It doesn’t take much digging to uncover one of the less acknowledged etymological roots of domesticity. The Latin domos points back, as so much of our contemporary culture ultimately does, to the hierarchies of patriarchal control embedded in the history of western society. Whether we’re speaking specifically to domos, the taming of livestock, dominus, the conquering of a person, or despotes, the conquering of a whole people, we are drawn inevitably to the expenditure of bodily fluids—whether blood, sweat, tears, or cum.
And as if we needed a further excuse to consider the broad panoply of innuendos set before us in the second and most recent exhibition at HUME gallery, Our Lovely Secret Wreck, the show’s intentionally unsubtle floral motif ensures that we don’t lose the plot. Painted-on wallpaper is the initial gesture, offered by Brian Leahy, the exhibition’s curator, designer and one third of the participating artists. The splotchy flowers serve to reimagine the site of exhibition as a typical domestic space, complete with his grandmother’s favorite chair. What this exhibition brings to the table is much more than sexually charged imagery and a loose-handed approach to painting. It is an endeavor that builds on the foundations of Institutional Critique to question our role as viewer and the artist’s role as exhibitor.
The other two artists in the show are Margaux Crump, a Texas-based Washington University alumna, and J Michael Ford, the recent SAIC grad whose bent conduit sculptures you have probably seen more than once in Chicago’s 35-and-under circuit this year. Crump sets the stage with a variety of pink forms that assume a geological bent—aside from the full wall of salt-encrusted panties affixed with hand-crafted nails, her safe-sex silicone Dicklette sculptures crop up in many corners of the exhibition like stalagmites. Ford’s sparse conduit sculptures recall Sol Lewitt’s open cubes or Robert Mangold’s more recent polished rods. But while these historical call-backs might seem to render the work one-dimensional, his use of found objects such as faux flowers, a mood ring, and a pearl necklace serve to crack open the White Male Sculptural Tradition just enough to let us peek inside.
Much of the content in the exhibition is found off the gallery walls and floor, occupying a series of concentric rings of meaning that exist in and beyond the margins of the installation. Misplaced Dicklettes, family furniture, as well as an unconventional exhibition checklist
and parallel publication succeed in displacing the site of meaning. The stated goal according to Leahy, is to re-mystify the art by exploring and complicating the “fuzzy” divides that separate the objects that are meant to draw our contemplation, and those that aren’t. As evidenced by the worn easy chair installed near the entrance of the space, many of the objects included in the show force us to question their role.
In parallel to the gallery installation, Leahy in collaboration with Kitemath produced a limited-release publication of photographs and written works by nine multi-disciplinary contributors. Dense with detail shots and poetic interpretations the publication hopes to undercut the role of the exhibition catalogue, while also elevating its own status as a primary document. It brings to mind the dramatic expositions on art museum water fountains and cafeterias delivered by Andrea Fraser more than 20 years ago, which embedded themselves firmly in the institutional context while simultaneously mocking and elevating them.
Whether we are citing the Minimalists or the progenitors of the Institutional Critique movement as a touchstone for Our Secret Wreck, we are left with the same questions that have always been on our collective mind: do these efforts in de-centering the institution ultimately boil down to a political statement or an academic exercise?
If it’s the former, then the question of where exactly Leahy has chosen to draw the line becomes paramount. Why for example, do his curatorial responsibility and critical capacities end at the gallery walls, calmly falling into line with the endless procession of white male avant-gardists who choose to explore radical politics without beginning to address even the most simple questions surrounding the social contexts that they (knowingly or not) embed themselves in: What do we think about an exhibition of all white artists that happens in the midst of a large Puerto Rican population? Is it a bit weird that Leahy curates his own work into a show like this? Exactly where and how are the directors of HUME making their presence felt?
If it’s the latter, then I suppose that Leahy, Crump, Ford, the directors of HUME, Ryan Filchak, and the writer of this essay can simply add Our Lovely Secret Wreck as the latest line on our CV and call it a day.
Our Lovely Secret Wreck runs until August 13 and is releasing their conceptual catalog 6 to 9 pm Friday at HUME, 3242 W. Armitage, on the border between Humboldt Park and Logan Square.