Texas State University Galleries, San Marcos
Through March 1
by Chelsea Weathers
Sustainability, the current Common Experience Theme at Texas State University, is a concept meant to inspire action in the present to work toward a better future. The exhibition SUBstainability grapples with the idea that such concern for the future is inextricable from an imperative to make the most of the present moment. In the show, underlying urges that often spur humans to action, like grief, laziness, erotic pleasure or calculated manipulation––impulses which usually take a back seat to more overtly utilitarian incarnations of sustainability such as architectural projects or ecological concerns––become the subjects of artworks that seek to subvert the idea that a sustainable future is one in which we have purged all of our vices.
Curators Andy Campbell and Mary Mikel Stump chose two large artworks to anchor each of the exhibition’s spacious galleries. One room showcases Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ “Untitled” (Placebo) (1991), a pile of about 700 pounds of silver-wrapped pineapple candies. As prescribed by the artist, viewers are meant to take the sweets away with them; the artwork is not supposed to sustain, but to wither and die, an elegant echo of the death of Gonzalez-Torres and his lover from AIDS. Other references to death crop up in this room. Eve Andrée Laramée’s Tincture of Smithson (1998–2000) features a solution containing pulverized rock from Robert Smithson’s Amarillo Ramp, the work whose site Smithson was surveying when his plane crashed, killing him and the pilot. The Tincture and “Untitled” (Placebo), though precious and romantic, provide a cool contrast to Dario Robleto’s Victorian sentimentality. Four works by Robleto, hermetically sealed in glass frames or vitrines, occupy a corner of the gallery. Intricate shrine-like assemblages containing photographs, ribbons, dried flowers and human hair hearken back to 18th- and 19th-century European mourning practices. Though less overtly personal than Gonzalez-Torres’ work, Robleto’s tableaux exemplify the delicate beauty that can result from an obsessive engagement with the concept of loss.
If the first gallery contains somber artworks that carry the weight of loss like a cross to bear, then the second half of SUBstainability treats loss or longing more playfully. Many of the works in this half of the show take as their subjects actions and feelings that qualify as neurotic, or at least unproductive. Where Gonzalez-Torres’ candies entreaty viewers to kneel benevolently before them, and to empathize with the artist’s and countless others’ grief, Jeanne Quinn’s A Thousand Tiny Deaths (2009) invites viewers to anticipate, even to relish, ruination. Black porcelain vessels hang precariously from partially deflated balloons suspended from the ceiling. As a balloon loses air, a vessel crashes to the floor. This act of destruction is an apt counterpart to “Untitled” (Placebo), but Quinn’s title, though ostensibly about death, brings us closer to the idea of the breaking porcelain as la petite morte. Each crashing vessel depends on the delicate, softening balloon—one orgasm after another. Ian Bogost’s Guru Meditation (2010) transforms the act of sitting stationary in front of the television into a yogic, meditative video game using the outmoded but charming vintage Atari system. Unlike Nam June Paik’s formally similar TV Buddha (1974), Bogost’s piece integrates the participation of the viewer, forcing her to make a game of being aware of her body as it resists the will to move or to relax. Sarah Sudhoff, in her stark photographs detailing the procedures that manufacture friendships in college sororities (signs that instruct sisters on how to gain a pledge’s trust and to discern the desirables from the dead weight), takes a seemingly cynical approach to her subject. Sudhoff’s images catalog a world that is antithetical to ideologies of creative freedom or social rebellion, though it also ostensibly takes on an agenda of philanthropy and humanitarianism. It was unclear to me whether Sudhoff meant to pass judgment on the facile methods the sororities used to indoctrinate its sisters. This line of questioning eventually reminded of a line from British television’s inimitable glamour-lush, Patsy Stone of Absolutely Fabulous: “What the hell is the difference between a painting done by a person who wishes to paint like a child, and a child’s painting?”
To attempt to answer such a question in this review would be akin to tilting at windmills––but in a way this is what SUBstainability encourages its viewers to do. At the heart of this exhibition is the therapeutic paradox that as long as the present feels worthwhile and valuable to the person who is living in it––even if he or she chooses to spend that time mourning, in front of the television, compulsively chasing multiple orgasms, or following a regimented path to sorority sisterhood––the higher the chances for a productive future.
Chelsea Weathers is a Ph.D. Candidate in Art History at The University of Texas at Austin. Her dissertation is a history of the exhibition and distribution of Andy Warhol's films in the 1960s.