Boombox, 2005, 51 used speakers, paint, wood substrate, 96 x 96 x 4 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Style absorbed technology, accepted method and technique, aspired to science. It spun self-defense into skill, skill into art. It invented itself, violently, enclosed itself in outlaw codes and attacked normally. Out of ruin, it pulled beauty. Style would make you friends, inspire loyalty, and devotion, spawn a hundred imitators. It would make you enemies, unleash jealousy and fear, bring down the brute force of authority. The one thing style would never leave you was neutral.1 Jeff Chang
t. Louis artist Moses is interested in style, technology, technique, and hip-hop. He designs large-scale works that capture, monumentalize, and challenge the contemporary culture of hip-hop. In his latest work, entitled The Audiophile Series, he assembles massive structures that house electronic equipment such as speakers, old stereo components, turntables, records, mixers, and microphones. As Moses will tell you, “this series is totally hip-hop.”2 Born and raised in St. Louis, Moses split time growing up between his family’s residence in an unincorporated part of a St. Louis suburb and his father’s liquor store located across the Mississippi in East St. Louis, Illinois. It was during his formative years, while listening to the radio between these two residences, that hip-hop had a sweeping influence on him and he became an audiophile. An audiophile is, literally, a person who loves to hear and is devoted to the best results in the recording and playback of music.3 An audiophile with a hip-hop slant is even more serious. This describes Moses; artist, audiophile, and hip-hop warrior ready to astound (with style) and honor.
Moses chops, reassembles, paints, hangs, and boasts about the 1,500 records, 351 speakers, 148 old stereo components, 42 turntables, three giant photographs, one microphone, and an SUV outfitted with hundreds of speakers throughout its exterior. The audio equipment amassed in The Audiophile Series represents three years of national travel to collect over 50 years of consumer sound producing electronics. Boombox, one of nine large-scale pieces in the exhibition, is a box that hangs from the wall, teaming with speakers that range in size from massive to modest. “Boombox is supposed to be an exaggeration of what a really killer stereo system should look like. I was too poor to have a banging system in real life, so I fabricated a fake one to reflect my desire of what I really wanted to own,” Moses explains. For the hip-hop audiophile this would produce a heavenly hit of the classic 808 bass thump. Two Turntables and A Microphone is a large shelf holding 1,500 LPs, two record players, a microphone, and a mixer. Paying homage to Moses’ past, this piece spurs nostalgia of growing up with his father’s old record collection and highlights the essentials of getting a hip-hop block party started. It also honors the beginning of hip-hop culture, and figures like DJ KOOL HERC, who made the most of his own father’s records and monstrous sound system of speakers, turntables, mixer and a microphone, becoming the driving force behind the creation of hip-hop. Moses adds, “I was heavily into the abstract style of San Francisco DJing called Jeff Chang, “Furious Styles: The Evolution of Style in the Seven-Mile World,” in Can’t Stop Won’t Stop: A History of the Hip-Hop Generation, ed. Jeff Chang, New York: St. Martin’s Press; 2005., pp 124-5.
All quotes from Moses are taken from an artist statement, December 2005.
Two Turntables and a Microphone, 2002, 1,500 LPâ€™s, record players, mixer, microphone, paint, wood substrate, 84 x 60 x 5 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
American Dream: We Like The Cars That Go BOOM!, 2004-2005, 300 speakers, Chevy Blazer, paint, bass sound system, 96 x 204 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist.
Matthew Strauss: A Contemporary Vanitas
or his exhibition Dead Language, Matthew Strauss has created a new series of contemporary still life paintings, entitled POEMS that are akin to the vanitas tradition, wherein artists employed simple imagery to create complex comments on materialism and transcendence, illusions and reality, and life and death. This dark, mysterious, and occasionally bitingly funny work possesses all these qualities, yet the target of his critique—the symbol of the vanity of worldly things—is the art historical canon.
The symbolic and fleeting quality of the traditional still life vanitas painting provides the conceptual framework in which Strauss is able to explore notions of futility, failure, and obsolescence. Most of the imagery is unsettling and strangely contemplative. In order to craft such imagery Strauss selects “dead” forms for pure formal reasons and for their inherent symbolic attributes (human skull and ribcage, fruit, tools, carnage). The content is presented before perfect, modular, square and rectangular planes of white paint marked with pencil, further articulating the Modernist grid. Vanitas paintings were intended to impart a moral lesson and incite meditation on death. Obsessed with the idea of death as the only absolute truth, Strauss updates the vanitas genre with a new iconography of the absurd that represents the passage of life, art, Modernism—a sort of post-everything aesthetic. Comprised of assortments of peculiar objects placed on unstable floating tables, large-scale canvases feature grisaille-like, X-ray style assemblages that occupy a proportionally smaller amount of the total picture. Painted black and white grids isolate the objects under scrutiny and render them as specimens. Strauss’ highly staged juxtapositions combine still life painting strategies with modern technology to create a puzzling representation of art history—through a literary lens—that challenges ideas about originality, authorship, and appropriation. According to Plato and Aristotle, poetry, like art, exists in the realm of imitation; Strauss presents art history as a species subject to analysis that continues this line of inquiry into mimesis. A dead language is one that is no longer spoken or learned by native speakers, but nevertheless is often studied by large numbers of people because of its historical and literary significance. Strauss’ compositions present a subject for analysis that is, presumably, dead, or at the very least, a mere simulacrum, emptied of its original intention and meaning, but as if a ritual or sacrifice has occurred. Content is consistently staged before modernist, geometric, white forms that run off the canvas and connect to the wall, suggesting something else; a limitless continuation.
image right: POEM #1/ Whistler v. Ruskin, 2003-2005, Flashe, acrylic, acrylic latex, silkscreen ink and pencil on canvas, 46 x 50 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.
Following the pronouncements in the 1980s of the death of painting, the death of the author, the death of man, and the death of the real, the practice of painting seemed to retreat to photography in the 1990s. In 2003, two roundtable discussions were published in Artforum on this passionately debated theme. In his introduction to the discussion, Author Danto stated: The death of painting as it was discussed in the pages of art journals was a distant corollary of all this. It was easy to proclaim and difficult to argue with given the battery of theoretical artillery that carried so much prestige in the culture of the 80s. Appropriation, to be sure, was licit, perhaps because it conceded the point that there was nothing left to do.1 With nothing new and “nothing left to do,” Strauss culls from art history and literature to ignite a ‘new’ debate of his own making. Dead Language confronts directly the anxiety of painters who must work in the wake of these challenges to the authenticity and validity of painting, as well as the threat of new technologies and modes of representation. As an artist whose practice is precariously positioned somewhere outside the categories of painting, sculpture, photography, and new media, Strauss purposefully embraces all methods of working to refute the validity of any hierarchal order. He insists on “his own ‘originality’ while vandalizing the whole of art history.”2 Strauss employs tactics of appropriation and critique in order to suspend meaning, engage the improbability of absolute truth, uniqueness, and even challenge the very terms of the debate on authenticity. One of the most influential writers on ‘uniqueness,’ Walter Benjamin begins his essay The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, thus: In principle a work of art has always been reproducible. Manmade artifacts could always be imitated by men. Replicas were made by pupils in practice of their craft, by masters for diffusing their works, and, finally, by third parties in the pursuit of gain. Mechanical reproduction of a work of art, however, represents something new.3 Incorporating duplicitous art making strategies (photography, silkscreen, and digital technology) into singular works, Strauss’ mechanical reproduction, combined with his liberal appropriation of masters such as Michelangelo, Giovanni, Whistler, Rodin, image left: POEM #62/ Revision (After Rodin, after Moore), 2005, Flashe, acrylic, acrylic latex, silkscreen ink and pencil on canvas, 70 x 70 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis. Arthur C. Danto, “The Mourning After,” Artforum (March 2003): p 208. French theorist Roland Barthes was one of the first to address this issue in “The Death of the Author,” in Image Music Text, 1967.
All quotes from the artist are based on conversations and correspondence between October-December, 2005.
Walter Benjamin, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction” in Illuminations: Walter Benjamin Essays and Reflections, ed. Hannah Arendt, New York: Schocken Books; 1969., p 218.
