Monday, November 16, 2009

Agitators Collective: Who Will Save Beauty?

The exhibit by the Agitators Collective at the 58 Gallery on Coles got me thinking about Beauty so much that I even posted a quote from one of my favorite novels, The Beautiful and Damned.

I think the terms exhibit and installation interchangeably, but it seems the artists prefer the term installation for this specific show, which is entitled: Who Will Save Beauty? Who will Save Beauty is not just the title of the installation, but the motto of this prankster-prone group of Jersey City-based artists. Their premise appears to be: If Art will save the world, and Beauty Will Save Art, who will save Beauty? I believe that Art can save the world. I just don’t necessarily believe THAT it WILL save the world. I like to believe Art is about representing beauty, at least on some level. Who Will Save Beauty both inspires and begs the question, what is beauty? I don’t think this question—whether implied or directly asked or ignored—has an answer, at least a single answer.

The work of the Agitators seems more intent on amusing and surprising than answering their question or the questions the name of the Installation logically leads to. Instead, with a playful social commentary that draws inspiration from both pop and classic culture, they twist any expectation for an answer to question Beauty. The current installation takes up the entire space, but is actually two exhibits—a retrospective of their previous installations and their new work. On one wall are pictures of the collective’s previous installations, an Agitators greatest hits if you will. The new work includes a hopscotch outline made in tape, including a small tape stone for hop scotching (no one was skipping around the boxes during the opening of the exhibit), the hopscotch outline leads to a pike of shredded paper in one corner. On the white brick wall is the centerpiece of the new work, I “heart” JC underwear, with a yellow stain near the appropriate spot.

The number of Agitators and membership in general seems amorphous, and for this show the code names told me were: Bubsy, Triple A, Jungle Unit, Midnight Nat, and Shaboyi. The guys above are Brendan and Jason and the only ones I met so far. Brendan said the code names are to give the group anonymity. Reminded me of the Justice League, which didn’t seem to far from the mark. Code names, doing vigilante art outside of government art enforcement (actually it seems that they get a lot of cooperation for their fun spoofs).

Pee-stained men’s underwear. I thought about how women’s underwear is erotic and men’s underwear is goofy. I guess that’s why there’s no store called Victor’s Secret. Want to emasculate any threatening male—picture him in his underwear, and once you do, you’ll probably see a yellow splotch near the region of his spigot. To read anything more into it, I guess that’s up to the viewer. Novelty underwear is funny in and of itself. It is usually a gift, a gag gift and you generally wear it when you are with somebody who you want to see you wearing your novelty underwear. The Heart symbol instead of the word love has become universally known, but it was created for the I Love New York campaign. The idea of Jersey City adopting the heart symbol, comparing itself to the Capital of the World, is likewise amusing—just across the River, we’re always in Manhattan’s shadow. On the other hand, call us crazy—and most people who don’t live here call those who do live here crazy—we citizens do tend to Love Jersey City. The Pee Stain is the punch line to appropriating a New York Marketing Image and then declaring your love for our city with underwear.

