I like to see people try to do something different, especially in the art world. Sometimes it doesn’t always succeed, and among the “failures” there are the disasters, the beautiful disasters, quaint misfires that the more charitable will give an A for effort, and a potpourri of others that—in the final assessment—may not be failures after all because they at least ignited a little more engagement without too much attrition. I believe the current group show at Vermillion titled Touch Me: I Am Violent falls in that latter potpourri category, insomuch as it might inspire others to do something similar, but better. So much went wrong that could have been prevented, and my fear is that it may end up having an effect opposite of what was intended.
Touch Me: I Am Violent is curated by Yonnas Getahun and was marketed (quite extensively, to the credit of the venue and the organizers) as a group show in which one can touch the art. That’s a big tent, and it’s possible to take it many ways, but tighter curation would have been beneficial as the energy on opening night was so scattered that what was fun was overrun and what was solemn and more pensive was given an unsavory treatment because of the cramped setting.
Implicit in this sort of show is a sense that barriers to interaction with art need to be dissolved and people need to be less afraid of it; I couldn’t agree more, and it’s worth discussing that issue before focusing on show itself. I routinely take people to galleries, and for some it is their first time setting foot in one in years—or ever. I don’t blame anyone for feeling intimidated by the idea of just walking into a gallery when there are so many misconceptions about it. Doesn’t one need to say something or have a clearly formed and informed opinion about what one sees? No, but people generally assume that they should, and sometimes the art is opaque (or just not very good) and they don’t know how to answer those nagging questions: How am I supposed to feel when I see this? Is this good?
And then there is the watchful eye of the sitters and gallery owners who—whether stoic or gregarious—can be disconcerting to the newcomer. And then there is the sticker shock. And the silence.
All of this keeps a lot of people out of galleries, so if anything I assume that people I guide on gallery tours will be cautious or nervous. I’m usually right, but on rare occasions I have been completely caught off guard by the opposite reaction. Some people actually reach right out and touch the art.
Picture me clutching my pearls—and my chest as I go into cardiac arrest—in these moments. Picture it because it is at least a little funny, and some of the reverence and stuffiness around art is absurd. Furthermore, some people are just inclined to touch things and some are averse. I fall SQUARELY in the latter category, so their misbehavior and my near-conniptions may be indicative of personal preference, too. A piece of art (even a print) is one-of-a-kind and quite fragile, and to not touch it seems common sense. (Did one of my guests actually treat a painting like it was scratch and sniff? You betcha.) But after I recovered from the shock and realized that none of these missteps were malicious, the real question became, “Was I missing something by not wanting to have a tactile experience?” In the aesthetic experience, lost in a work, have I not also wanted to touch the face of a portrait or feel the “bark” of a tree?
I have, and so the idea of artwork that can be touched is compelling and on its face it might also seem more accessible and democratic to people who are not sure how to experience art. Yonnas Getahun has demonstrated through many events a devotion to bridging gaps in the community, especially between artists of different disciplines, and getting people excited about what is happening locally. Unfortunately, this show isn’t the best example of that work.
The challenge of curating a group show is enormous, but it gets much more complicated when participants are asked to create new work around a theme. Sometimes great things happen, but often it isn’t anyone’s best work and the theme isn’t so much explored as poked. Touch Me is ostensibly about work that is tactile and invites a direct interface for the full experience, but only a few pieces actually fit that bill. Instead of tactility, some artists went with ephemerality, which is a related but different theme.
The space is so stuffed and scattershot that walking in might give the impression that one has been invited to a party after it is over—not at all welcoming. As it’s presented, looking from the outside one might assume that Vermillion is yet another spot on Capitol Hill slated for demolition and in the process of being cleared out. If this were happening in a secluded gallery space where outsiders already fear to tread without a guide, I’d be marginally less concerned about appearances. But it’s at Vermillion (please, may it never be demolished). I like that Vermillion takes chances and I LOVE that its front gallery arrangement gets people to walk among art before they reach the bar. It acclimates visitors to art by layout alone. On the other hand, when a show is ostensibly about reaching out and touching the audience, the unappealing and uninviting display makes it, again, backfire.
