It's easy to see 2008 as a twilight, a purplish in-between time that marks the end of something but isn't yet the beginning of anything else—the century, the millennium, the Bush years, the climate as we know it. Twilight is a time for nostalgia, a romantic time, and a nervous, backward-looking time. Can we get a do-over?
This summer, every painting, video, sculpture, and installation on the lower level of the Henry Art Gallery teeters between hope and despair, often maintaining this precarious position with absurdity and humor. The exhibition is called The Violet Hour—the name T. S. Eliot gave to twilight—and it features three artists born between 1973 and 1976. The daylight to their personal dusks is the storied time immediately before they were born, and their works are full of 1960s and early '70s music, architecture, and fantasies about the human relationship with nature. (Ever seen Led Zeppelin's not-to-be-believed Norse-gods videos?) Classic rock, brutalist modern architecture, the recycling symbol, Druid-ish nature lovers, psychedelic graphics, space-age technology, and crystalline shapes are all a part of The Violet Hour, a rich collection of predictions, warnings, wishes, and amusements masterfully curated by the Henry's Sara Krajewski.
Like the artists she brought together—Jen Liu of Los Angeles, David Maljkovic of Croatia, and Matthew Day Jackson, who grew up in Olympia and attended the University of Washington before moving to New York—Krajewski is thirtysomething, and this show indicates that she deeply understands what these artists are doing. The show feels far from academic, in the best way. The art is layered, intelligent, and oriented toward the shared perspective of popular culture without being about popular culture. This isn't pop or postpop. If anything, it's postsurrealist.
Liu's work revolves around a story she's been developing for a few years about a gang of fresh-faced young men called the "Brethren of the Stone." She makes live-action videos about them, as well as paintings that look like a cross between '60s rock posters, Soviet agitprop, and Kim Jones's war drawings. The Brethren live among the trees, wear white robes, and sing medieval chants in Latin. They would be relics of a time gone by, except in Liu's two videos (part of an unfinished triptych), the lyrics they chant are translated from Pink Floyd songs, and when they capture a man to tear apart and eat, he is a present-day jogger who just happens by on a hiking path.
The first video, Comfortably Numb (2006), is the story of a young man being recruited by the cultish nature lovers. The second one, Iron Man (2008), is a clash between nature and industry—industry in the person of a big heavy-metal dude, whose appearance is accompanied by archival photos of blocky modernist buildings and churning factories. As Iron Man begins, footage from the first video, of the recruit being questioned about his way of life, is intercut with footage of an amateur community brass band playing the Black Sabbath song "Iron Man." Cut to the boy meditatively running his fingers across the surface of a koi pond, when a man covered in black leather appears and begins furiously playing "Iron Man" on guitar. The final scene takes place in a concrete apartment, where a naked, silvery "Iron Princess" and our hero engage in a line-by-line sing-off of Pink Floyd's "Brain Damage" and "Iron Man" in translation. The recruit sings his stoner rock in Latin plainchant; the Iron Princess sings her proto-metal as a late-Romantic Italian aria.
Like heavy metal, Liu's art is elaborate and ridiculous. For this show, she also created a photo mural of black-and-white images (taken from the internet) of South American brutalist cathedrals, punctuated in the center by a hanging, wreathlike object of melted white candles mounted on a wood frame in the shape of a recycling sign. But her art, sexy as it is, only jokes to lighten its own mood.
All three artists work with a sense of doubled time: The time in these artworks is before, filtered through the lens of now. Jackson has three sculptures in the show, two of which were made for the occasion. I Like America and America Likes Me is the frame of a Corvette, made in felt and resin, and modeled after a real Corvette crashed by his cousin, a racer in Olympia. The frame rests on sculptures of skulls and is connected to a black tube that snakes all the way up the gallery wall and to the museum's exterior, where it plugs into a sparkly azure solar panel, powering a set of fluorescent lights that shine underneath the car. Its "fractured" windshield is stained glass in rainbow colors. The driver's seat is embroidered cowboy-style leather; a reflective orange spaceman helmet sits in the passenger's seat. (I Like America is a sequel to a less successful sculpture involving a similarly immobilized covered wagon that Jackson showed at the 2006 Whitney Biennial.)
Terranaut, also by Jackson, is a burned tree trunk gripped by a white fist wearing brass knuckles engraved with the Eleanor Roosevelt quote: "The future belongs to those who believe in the beauty [of their dreams]." The trunk and the fist stand on the floor in front of a black "painting" that's actually the charred surface of a table the Henry used in an earlier exhibition to display architectural models by the Japanese firm SANAA. Jackson blowtorched the surface, and carved a series of lines that form a sort of star chart. For stars, he used coins of the lowest denomination from countries around the world, including the disinherited penny.
Jackson's works are the most hopeful, gorgeous visions in the show—they are exquisitely crafted and rich with associations from art history to car racing, environmentalism, international politics, and outer space. Even though the promises of the 1960s (peace, equality) haven't been fulfilled, these sculptures suggest wider worlds waiting to be explored. There may yet be alternatives to the failed alternatives of past revolutions.
That's not the case in Maljkovic's video installations, which depict distressed young people stuck in a postcommunist daze. Women pose near cars as if trying sell them, but they're tired. They lean on the cars, and no customers come. Another set of people sit in cars in the same environment—under the overpowering modernist architecture of the Italian pavilion of the Zagreb Fair, built in the 1960s—and carry on disconnected, accidentally poignant "conversations" with phrases from ESL textbooks. ("I'm going alone. Do you want to go with me?") Linear progress is literally halted both in Jackson's Corvette and Maljkovic's cars, which wear polyhedral sculptures on their tires like boots. But while Jackson's car is connected both to death (its base of skulls) and to life (the real-life sun outside), Maljkovic's world is closed and looped. Everyone is going nowhere.
Curator Krajewski told me that the Henry didn't have the money to adjust the gallery walls, which were set by another exhibition, so The Violet Hour is living in another show's ill-fitting house. One of Liu's large paintings is swallowed up in a small, out-of-the-way anteroom, which opens onto another completely empty side gallery. The Violet Hour barely looks welcome. Maybe that's just right.