Friday, April 14th, 2017

The Gentle Art of Disruption: Three Shows in Philadelphia

Stephanie Bursese and Yvette Brackman at Vox Populi, Patrick McCaughy at Practice Gallery.

Stephanie Bursese, to skip, to gloss, 2017. 2017. Installation (detail) at Vox Populi Gallery, Philadelphia. Photo: Neighboring States, courtesy of the Artist.
Stephanie Bursese, to skip, to gloss, 2017. 2017. Installation (detail) at Vox Populi Gallery, Philadelphia. Photo: Neighboring States, courtesy of the Artist.

Art has the power to disrupt on many levels. It can resist efforts at easy interpretation. It can dredge up uncomfortable personal and historical associations. It can invade social space or just literally block our path. Three works that are disruptive in various ways are on view in artist-run spaces at Philadelphia’s alternative gallery building, 319 North 11th Street concurrently (March 3 to April 23, 2017).

Stephanie Bursese’s installation to skip, to gloss at Vox Populi poses itself in the passageway viewers normally take through the gallery. The artist constructed a diagonal wall that splits the entryway in two, forcing visitors to squeeze through to either of two wedge-shaped chambers. Each side yields a completely different experience. To the left is a brightly lit series of photographs, hung at eye level, of the demolition of a wall and doorway; to the right, a darkened chamber with a single pedestal in its midst.

Presented in non-linear sequence, the photographs sort themselves into an alternating pattern: front or back view; black or white surface; painted or bare drywall; assembled structure or two-by-four skeleton. The images lack human presence, and in spite of the fact that they depict a wall that the artist attacked with a sledgehammer, possess a kind of austere formalism. Peeled-back layers of material become flat shape patterns of flat black, white and brown. The jagged areas punched through with a hammer resemble the collage-like cutouts in Magritte’s paintings from the 1920s.

As we view these images, we notice a band of glass on the diagonal wall behind reflecting them back in opposite sequence. Visiting the other side of the split, we realize that this was a one-way mirror, and we were on view as we viewed the images. The delicate line of cotton swabs that the artist has displayed on top of her pedestal is a kind of metaphor for humans viewed from afar—diminutive, doll-like, breakable. Confounding expectations, Bursese has converted the bravado self-assurance of smashing a wall to the quiet vulnerability of being watched.

Phil McGaughy's installation at Practice Gallery. Photo by Heather Ossandon.
Phil McGaughy’s installation at Practice Gallery. Photo by Heather Ossandon.

At Practice Gallery, Phil McGaughy’s The turbid tides disrupted a peaceful tour with an onslaught of sound and light. Accompanied opening night by a performance with collaborators the 181 collective, this piece touches every surface of the room. Walls are covered by molded plaster forms and bear the imprint of video images projected in opposing directions. The room was filled with a deafening rush of noise as members of the collective plied electronic keyboards and sound effects were piped through hand-wired amplifiers. Video feed showed water rushing into channels dug in a beach, and the cycles of flow, the flickering projection and the loud noise all ran together as a mesmerizing experiential collage.

Different from the watery world of Bill Viola’s Ocean Without a Shore on view at PAFA not long ago, The turbid tides does not enable you to sit back and enjoy your sensory immersion. Instead, viewers of the performance had to avoid tripping over the artists who crouched on the floor while playing their musical instruments. Ensconced in the middle of the room, the artists created a social as well as physical disruption, leaving viewers with the sense that we, not they, were intruding. In their abased posture the performers were like fools in the king’s court, drawing attention to a power relationship between entertainers and entertained, while ironically upending it.

Though calmer in demeanor, Yvette Brackman’s installation at Vox Populi is also disruptive in its way. At first glance, the piece seems distant and formal. On one wall there is a spread of newsprint sheets bearing the cryptic words “AGIT MEM”, and on another a projection of a troupe of characters sporting colorful shapes on their costumes.

Yvette Brackman, AGIT MEM, 2016. Video still. Courtesy of the Artist
Yvette Brackman, AGIT MEM, 2016. Video still. Courtesy of the Artist

The installation’s title, Underneath Father America’s Closed Eyelids Lies Russia, hints that something more than the decoding of formal elements will be needed to understand the work. We recognize that the actors’ colorful costumes owe a debt to Russian modern art, in particular the Constructivism of Vladimir Tatlin, Alexander Rodchenko, and Varvara Stepanova. AGIT MEM, which is also the title of the play on the video, refers to agitprop, a term which has sincebecome a catch-all for political art but in the period following the 1917 revolution was a department of the communist party responsible for persuading the masses to follow government directives. An agitprop train, carrying a printing press and a troupe of actors, traveled from town to town distributing posters and presenting plays. Brackman’s presentation looks as if it might have come from that train.

Enacted in a propagandistic style, the play is populated by two-dimensional figures that embody broad ideas (“Father America,” “The Traveler through All Time,” “The Catalyst,”). In the mode of Bertolt Brecht’s epic theatre, AGIT MEM uses several devices to remind viewers that they are watching a play, including a narrator who reads the stage directions and a chorus who summarize the significance of the characters’ actions.

Rather than convince us to use a tractor or not drink too much vodka, the play’s message is more personal and indicative of a set of conflicts that touch our own age. Brackman’s mother narrowly escaped the Holocaust to live as a refugee in the Soviet Union, and her father, who was imprisoned in the Soviet Gulag, married her mother as a means of obtaining passageway to the west. After a violent confrontation in her own life, Brackman decided to make this suppressed trauma the centerpiece of her work. The “MEM” in the play’s title is for Brackman’s family memories.

I doubt that anyone in the audience missed the fact that an installation entitled Underneath Father America’s Closed Eyelids Lies Russia opened on the weekend that our nation’s attorney general was found to have lied about his relations with the Russian ambassador. Behind the layers of history in Brackman’s work is also a very relevant message about how we view the refugee in our midst: that “they” who slip across borders to avoid certain death, or marry in order to obtain a visa, may actually be “we.” At its best, art can bring us uncomfortably close to facts, both personal and political, that we might prefer to conceal.