Steven Rosen in the newsweekly Citybeat here in town wrote a smart little article on "The Goodwill Biennial," the show that's currently up at Thunder-Sky, Inc. (Here's a link: Citybeat.) He took the serious joke we worked on quite seriously, which is totally appreciated, and found that we didn't really find the "good art" that he wanted to see pulled from the bins at Goodwill:
"Banner and Ross want you to ask questions about all the pieces’ provenance when looking at the art. Banner writes in a statement that he hopes we find 'some kind of meaning/redemption in them that goes beyond kitsch and into another realm.' But The Goodwill Biennial doesn’t have enough good art to sustain that quest for deeper meaning. Too often you wind up being amused by what’s bad. Sometimes good bad, mind you — I found myself laughing at one painting’s bifurcated perspective of the Cincinnati riverfront. It offered a credible perspective and rendering of the urban skyline, but made a tugboat plowing through the frozen river look like small toy on a table. And there seemed to be an ocean just behind downtown."
One thing I really did not want this gig to be is an Antique Roadshow kind of thing, all those Goodwill buried treasures found, rescued, curated, appreciated. What we selected was what was there: stuff people donated, wanted out of their lives. We tried to find the most erratic, eerie, interesting pieces possible, but in the end we just went with it. And I guess that's where the striving for meaning for me comes from -- not trying to find meaning because something is "good" or "bad," but finding meaning that somehow appreciates the painting/sculpture/drawing/whatever for what it is, and finding within that discovery something that jars you out of appreciation, out of the notion that art is "good" or "bad."
The concept for this show came from witnessing Mike Kelley's one-person retrospective at MOMA PS1 in New York City in 2014. It was confoundingly great, every inch of PS1 spaces loaded with Kelley's oeuvre, from globular sculptures made from natty stuffed-animals and afghans to incantatory recreations of planets from Superman comics and so on, as well as a whole room dedicated to small movies and photographs inspired by photographs Kelley culled from high school yearbooks from thrift-stores. The pictures he chose to riff on vary from the unintentionally camp to the intentionally hyper-sentimental, and yet what Kelley does with them in his interpretations does not alter what they are, but somehow expands the boundaries of how they are perceived, just by paying homage to them. One in particular was both hilarious and very boring and sad, involving a recreation of a high school Halloween party (or play or something, who knows?) in all of its completely sad-assed glory:
Kelley's whole career was about unmasking what's there and masking what isn't with a fiercely thrift-store/punk glee that often manifested in collecting and redistributing/redefining the crap people think they don't need anymore, whether it be high-school yearbooks, dirty blankets, or even, when he was first starting out as an artists in LA, birdhouses. In an interview in Bomb Magazine from 1991, Mike Kelley discusses his 198 debut:
John Miller Why don’t we start by going back to the birdhouse sculptures you made for your graduate show at Cal Arts in 1978. You ended up not only having a reductive object, but the normally “heroic” process of making art was reduced to craft. Even though there may not necessarily be much material difference between art and craft, I think the distinction turns on what an audience is led to invest in a certain set of objects or a certain set of practices; and those become adequate sublimatory vehicles. So in a way, you were confounding those expectations, parodying them.
Mike Kelley Yeah, I definitely was. At the time, people would generally talk about the birdhouses as formal jokes. People wouldn't consider sublimation as an aspect of art production except in some heady, Freudian way, like, “Oh, these bad impulses are being nicely put into this object.” Instead of saying maybe it’s not so nice that these impulses are put into these objects. Maybe it’s pitiful that all these energies are pumped into a birdhouse. That’s what I realized I was going for, not some one-line joke like, “Here’s a birdhouse that’s minimalism.” Rather, here’s a structure that’s loaded with pathos, and you still don’t like it, you don’t feel sorry for it, you want to kick it. That’s what I wanted out of the thing—an artwork that you couldn’t raise, there was no way that you could make it better than it was. Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable
JM It implies a kind of dysfunction.
In psychology, "sublimation" is often defined as a type of defense mechanism where socially unacceptable impulses or idealizations are unconsciously transformed into socially acceptable actions or behavior. What Kelley is saying here is that he did not want that defense mechanism to get in the way of his intentions as an artist. He wanted people to see the birdhouses he made as the birdhouses he made, and that's kind of the way I feel about the art we chose to be in the Goodwill Biennial: we didn't want people to think the art in the show is "good" or "bad," just what it is, so that maybe the art in the show could replace (or confound) notions of preciousness, greatness, whatever. To harness all that abandoned art to an old artworld standby like "biennial," in which tastemakers and curators and collectors and organizations come together to define what is "good" and "bad" in contemporary art is just another way to both parody culture, and also to pay homage to the fact that the thrift-store paintings and other objects we discovered couldn't be "raised," as Kelley puts it. There's no way you could make the art we found better than it was. "Its function as art actually makes it more uncomfortable."
And to be in a little gallery filled with such uncomfortable oddness is what the show is about, purely and simply. The title of Rosen's piece in Citybeat is, "Thunder-Sky Rescues Art from Goodwill Box." Even the title kind of gets it wrong, to be honest. Thunder-Sky, Inc. is not a tastemaker, God knows. It's just a little outsider art gallery in Cincinnati that tries hard to ask questions, to find meaning in ideas, people and things that often don't get the time of day. We're not out to celebrate what is good or bad or whatever, but just what is there, like those birdhouses, untransformed and spectacular reminders that art has a ghostly and unfathomable weirdness about it that can't be categorized, "biennial-ized," or even "rescued." We didn't go into the whole thing as an exercise in finding greatness. We're not about "taste," as much as we're about establishing an "atmosphere." We went into the Goodwill looking for strangeness and an assortment of art that could not have been found anywhere else. We found what was there, and then selected the pieces that seemed to fit together in a creepy and lovely little dance of diptychs and tableau.
And that's about it.