (harshly) from the uproariously positive audience reception of an SBC performance at On the Boards. The artists have now turned the review into a heap of stones, 535 stones to be precise, each one hand-sandblasted with each of the 535 words of the review. It's a Zen piece, actually. (Naturally, given that I have that particular affliction of not wanting to be part of any club that would have me as a member, I am ambivalent about being part of their work.)
The message here is that these artists intend to endure. Throw 535 words at them, and they will spend hours of painstaking labor transforming them into new work. (A Dissent also connects to Beres's solo work: exquisite and highly social prints of obsessively squeezed text.)this piece that originated in the same room), with the planes getting larger the farther away from the gun (and the closer to their target) they get, in a reversal of the way seeing works (things look bigger when they are closer).
The white cube room of the gallery has, by SBC, now been fully morphed into the bronze room, a whole space devoted to that most serious of all 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 (and, facing each other, they are ingeniously titled with the emoticon ":)"). 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.
SBC is always doing elaborate buildouts. Their 2007 show at Lawrimore Project involved the construction of an entire, enterable Chinese restaurant inside the gallery, replete with chickens hanging in the window. Why so much labor? In the past it has felt more like a self-justification. The artists, in this new work, seem more relaxed. The labor is conspicuous (it takes hours and hours to create those bronzes), but arch.
SBC are still as interested as ever in exploring the aftermath of the rise of conceptualism, and the tortured relationship between an idea and its physical manifestation. Instead of referring so much to Duchamp and Beuys, as before, these new works associate with, among other artists, Gavin Turk (the bronze castings of everyday objects), Charles Ray (expressionlessness), and Rauschenberg (their series of copies of a graffiti-covered bathroom mirror they took from the Summit Public House follows up on Rauschenberg's sendup of gesturalism, Factum I and II).
What they've done, though, is to withdraw their own performing selves—their visages only appear in this show behind gas masks, in postapocalyptic photographs of them paddling down the Duwamish—and to address, ironically more in a subjective mode, what has really been going on in their lives as artists (and Americans) in the last three years. They are in the midst of trying to settle into the hard business of being artists graciously.
So, no: this show is not their most fun or free-spirited. But it is layered, sincere, undefensive, frustrated, exhausted, and funny: complex. It feels like a beginning, which is a weird thing to say about a trio of artists who were announced as Stranger Geniuses in 2005 and who were hailed as historic almost the moment they burst onto the scene after graduating from Cornish. This show is a great sign, a sign that they intend to assume whatever mantle they will assume at their own pace, in their own way, and on their own terms. They intend to do much more than just survive their own fame.