Art Palace, Austin
Through December 20, 2008
by George Pasterk
Justin Boyd’s current show at Art Palace, I Drove the Mother Road Home to the Promised Land, is the third part in his ongoing series of investigations into the traditions, folklore, music, literature and material of our country’s cultural landscape. Boyd intends each of these examinations to tease out a different aspect of what he refers to as the “American spirit.” For the current show, the artist explores the cultural industry that arose around the legendary trans-American channel: Historic Route 66.
In this show, Boyd departs from his usual practice in two distinct ways. First, he eschews his predilection for interactive installations in a wide range of competing media, including sound, video, drawings, DJ performances and even medicinal herbs. Instead, with this body of work, in an effort to produce what he describes as a “B-side” to his customary multimedia approach, Boyd focuses on wall pieces: prints and acrylic and vinyl on MDF. Second, in this show, Boyd’s usual exuberance is overshadowed by what the artist describes as an internal feeling of “untrusting uneasiness.” The artist aims to articulate the sensation that the “institutions you felt were there to protect you,” are, in fact, “conspiring against you.”
In preparation for Mother Road, Boyd sought out and found comrades amongst the snarling agitators of CREEM magazine, alongside the Beat(en) generation’s Jack Kerouac and in the lyrics of Woody Guthrie. But it wasn’t until he re-read Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath that he began to hear his own “untrusting uneasiness” echoed back to him. Perhaps this is the reason that Boyd derives many of this show’s textual elements, objects and distinctive patois from Steinbeck’s depiction of this modern westward exodus.
At the entrance to the show, the audience finds a diptych of digital prints comprised of a repetitious symmetrical pattern of overlapping and interlocking avocado green, harvest gold and muted pink ovals—all shades of a bygone era. Four regularly spaced, sepia-toned medallions balance this ultra mod wallpaper pattern. Inside each medallion is an image associated with an aspect of Route 66 life; both the Model A Ford and the hobo’s boxcar are the physical trace of decades of flight, while the Victrola recalls the songs and oral traditions that travelers left behind, such as those recorded by individuals like Alan Lomax or feverishly collected on 78s by Harry Smith. The silhouette of an oil derrick, cotton plants and bees represent the hopes that drifters carried with them down the road.
Moving deeper into the space, Mother Road makes a dramatic shift in materials and style. The awkward seemingly amateurish road signs that populate the rest of the show replace the clean lines and geometric abstraction of the digital prints. Made of MDF, gaudily colored and cut freehand, they have the appearance of outsider or folk art. Boyd models the signs from personal photographs of signage for the motels, restaurants and bars that once sprouted up along Route 66 to meet the quotidian needs of a booming car culture. The room is a processional of wildly inaccurate maps, cockeyed arrows and impossible vehicles. The signs are further layered with references to literature and pop culture. A wonky map of Texas informs us “We can’t do it alone,” while a rather sheepish cloud assures us that “this era is ripe for miracles.” A fuchsia arrow arcs around a doorway, its comet like tail is inscribed with lyrics from a posthumously released Sam Cooke song: “I wish somebody could come an ease my troublin’ mind.” Meanwhile the head of the arrow points down to the doorway as if to imply that the next person through the door could be the one. While this song wasn’t a hit another song from the same album: “Change is Gonna Come,” became an enduring anthem for the civil rights movement.
This is only one example of what is at the core of Boyd’s explorations: the freedom to allow all of the disparate components of American history, literature, music, tradition and the personal experiences of the viewer to rub up against one another, produce new relationships and multiply meanings. Perhaps this is what Boyd’s work succeeds most in doing—that is, reveal American identity not as a point of singularity but as a process of increasing complexity and diverse meaning.
George Pasterk is a freelance writer based in Austin.