and Moore, among others, represents a solemn pursuit in futility. Strauss then instills his work with a literary subtext—often taken from infamous authors (Pound, Ruskin, Melville)—that imparts new meaning to his replicated artifact. Individual canvases represent distinct narrative platforms from which to engage futility, skepticism, and disbelief. A struggle for authenticity and ownership is literally played out in POEM#62/ Revision (After Rodin, after Moore), wherein a pair of wrestling sculptures battle for primacy, with both ultimately losing their position in the canon. Figuration, landscape, and abstraction are simultaneously considered, within a still life, to effectively eulogize art history. A Rodin is taken down and smashed to create a Moore, which is then destroyed to create a Strauss. It’s an arrogant gesture, meant to break down iconical representation and the ideas of originality and authorship; is the Strauss before you an original, or a fraud? Another fraud is played out in POEM #1/ Whistler vs. Ruskin, the subject of which is the infamous 1878 libel suit issued by artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler against critic John Ruskin. Strauss recreates the case using toxic venom (art criticism) oozing from a tube on the table, while a helmet (intellectual protection) and goggles (visual & aesthetic protection) are staged opposite. The artist brings the notorious trial up again for (re)consideration to assert that the battle between the old (dead) and the new is still being waged. The battle waged by Whistler in response to Ruskin’s declaring him a fraud stands to elucidate the conflict between the newly formed aesthetic movement (the vanguard of modernity) and the Victorian ideal of art. Likewise, futility and creativity are nuanced in another historically notorious circumstance presented in a large-scale triptych entitled POEM #68/ Note from Pisa (How to Dig Yourself a Hole). Three canvases present a narrative based on the detainment of American poet Ezra Pound in a cage in Pisa, Italy, where he was accused of treason. A perfunctory shovelmachine, three shrouded, pre-Columbian anxiety figures, and an empty, mangled cage are the objects put forth. This work, which is about self-destruction, possesses a quiet fury, as the social, political, and self-imprisonment of the poet is only implied. While Pound was a prolific poet, he was also a vocal fascist and ardent supporter of Mussolini. Strauss’ triptych functions as a surrogate portrait of the poet, who began to write one of his most famous works, The Pisan Cantos, while seized in a gorilla cage on an airstrip in Italy. According to Strauss How to Dig Yourself a Hole signifies “the trouble Pound’s true thoughts and words got him into, the trouble his vocalization brought on himself.” The notion of invention (and the role of the inventor) seems to have gone awry in POEM #5/ The Surgeon at Rest and POEM #70/ For Going Down, Kicking, and Screaming. The first drama features human ribs, gothic looking medical instruments, antenna-like cameras on roving tubes, and a Japanese lantern that illuminates the threatening scene. Only a mad scientist would create the kicking and screaming contraption of the latter work. The fictional apparatus is comprised of motorcycle handles, a bull horn, an air filter, a hand crank, and gears, which are seemingly controlled by a master instrument image right: POEM #70/ For Going Down, Kicking and Screaming, 2005, Flashe, acrylic, acrylic latex, silkscreen ink and pencil on canvas, 72 x 72 inches. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.
Hero, Compromised (video still), 2006, DVD, 45 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.
ason Wallace Triefenbach’s exhibition Hero, Compromised (Autobiographical Fiction/Narrative Medley) is a multi-media installation comprised of performance, music, spoken word, sculpture, and props. For two days, Triefenbach conducted a live performance at the Contemporary which he videotaped and then edited with additional footage shot off-site. Sculptures and props from the performance reside in the gallery as residue of what previously occurred, and the video is displayed on monitors within the space. With these various components, Triefenbach creates a woven four-part narrative that is part autobiography, part fiction, and is based upon a central character, the Protagonist Everyman, and his frustration with an overabundance of pop culture, fear of living in obscurity, and his attempt to escape from it all. According to Triefenbach, “This piece is a conglomeration of half finished puzzles, jokes, and associations—beginnings of stories or a bit from the middle, but never the whole picture.”1 Multiple metaphors, references, and associations pertaining to consumerism, cultural iconography, the artist’s life, and political ideologies are embedded within the storyline, thus creating Triefenbach’s own fantastical expedition for the viewer to navigate, pose questions, seek answers, and formulate their own conclusions. images on right: Untitled (Head for the Mountains) (video stills), 2005, ATM machine, music video featuring The Dissonettes, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis. 1
Artist’s quote from email correspondence with the author, October 2005.
