Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Careless Whispers

At the Contemporary Art Center, downtown Cincinnati, Patti Smith's "The Choral Sea" seems both cozy and distant, kind of like she is shellacking her memories into deep meaning, but also losing something in the process.  Just Kids is an incredible book, and in it Smith's voice is lyrical and inventive, but also friendly and chatty, celebratory, simple.  I guess I thought her visual art would be the same.  But the exhibit, based on a book of poems she wrote about Robert Mapplethorpse, is almost the opposite to me, overly poeticized and fussy, a little too shabby-chic.  Upstairs on a couple floors is a hot mess called "ON!  Handcrafted Digital Playgrounds."  Billed as "an interactive exhibition celebrating our innate attraction to play," it's basically what's left after the innate celebration and play are over:  a sort of art-school apocalypse with chalk and smeary pastel scribbles all over the walls and a feeling of abandonment in the aftermath of a really good pillow-fight that is no longer in session.  It's like wandering around a closed-down amusement park.  The thrill I guess is of witnessing the poetry of closed-down amusement parks, but I don't think that was the intention.

The intention of "The Living Room" (right across the way from "The Choral Sea") is about deconstructing living space and then getting all kinky with it.  The "Living Room" itself, pieced together by several artists (Paul Coors, Guy Michael Davis, Terence Hammonds, Katie Parker, and design collective Such + Such), reads like a setting in a Ke$ha music video, maybe if she did slow-jams -- romantic and kitschy and luxe, with solid gold bears in chains and an old-school fireplace doctored up with artistic intent.  Such + Such contribute a really excellent hard-wood bear-rug.  All of it is fun and odd in the best way possible.  But the highlight of "The Living Room" and of what's up at the CAC right now, is a video installation.  To the right of the actual living room are video images covering two walls and meeting in the corner.  There's a giant Barbra Kruger horizontal word crawl featuring non-sequiturs you want to hang onto and put into practice, and genuinely sweet and endearing visuals of people hanging out self-consciously while songs like "Careless Whisper" are put through a sort of ear-worm redux that makes them sound like the poetry of the gods.  Paul Coors is the artist credited for this.  And at the start of the video the camera follows his back out of the CAC and down the street toward places he seems to call home.  The whole thing blurs into a sort of revery, a cable-access stream-of-consciousness riff.  The technique is sumptuous and home-made, a mix of glamor and yearning for its opposite.  The big ring on Alicia Keys' finger (in an interstitial moment that stretches out almost into infinity) is the sun the whole world orbits.  An adjunct renegade spotlight creeps outside the video through the gallery space like the gestapo or the light Emmet Kelly tries to sweep up during a clown/hobo performance.  One of the most perfect moments for me was watching that video and seeing a Jenny Hulzer quote in big red letters:  "Private property creates crime," and then looking down and seeing the spotlight shining on the "U S Bank Gallery" emblazoned on the gallery floor.

Coors' video is where your mind goes when it wants to find meaning, but your mind often can't find meaning in the world even inside your head.  It can only make what your feeling crawl closer to meaning.  Slowing down pop songs to match your mood, walking on sidewalks to places you've been a thousand times, friends and family posing like they are characters on a sitcom during the beginning credits -- all of this is about someone finding a way to be happy, I think.  The title of the video, if I remember correctly, is something like "How I stopped worrying and started loving y'all."  There's bliss in this thing, pure and clever.  As I watched, I kept thinking of everything I'd done that day before seeing the show (buying a washing machine at Home Depot, driving on 1-75, trying to find a parking space because of Taste of Cincinnati patrons taking up the Fountain Square parking garage), and I felt completely vindicated somehow, as if all the shit you do and have to go through really is just a secret path to at least partial wisdom, maybe even happiness for real.