Ropes by the door supported Crystal Barbre’s lovely painting on paper—which guests were encouraged to cut and take away piecemeal, but now dangle beside a smaller facsimile of the work. The cutting process was not exactly a feeding frenzy, but it was a bit giddy and gave the place a sort of self-indulgent vibe on its very threshold. You can see what I mean in the embedded video.
This becomes more problematic when you know what was adjacent to it. Most prominent at the front are scorched and beaten doors by Daveda Russell. Before I got close enough to see the work and its context, I was already a bit chagrined by what seemed a mildly amusing activity using found objects (referencing some dive bar aesthetic perhaps), as many guests seem to giggle and be quite cavalier about finding a place to write a name on the crowded door. Big whoop, right? Wrong. As documents of sexual abuse and lynchings, they take the concept of violence and “touching” to a very serious place, one worthy of attention—but here the effects are quite different. Guests were encouraged to draw from a bucket the name of one of 150 black women lynched during the last century, then write each name on the door.
Once I learned what the names meant, the whole engagement in that space and time seemed profoundly morbid. Furthermore, a mirror and a noose dangling on the back of the door allowed guests to put oneself in that place—in theory. The reality was the precise opposite—detached, garish, insulting. On its face, the pieces fit the theme, but presenting them in that way was a gross miscalculation and I was actually happy to hear that during the night one guest was so incensed that he ripped the noose off and threw it in the street. THAT was a form of touching I can condone in this case.
Meanwhile, adjacent to the door is a wan shadow of Duchampian tricksterism: a toaster plugged in with a butter knife next to it. It’s a sight gag, and it barely fits the theme of the show by suggesting a potentially dangerous or slapstick action without actually offering any real interface or interaction. To put such an unremarkable and rather cynical display at the front (again, adjacent to Russell’s sensitive works) is not a clever juxtaposition; it’s another slap in the face.
Then there is Tariqa Waters’ work. Her attractive nude painting of a female body penning “Got Gains” above her pudenda speaks to the theme of touching (or wanting to touch) but doesn’t fit the mission, as a note explicitly states her painting is not to be touched. Again, placing it by Russell’s dour door of sexual abuse feels insensitive and neither work is flattered. Among the prickly sculptures by Jennifer McNeely (including condoms radiating pins), it’s an interesting visual, but it feels shoehorned in. When the show sends so many mixed messages already, the decision to include a work that should not be touched was another stretch too far.
The Saving Graces
Despite the multiple problems, several strong works deserve attention for their approach to the theme and their artistry.
During the heat of the packed opening, amidst the doors and cutting, artist Kat Larson sat at a small desk and invited guests to make ink drawings on small slips of white paper using strands of her own hair. Like the ephemeral work, this work cannot be staged continuously in the space, but it doesn’t leave an unsightly trace and instead allowed people to be active in creating something in an exceptionally tactile and intimate way. Hair is a strange thing; it grosses people out, especially once its off the body (or even on the body in the “wrong” place) and the hair of our head is a sensitive aesthetic thing in its own right. It can be sensual, comical, icky, and people are often duly sensitive about it. (Just recently, I remarked that there are only three people in this world who can touch my hair: close friends, my stylist [Gerald Wu, best ever], and people who want to get the shit slapped out of them. Don’t touch me; I’m violent.)
Larson’s work was perfect for the show; it was positive, engaging, and true to the theme, so much so that it would not be nearly as effective in another setting where the idea would be more questionable and creepy to people, but her placement among the chaos at front was again a miscalculation. I regret that I didn’t get to try my hand at it myself. Given that I’ve already explained my aversion to tactile engagement, that endorsement should say a lot. If I can be reached, certainly others can.