Conceptualized in four parts, the videotaped performance features the Protagonist Everyman, peformed by Triefenbach, who embarks on a multi-tiered journey beginning with the first segment, The City That Isn’t Anywhere. Situated in front of an ATM machine located in the city, the Protagonist Everyman’s attempt to dispense money fails. Adding to his frustration is the perplexity of the screen flickering and transforming into a music video featuring three female vocalists, The Dissonettes, who are tauntingly singing the phrase “head for the mountains” over and over again. The vocalists are located in a saccharine-saturated, slumber party-like atmosphere amongst satin heart-shaped pillows, streamers, and other brightly colored objects. Functioning as a fragment from a dream or fantasy of an otherworldly place, The Dissonettes’ taunting gestures suggest to Triefenbach’s character that maybe he should flee the city and seek a serene location free from the overabundance of stimulation and consumerism. The Protagonist Everyman runs from the ATM machine, Untitled (Head for the Mountains), and the footage segues into the gallery space where he jumps on top of painted wooden boxes that function as a stage complete with disco lights radiating down from the ceiling, and begins to perform the song, Some People. Written by Triefenbach, the lyrics reflect his thoughts on living in the city and the fear of his life passing by in obscurity: Some People Some people were fast asleep when it happened / Some people made their escape / Some people were accused of breaking and entering / Some people came back for more / Some people stayed indoors most of the time / Some people failed / Some people were afraid of windows / Some people wasted their time Some people ate their fill / Some people had high hopes Some people believed / Some people watched the rain Some people were allowed inside / Some people were used to it / Some people paid their rent on time / Some people didn’t / Some people gave their opinions / Some people kept to themselves / Some people wore clothes that didn’t suit them / Some people clamored for something Some people were attacked / Some people made it through Some people read about it on TV / Some people died in obscurity In part two, The Eggshell Thickness of Order and Decency, the cryptic elements of the installation contain cultural iconography and, once again, the objects appear to be derived from a surreal place. Cast aluminum deer antlers, Courtship Decoys, hang on the wall which the Protagonist Everyman picks up and scrapes, clacks, and clangs together. An oversized Xerox portrait of Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Jackie O, is pasted on the wall, and a grassy knoll is located underneath it. The Protagonist Everyman caresses the portrait which refers to the fascination surrounding the First Lady’s life and the mythos surrounding the Kennedy family. He sings Winnebago Warrior a cappella, written by the 1980s West Coast punk rock band the Dead Kennedys. A dichotomy forms between the two uses of the Kennedy name that calls into question the historical, political, and cultural status the Kennedy name has in American society.
The Protagonist Everyman makes his way back to the stage and begins to sing Lamentation of the LONELY. This song, Triefenbach explains, “reflects hope and despair—a longing for something new, somewhere else—and a resignation to the overwhelming possibility of failure:”2 Lamentation of the LONLEY Someone sneezed beneath the stairs / I think maybe it was me / I was descending… …into the blackout moment… / I think maybe that moment was me! The horizon is an illusion / Frontiers are just circles and squares / Baked black in a frozen oven / They don’t really lead anywhere / The green spaces of off-ramps / Through the windshield they seep / Beckoning, sizzling and breaking / Like promises made in our sleep I want to take my chances / I want to live peacefully / I want to go to a place that doesn’t require one’s credentials upon entry / I want to breathe at the bottom of the lake / I want to cry myself to tears / I want to be awake when I die, I want to consume – and be consumed by – my fears My eyeglasses this morning were toilet bowl rims / In a Home For Protestant Ghosts / And the breakfast they serve this pitiful stage / Is just sawdust painted up like toast / I feel the fingers in my spine / And I see behind the curtain / I see the monster, Me, Myself / Composing, so uncertain No more Universe, no more Battle Church / I want to finish this song and get on with my day
Study for Jackie O, 2005, Photostat enlargement and manipulation of appropriated digital image, dimensions variable. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.
Artist’s quote from the performance script.
The Protagonist Everyman stumbles around the space exhausted and finds his way to a pop up tent, entitled Untitled (Metamorphosis), and crawls inside as if entering into another dimension that will transport him from his current location into nature. He zips up the flap and settles into his new dwelling. The peacefulness he is trying to attain is suddenly interrupted by the sound of children pelting Little Debbie Cakes at the tent and then mischievously running away. Again, he is confronted by the confines, plethora, and gluttony of consumerism. Covered and dripping with a liquid substance, the Protagonist Everyman eventually emerges from the pod-like tent, signifying a birth or the hatching of a cocoon. A metamorphosis of some kind has occurred. In part three, Rural Perversions: A Role-Playing Adventure, the Protagonist Everyman reaches into a model of a covered bridge, Wormhole Vernacular, located in the gallery, which metaphorically serves as a portal to another place. He is suddenly and mystically transported in an Alice in Wonderland-like fashion to a woodland area. Dressed in white, he runs frantically through fallen leaves on a quest to find a secret “key.” He arrives at his final destination, a covered bridge, where he encounters the “witch” that guards the object of his quest: a shovel. In this segment, Triefenbach draws inspiration from his childhood fascinations with mythology, fantasy and adventure literature, comic books, video games, and the role-playing game “Dungeons and Dragons” in order to signify the Protagonist Everyman’s fulfilled mission of fleeing the city in order to recover his true self. images on right: Hero, Compromised (video stills), 2006, DVD, 45 minutes. Courtesy of the artist and Bruno David Gallery, St. Louis.