Monday, May 26, 2008

hand it to TERROR

"fist" ceramic 1992
scale 1:1

As an artist, few models are as perfect to study as your own hand. It is nearby, patient, and attentive to your instructions. The beauty in the form of the human hand is undeniable. We use these to bring change to the world, as well as for survival. We are our hands, and they are us.
In 1994, a few months after beginning college, I made a sculpture using several plastic models. I chopped them up with an X-acto knife and fashioned them into a contorted hand with curled fingers. I studied my own extensively, and aside from the patchwork nature of the car and helicopter parts, the final result was fairly realistic.
I felt that working with model parts would represent a bold, new direction for me as an artist. Of great concern to me in earlier sculptures was the tendency for hot-glue to come undone, rendering great amounts of work obsolete. With plastic models, the glue had been specifically designed for the material. I had high hopes that the bonds would remain permanent. My theory, however, was never tested, as the sculpture met an untimely end when a cat offered it to gravity from the shelf on which it sat. The floor, nearly 5 feet below, was the clear champion in the contest that followed. Almost every connection failed, and I was left with an ugly pile of plastic scrap. It would be 6 years before my next study.

"Grasp" plastic model parts, 1994
no longer extant
scale 2:1
In the spring of 2001, from the quiet confines of my studio in LaCrosse, Wisconsin, I began again to fashion a hand. I started with 2 large restaurant toaster ovens and a gas grill.
After completing the initial structure, I used chrome metal from office chairs and bicycles to add the proper volume to the shape. The easiest way to ensure it would balance was to outstretch the fingers. The scale is huge, and the finished piece stands over eight feet tall and weighs 300 pounds.

"Reach" found-objects 2001 scale 100:1
After years of making junk sculptures, I'd learned that it was often difficult for people to see the image when they first looked at a piece. Often it seemed that the parts themselves became more important than what they created together. No synergy. This got in the way of what I was trying to accomplish. I was trying to work realistically with a medium that's traditionally not deemed realistic. In order to convince people I was a skilled artist who just happened to use junk, I had to create an image that could overwhelm its contents. When I made this hand I wanted to generate one simple reaction from my viewers. I wanted them to see the sculpture and say or think: "It's a hand." I wanted this thought to be involuntary and instantaneous. No matter what, they'd get it, because it's something to which they are personally connected. We all have hands. By reducing my effort to this one shared note of understanding, I would cause everyone to stop in their tracks. Even people with no shared language or beliefs would react the exact same way. I imagined placing the piece far back in time, before civilization had begun, and still being able to get the same reaction, perhaps even opening new doors in early humans' perception and modifying their behavior, like the obelisk did in "2001: a Space Odyssey," sans violence. Simply, I wanted to make humans think.

cogito ergo sum...
Around this time, I was co-director at a large space called "Odin Gallery" in LaCrosse, Wisconsin. In a city of less than 60,000, in an area not interested in collecting art, the entire scene was more or less of our making. We basically did everything ourselves with low budgets and long hours, living off donations from weekly events. My studio was in the back and we had a theater space as well. During the summer of 2001, we were presenting a production of Romeo and Juliet outdoors in the parking lot next to the building.
We sold advertisements to local businesses and handpainted their logos on giant tarps, which were then used to encircle the lot where the play was taking place. We were always coming up with new ways to keep an art gallery running besides selling art.
That same summer, we hosted an artshow which was part of a larger festival called "Pride Along the Mississippi." It was quite controversial, because the organization was founded by gays to celebrate homosexuality. We didn't care. It was going to pay the bills that month.
It was the first time something like this had been organized in the region, and was supposed to build tolerance and foster awareness. The mayor of the City was going to speak so security was high.
Suddenly, rightwing protesters showed up and began shouting bible verses at the top of their lungs. They had signs saying things like, "AIDS IS THE CURE" and "HOMOSEXUALS: FUEL FOR THE FIRE!" They even listed bible verses to back it up. It was one of the strangest things I'd ever seen. I don't know how these people fail to realize that they're crazy.
Children dressed in military fatigues ran around sneering while pleasing their parents by learning to spread hatred. Below, Marcus Robiason, a local artist, confronts a zealot positioned directly in front of the entrance. Ironically, the flower shop advertising roses behind them was run by two hardworking flamers.
As the Summer of 2001 drew to a close and Labor Day came and went, we began to work on putting out an open call for our annual juried group show. The show would be called "YOUR ART EXPLOSION!" On September 10th, I made a hundred posters to post around town. The following morning I was awoken by a call from the office manager at the gallery, telling me to turn on my television. I clicked it on just in time to see the second World Trade Center tower come crashing to the ground.I had never really thought about these buildings before that moment, but suddenly they became very significant. Immediately the world changed. Movies, television programs, and books were pulled from production if they had any intimation of bombs or airplanes, no matter how oblique. The posters I had wanted to hang, with bold letters and fire, were now definitely not going to go over properly and had to be scrapped. Life itself became a different sort of thing. People hadn't expected the world to change so completely one random morning. Nobody knew if they should stop and wait for more attacks or simply go on with their routines. I remember with perplexed bewilderment the ducktape and plastic sheeting advisory that that government issued within hours of the attacks so people could protect themselves from chemical weapons. I believe stocks shot up briefly for both products, as did American flags. At that point, everyone was eager to hear what the Bush Administration was going to do to protect us. The plan was simple and came in the next State of the Union Address. Revenge. As an artist, I felt the descent a grand significance. After a decade of making artwork that was more or less benign, I had a responsibility to react to the new world that had arrived. I felt honored, scared, and excited all at once.

Within a month of the attacks, I curated a groupshow. I assembled the owners of every gallery in the city and asked for one piece of work from each. The exhibition was called "Artistic Direction."
One of the dozen or so participants was an artist named Pete Missing who ran a gallery called "Now Here," also downtown. He'd grown up in NYC and spent a number of years in Berlin after the wall fell. A few weeks before the attacks, he had been invited to build an installation at a gallery in Osaka, Japan. A few days before he was to leave, his father fell gravely ill. He arranged to fly to NYC first, and to Japan from there. His plane landed on September 9th and his father died the next day. The following morning, as he took a taxicab to JFK from the Bronx, melee engulfed the city and he watched with his own eyes what I saw on TV. Needless to say, he was unable to go to Osaka. Talk about crazy timing.
For our show, he was given an entire room to build a new installation. His trademarks involve glass bottles filled with water with television monitors placed behind. Piles of found objects would then be added, motors spinning, plants growing, and each item with a significance he could explain. Beyond the installation, he was and still is a prolific painter, and the walls were filled with new work. In the 80's, this symbol of his invention was spraypainted across lower Manhattan as the waves of gentrification forced squatters from the Lower East Side and caused riots and chaos for days. The image, an upside down martini glass often accompanied by the text "the party's over," served as the logo for his band, Missing Foundation, which was active at the same time.
My contribution to the show would be the recently completed hand.
It would stand as a rising monument, stretching towards the sky like the towers no longer did.

As I took this photo, a random fan flashes a peace sign.
The title, also, reflected the new rules of the new times.
I would go forward from this moment with purpose, determined to use artwork as a tool to document the shifting era as well as to help inspire and hopefully empower those willing to believe that things can be better on our planet.
One thing I believe is that we're more intelligent than we think, and it seems logical that creating phenomenal artwork is one particular way to prove this. We each do what we can, or else, I guess, we give up.

monument for humanity:

Later, when I moved to NYC, it would be one of the few things I brought with. In effect, I was giving the city that had endured so much a hand, which it deeply deserves. Here a friend helps me load it into my pickup truck in East Williamsburg, Brooklyn circa 2005.

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