Megumi Shauna Arai offered two large self-portraits: a color portrait protected by a sheer, gauzy drape and a black and white print which was painted over by guests over the course of the night. Interesting curves and geometric swaths slowly covered her face until it was just a drippy black square next to the soft, light face to the right. As far as aesthetics and design goes, even the final product is a compelling image, deepened when one knows how it arrived there. It’s open to plenty of interpretation, it sticks to the artist’s strengths, and it fits the theme, as one can still touch the art if one wishes. (Not that it’s a particularly compelling tactile experience.)
The sculpture of Lucien Pellegrin is another interesting offering. I’m not sure if it’s the same one that I saw at Love City Love recently, but if so my uncertainty is to its credit, as it looked fresh in a new display and new light. Composed of a folded and smashed windshield, Pellegrin’s sculpture looks as dangerous as it is luminous. Being glass, it is not prone to damage from fingerprints, yet it presents that peculiar dichotomy of glass: the sense that it is fragile, and the sense that it can cut you. For all one knows walking in, it could be a readymade, pulled from a junkyard, but it has personality and allure of its own.
Nearby, an attractive painting by Siolo Thompson of hands can be manipulated and rearranged. It doesn’t become more compelling in jumbled form, but it remains appealing and most importantly it sticks to that theme of hands-on engagement with the work that the show advertised and would have been improved by if it had been more consistent. This may seem like a suggestion that the deeper “touchier” subject matter didn’t belong. In this show, it probably didn’t, but at they very least there should have been some division to keep the energy and the context for the works distinct. Despite being a show about intimacy and engagement, it showed a profound lack of understanding about physical bodies and minds moving in a closed space. As much as one may jumble Thompson’s painting, it at least shows some consistency that the larger show does not. It’s a strange illustration of what didn’t go right, in that case. (My apologies to Thompson for using her piece to illustrate other problems. I couldn’t resist. It really is a lovely object.)
Greg Lundgren’s sculpture “Cliff” is a dense, chunky, highly textured white enigma in the center of the room. It perhaps fits the bill better than any other piece as something that invites one to touch it and offers a unique feel as a reward. Imagine coming at it blind and trying to determine what it is—or just getting a feel for it—and it becomes an object of delight and fascination. And then…one might discover a strange, soft, round, rubbery bubble on the bottom. What is it? Well, Lundgren is one of those artists that knows how to make beautiful things, but also knows better than to take it too seriously. So if you ever wanted to fuck a piece of art, this is your chance; the rubbery bit is an asshole-shaped fleshlight (a masturbatory aid for those who don’t know), embedded in the sculpture. Actually fucking the sculpture would be a bit dangerous and very unwieldy, but that’s part of the point here, too. The Waters painting (if it belonged anywhere in the show) belonged closer to “Cliff.”
The roads of hell are paved with good intentions, and with Touch Me: I Am Violent, it just got some new bricks. The show comes from a good place and ideally we would see more events like it. Getahun and Diana Adam of Vermillion and the artists are to be commended for their attempts and various successes, and I will hope for better in the future. For all involved, it is about sticking to one’s strengths. Vermillion does not have ample room or proper flow for a show with so many complex and (at times) problematic approaches to the material. For what seemed like good reasons at the time, Getahun didn’t omit things he should have for the sake of the whole event and the artists involved.
For now, if you happen to walk by Vermillion and see it looking a bit bedraggled, you’ll know why, and you’ll also be reminded why those people in galleries and museums are always hovering about. It really is best that you keep your hands to yourself.
Touch Me: I Am Violent is on display through March 8 at Vermillion. Tomorrow night, Tuesday, February 24, a Q&A hosted by artist and arts writer Amanda Manitach will take place at Vermillion from 7 to 8:30 discussing process and the ideas that inspired some of the artists. Learn more about the event here.
Update, February 24, 3:08 PM: In the original version, I made a rather problematic typo. I said, “Unfortunately, this show is the best example of that work,” in referring to Getahun’s larger work in the community, which as I tried to state in the article is earnest and admirable. It was supposed to say “isn’t.” Ouch. It’s corrected now.