at N.A.M.E. Gallery

February 26-27

Watching the “Engaged Objects” performances was something like being driven around blindfolded: I never knew where I was or where I was headed. I only knew that I was being taken somewhere, and that I ought to pay attention to the smallest detail, as I would eventually have to find my way back on my own. All three performers–Brendan deVallance, Jamie Young, and Steve Jones–created complex psychological terrains. The final destination–an act of interpretation, if you will–was not important; but the point at which the map ended, and I was forced to make my own map, was.

Brendan deVallance is something of an institution. Undoubtedly Chicago’s most prolific performance artist, deVallance has now completed over 100 performances, never the same piece twice. His work is generally candid, sincere, riotously funny, and technically ingenious–as exemplified here in History of Toast. This work, although rather thin on ideas, delighted the audience with its kitschy, klutzy theatricality. The piece began with the artist hidden behind what amounted to a puppet stage erected onstage: a large, black flat hung with four-foot black curtains, closed. We then heard deVallance’s voice issuing from two bullhorns stationed above the curtains as he began to ruminate on toast, sociologically, politically, and personally. In the midst of this absurd monologue, the curtains were drawn to reveal an enormous piece of white toast, hovering in midair, a ridiculous ominous presence. (This was truly a white-bread performance.)

The rest of the piece consisted of more thoughts and actions centered around toast and exploiting toast’s mundane presence in our lives. DeVallance took quite a bit of time to make a piece of toast for the audience, saying that he had originally intended to fill the entire gallery with toast, and even to put toast under the windshield wipers of our cars, but unfortunately he had only one piece of bread left. The piece of toast was then passed through the audience, as a gesture (both sweet and cynical) toward “audience participation.” Later deVallance taped a hand grenade to his forehead, then talked about seeing something interesting in a thrift shop and wondering who would buy it. The piece proceeded along these lines, a collection of disjointed, seemingly haphazard juxtapositions of text and object.

Despite those objects’ visual interest (and they included a flawlessly polished toaster with a speaker playing the sound of a car engine turning over but not starting) and the unexpected beauty of his text (“I’d like to be able to look into a mirror the way a person looks through a window”), the piece never really came together into anything more than a collection of interesting images. And the intentionally banal subject matter of History of Toast meant that these images didn’t offer much food for thought. Though deVallance is a remarkably intelligent, creative, and clever performer, his pieces would be more satisfying if they were more cohesive and thorough. They can be too easily dismissed as random collections of eccentricities.

Jamie Young, on the other hand, presented a stunningly thorough work, Pierce. This quiet, intimate piece held the audience in rapt silence from start to finish: Young told the fictional story of Pierce Lacy, an orphaned child who searches for his mother in an oddly modern backwoods landscape, full of rattlesnakes and professional psychics. As she told this story with perfect calm, she pulled objects from an open suitcase behind her and laid them on a white table for the audience to see. These objects, all rather ordinary–marbles, envelopes, cardboard boxes–acted as oddly displaced puppets, often standing in for the events described but at other times directly refuting what Young was saying.

Early in the story, Young told of Pierce’s living alone in the woods as an adolescent. As she did so, she poured a bright red liquid into three clear tumblers adorned with lemon garnishes. This precise image of childhood security–the inimitable glasses of Kool-Aid–highlighted her main character’s homelessness. When describing Pierce’s long search for his mother, Young placed a compass, the kind meant to be mounted in a car, on the table. Young’s choice of an object was always fascinating, especially when it alluded both to the world of the story and to our everyday world. When Pierce’s mother told him that the world is full of fearful people who hate one another, for example, Young displayed an airline safety procedure card. We not only projected the story onto the object, seeing such safety messages in a new and disjointed context, but we also projected the object onto the story, giving the bare narrative a deeper significance. (You could say that, in a way, Pierce was an elaborate lie. While Young was saying one thing, she was embodying it in objects that were in a sense incompatible.)

Young also seemed to purposely confuse her methods of representation, never allowing a single means to become the correct, accepted one. Snakes, for example, were represented by long earrings, by a plastic snake, and by marbles. Young seemed to wish to delight her audience with some of the ways that reality can be imagined, but without ever making that system of images literal or authoritative. The only problem with the piece was its staging in N.A.M.E.’s imposing space. