Saturday, March 10, 2012

Upstairs, Downstairs

At the Contemporary Arts Center here in Cincinnati, a new show by Russian-born artist Dasha Shishkin, titled "I Surrender, Dear," stuns and amazes with its gauzy, junky ephemerality.  Shishkin draws Henry-Darger-like fantasias on fabric, sheaths of beaten plastic, canvas, and other surfaces, and the results have been installed in a psychedelic salon-style merging art-school kitsch with the homegrown and beautiful creepiness of what many people unfortunately title "the art of the insane."  You know what I'm getting at:  this is "outsider art" sucked indoors, and Shishkin has the chops to make it seem both effortless and studied, obsessive and accomplished.  It's one of the best exhibits I've seen here in town in a long time.  The installation has a purposefully amateurish feel, but is spot on; little blue-ink drawings on cardboard provide punctuation to the onslaught of stream-of-consciousness visual poetry, and the motifs and tropes swim through each other like phosphorescent schools of fish. The show is heavy handed and hilarious, but executed with a fresh, esoteric ingenuity.  Shishkin has created a playfully mean spirited William S. Burroughs wall-novel.    

Upstairs, however, is another exhibit titled "Spectacle:  The Music Video."  And this one is a mess.  And the mess doesn't seem on purpose.  I don't understand the point of view in it, or the way it's been installed, or even quite frankly the reason it is what it is.  The wall-text goes on and on about the importance of the music video to culture blah blah and blah, and the exhibition spills out all over the place in an unexquisitely junky tsunami of ephemera and TV screens and headphones, with a few old-school album covers and Polaroids tossed in just to add that nonchalant/arty touch.  I guess there's a big danger in titling anything "Spectacle."  That word becomes an albatross maybe around your neck?  The best part is a little cubbyhole where they've installed an alter to Michel Gondry's yarn-bombing video ur-text.  The rest, at least to me, comes off like a defunct Planet Hollywood.  I think we all know that music videos are "little movies."  And I also think we already know where they fit into the cultural landscape:  they are commercials.  Sometimes intentionally beautiful, sometimes unintentionally, and often not at all.  But they have a place at the back of our minds like little shiny trinkets in a junk-drawer.  When we open the junk-drawer they glimmer.  We look and see what they are and smile and then grab the screw-driver or the allen-wrench we're looking for.  To register the importance of this genre it might have been better just to survey one music-video artist's output, and trace that singular artist's evolution, buttressing this narrative with those "Big Moments in Music Video History" and all the ephemera.   It's a big stupid cliche, I know, but "less is more."  And boy does "Spectacle" prove that.