At the CAMH
Tacky and arousing art that touches everything from BICs to Photoshop:Spectacular of the Vernacular, indeed
It's the detail behind the BIC pen drawing, the rhinestone encrusted deer head or the castoff Depression-era photograph that defines the magic of The Spectacular of Vernacular, a new exhibit at Contemporary Arts Museum Houston that opened this weekend. Organized by Minneapolis' Walker Art Center, the exhibition scatters jewels of art inspired by the vernacular: An aesthetic of ordinariness and mass culture that, by fruition of its own quotidian appeal, becomes beautiful, and indeed, spectacular.
"This is craft taken to an obsessive compulsive level," new CAMH curator Dean Daderko says.
On the most basic level, the term "vernacular" means the language spoken by ordinary people in a particular region. Perhaps the work that most embodies this definition is Lari Pittman's "A Decorated Chronology of Insistence and Resignation #30," which reads in eager carnival-font letters: "HEY GIRL, LOVE-SEXI! CUM N' GIT IT!"
It's tacky, in your face, vaguely arousing — and in terms of museum experiences, an absolute thrill.
Surrounding the text is a delirious cacophony of kaleidoscopic colors and images, including megaphones, credit cards and painstakingly applied patterns that could easily be found at a quilt festival or a spread in Highlights magazine. It's tacky, in your face, vaguely arousing — and in terms of museum experiences, an absolute thrill.
Take a closer look, and you'll notice (in the words of Daderko) a "maniacal attention to detail." Enamel and glitter have been applied in tiny dots on wooden panels, and the images' precise edges are created by applying and incising tape to prevent a single drop of paint from bleeding.
But there are also quiet moments in Spectacular that speak to the darker side of American daily life. Consider a nuanced photograph by William Eggleston of a 1970s gas guzzler Cadillac marooned in a bed of kudzu, a harbinger of the downfall of the American automobile.
Or step inside a video chamber at the exhibition's center to view a looping stop animation video by William E. Jones of flickering photos taken under the auspices of the New Deal's Farm Security Administration, for which respected photographers were commissioned to document Depression-era rural struggles. FSA director Roy Stryker meticulously edited which photos made it into the history books by punching holes in the images that didn't match the government's vision of America.
In the compilation video, the rejected photos of a suddenly poverty-stricken hinterland come back to life, albeit with the telltale punch holes symbolically boring a hole into the prints. Today, we shun governments like the former U.S.S.R. and Photoshop-happy Syrian regime for doctoring nationalist art, but Jones illustrates that the U.S. isn't so above the practice.
Walker chief curator Darsie Alexander has selected a range of contemporary art world stars — Dario Robleto, Kara Walker, Louise Bourgeois, Marina Abramovic — that illustrate how vital the vernacular is to practicing artists.
"There are moments now where there are lots of references to craft practices that pull in more personal narrative," Daderko explains. "I think in that way, it's a real timely show."
And in an era of distorted personal narratives that appear via rapid fire news feeds and nebulous social structures like Google circles, the vernacular deserves a new appreciation. Spectacular of Vernacular radiates with human flourishes and individuals' own stories that allow visitors to connect to contemporary art in a fresh, celebratory manner.
The Spectacular of Vernacular is on view through Sept. 18.
Watch an interview with Spectacular of Vernacular artist Chris Larson: