Saturday, April 2, 2011

Post-Modernism even your grandmother could love

by Dean Liscum

Should you find yourself with your grandmother and some time on your hands, not quite hungry enough to stomach the House of Pies where your hunger will have to dull the "sharp" (circa 1990) commentary about lots of handsome young men in booths from a woman who wants you to call her "G-momma" or "GM" or "MeeMa" in public, you should visit the John Cleary Gallery where "Imagined Family Heirlooms" by Keliy Anderson-Staley is installed.

Once inside, your grandmother would quickly feel at ease. Beautiful tintype portraits, letters hand-written in cursive, prints of linens and lace, and doilies all neatly framed cover the walls from floor to ceiling.

The two of you could literally gaze at each picture for minutes at a time. You could admire the composition of each photo. She could comment on the apparent life-likeness of each portrait. You with your humanities education could say something about the depth created by the spotlight focus on the face, a feature of the type of camera used by the artist. She could give you a patronizing "uh huh." You could delve into the mechanics of the image making and explain how the subjects must remain motionless for extended periods of time as they did in the 1850's when this method of photography was most popular. She would retort "Is that right Mr. Smarty Pants" despite that she'd promised your father she'd drop that phrase after you got your Ph.D. and because he agreed to have the dying Mimosa tree removed from her side yard. You would take the bait and go there, noting in full junior-college-lecture-tone how the blurring of the hair, the neck, the torso, and other background details made it seem as if their visages were receding from this life into the past from whence they came. She would admire the frames. You could figure out a way to work the words "patina" and "rococo" into the monologue you were having with yourself within her earshot even though neither term directly applied. At that point she could ask if they served wine at these receptions. You would realize that the only thing missing from this setting was a monogrammed flask full of single-malt scotch.

After the two of you got your drink on, you would separate and studiously view the pictures.

Helen, 2009, wet plate collodion tintype
5 Petal Flower, 2010, Argyrotype

Atlan James, 2010, wet plate collodion tintype

Jeremy, 2010, wet plate collodion tintype

Meleana, 2008, wet plate collodion tintype
Square Handkerchief, 2010, Cyanotype photogram print on paper

Tyehimba, 2009, found antique tintype
Girl with Rosy Cheeks, 2011, wet plate collodion tintype

Given the title of the exhibit, (something family heirloom...after slamming 4 glasses of white wine on an empty stomach the chardonnay would begin to work its magic) you would begin to weave together the family narrative, hypothesizing who was married to whom, who begat whom, and in the end who betrayed whom. Of course, MeeMa, equally wine-inspired, would one-up you and channel Angela Lansbury from Murder She Wrote. Not content with keeping her conjectures to herself, she'd raise her voice an octave and begin randomly addressing people in the gallery...usually the hippest looking people that your new wine-induced courage was motivating you to chat up. (Apparently, your taste in partners is genetically traceable through your grandmother's lineage.)

MeeMa's voice would kill that courage.

"Except for their complexions Helen looks more like Jeremy than Tyehimba. Don't you think so?"
"Do you think Atlan James is Meleana's brother or cousin?"
"Maybe Tyehimba is Jeremy's half-brother and married to Helen."
"You look like Meleana's type. I could ask the owner if she's available for you."
"I'll bet Jeremy became one of those man-woman thingys."
"That old woman doesn't look very pretty, but judging from the evidence on the wall, she sure was popular!"

This is when you would be hungry enough. When you would gladly endure your grandmother's eyes cutting so frequently to the "kissing cousins" in the booth diagonal from yours that if you didn't know her so well you'd think she'd developed a tick. This is when you would order her as many cups of decaf and slices of Mississippi Mud pie as it took to keep her pie-hole full. This is when you would fully comprehend the conceit that informs Anderson-Staley's show--an imagined, completely fictitious family.

What Anderson-Staley has created is a complete simulacra a la Baudrillard. To quote her statement about the show, "(t)his is a series of installations, each composed of found letters, cloth, frames and antique photographs interspersed with original collages and new photographs and photograms." She's used vintage techniques, primarily wet plate collodion tintype photography, and found antique fabrics and photos to create an aura of authentication. According to her, she's arranged this hodge-podge of objects to resemble the way people (people like a MeeMa no doubt) would arrange a similar collection in their homes. All this work is simply to fabricate the fiction of a family.

Anderson-Staley states that one of the purposes of the installation it to "draw(s) attention to the rootless nature of many American identities: many families do not know their histories back more than a generation or two." MeeMa would adamantly agree. However, the show lends itself to other metaphorical interpretations: the melting pot of America, the family of humankind, the chosen families of those disowned or estranged or orphaned, wished for relatives of a malecontent name a few.

Whatever Anderson-Staley's stated objective, me and MeeMa would leave with definitely different interpretations of these imagined heirlooms. She would fantasize of a more serious, business-savvy grandson. I would entertain thoughts of a more tolerant, generous, and emotionally-available matriarch. Nonetheless, we would both leave with the knowledge that those alternative realities would be complete simulacra. Realities we could visit but never occupy, realizing neither a sympathetic MeeMa nor an entrepreneurial me would ever survive a third piece of Mississippi Mud, and being, in a very post-modern way, OK with that.

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1 comment:

  1. I think this is the greatest blog post I've ever read about my gallery. Please bring Meema back for my next show (burlesque) - I'd love to get her take, and House of Pies is right down the street. Thanks!