Some of the art, such as the crying babies are variations on clip art. On one wall at the exhibit, were clip art images, such as the diamond, although Jason said them some of the others he had drawn. The idea was to make his drawings look like clip art. Clip art can best be described as generic art, these are images that publications and others purchase so they can be used without copyright infringement or paying an illustrator. They are basically generic art. I worked in local Bergen County newspapers when I started my so called career. Like if a small display ad in the newspaper for home repair needed an image of a hammer, or a grocery store had soda on sale and needed a bottle of pop, you got the images from Clip Art. The same images appeared in different local papers all across the nation; they could do this because all the papers were for different markets. In the pre-digital era, there would be these huge books of clip art publishers who buy every year. It was a huge business and still is—you can get Stock Photographs for the same idea, and in fact, one of the Agitator imagers, which has a naked woman lying down, her naughty bits covered with shredded paper and a photo-shopped Agitators Collective tattoo on her forearm. I later worked for a trade magazine publishing company that as one of its divisions, had a huge clip art and stock photograph business. It is indeed, generic art. The images are devoid of any personality of style, they are anonymous, there are no famous clip art illustrators or photographers, just famous clip art companies and their fame is limited to publishers who utilize their services. “I found the crying baby in old books of clip art, and we used that as a starting point and then drew some variations,” said Jason. “The babies were up on the wall of a Brunswick street garage for a while. They were recently replaced by a picture by another artist.” Another crying baby installation was in the lobby of a building on Newark Avenue, which consisted of the crying images on helium-filled balloons. “The realtor was really nice,” said Brendan. “They gave us the keys and told us not to burn down the place.” There is a child-like whimsy—coupled with a wise-ass college student sensibility, although without arrogance, --to the various projects, which are both art installation and social space stunts. Looking at the Wall of fame—the Agitators were formed in 2006 and have done about 10 installations (about three year)—there seemed a lot to take in, such as the famous Unicorn, a project at a Miami Art Fair where they used plastic cups strategically wedged into wire fence to spell out a quote from the Stephen Foster song, “Hard Times” (come again no more). The installation took place last year, at the height of our current economic crisis, a rare foray into topical commentary. Another project event I remember reading about used 8,000 Peeps—those Easter candies in the shape of baby chicks, they are made of marshmallows and covered in dyed sugar—for an installation in a ragged section of the Jersey City Heights neighbor. “It was across from where there were a lot of homeless men, it was a pretty bad neighborhood,” said Brendan. “After we set up the formation, we went away and came back I saw that some of the peeps had been knocked out of place, and there was a homeless guy putting them back to how we arranged them. I’m most proud of that.”
The reason for the pride—the Agitator Collective wants to engage the community—and having someone who appears to be the least likely to appreciate art becoming engaged enough to save the integrity of the installation indicates the effectiveness of a project. It also seems to embody the Who Will Save Beauty credo. We have to save beauty. We, the people I mean. The beholders of beauty! We who are looking at art and by looking at it experiencing it and by experiencing it, participating in it. In one installation, a variation of a mythical creature was drawn on a wall in another neighborhood in Jersey City that has so far been untouched by gentrification. I believe the image was a variation on a griffin (it had an absurd pair of women’s breasts). “After we put that up, people came up asking, is something coming here,” said Jason. “People want art.” The public space installations by the Agitators build on the concept of “Found Art.” The art is generally made by materials from the surrounding area—in most cases Jersey City—for example, the “Peeps” project consisted of the candies being all purchased at Jersey City stores (after Easter, when Easter Candy prices were 75 percent off). In fact, the use of Clip Art is also a form of Found Art, and also in a way, the old chestnut Wharolian pop culture ideal, but instead of say, painting a soup can, they are taking a familiar form of everyday popular culture, then stretching the definition of context, by creating art than putting that art in a public space where heretofore art was not to be found.

I went early to the opening. I’m not much for hanging out too late these days, and I thought it might be a nice change of pace to see an event at the start rather than its peak. The edition of the Art crowd celebrating the Agitators seemed to trend younger than similar events. Kayt Hester, famous J.C. tape artist, tended bar, she refused to serve me a glass of jersey city tap water even though it had been over a week since the last boil before drinking warning was issued by United Water. See, writing a blog gets you the Poland Spring!

I got to see the back portion of 58 Street, hidden from view. Pleasantly dark, a little dingy, looked like a great hang out. Instruments were set up, a band was scheduled as part of the night’s festivities. On the exterior walls, the Agitators had put some other images, copies of archival looking pictures, a Minotaur, a circus monkey balancing itself on a globe. The images were familiar pieces of our collective popular culture memory, but they were also a form of graffiti, which was also part of the Exhibit. The Exhibit didn’t just over flow out the gallery space, it transformed to some degree, and temporarily at least, the gallery into art. The I Heart JC
Underwear didn’t conceal the white brick wall, it was painted to emphasize the exposed brick.
The hop scotch on the floor of the gallery made that floor be an extension of the sidewalk on the other side of the window. The Gallery’s name comes from its physical street address. The subtle joke was that the exhibit made the gallery part of the street, not just a gallery on a street. And, as the Who Will Save Beauty installation consisted of the new images that made us see the gallery as a different physical space, it made it part of the other half the exhibit—the documentation of other installations in public spaces that made those experiencing rethink the concept of public space (as well as the concept of art and beauty and saving beauty). Who Will Save Beauty? Maybe it will be revising how we look at the world we live in, revising the rigidity of categories like art, like public space, like beauty. So far, the Agitator Collective has made transitory installations. Although each installation is well documented, the specific items are not saved. The present installation, according to Jason, will be destroyed—the underwear painting painted over by the next exhibit, the hopscotch removed from the floor, the exterior images painted over or graffiti-ed over then painted over. The “Peeps” are gone, the crying babies gone. The Unicorn painting is still on the fence somewhere between Brunswick and the turnpike—surprisingly, in the three years since it was first painted, it has remained untouched and untagged.

Was that part of the point? Art that was as disposable as our culture? “I don’t think of it as disposable,” said Jason. “I think of it as ephemeral.”

Ephemeral? Just like life? Just like art? Just like beauty?

No comments:

Post a Comment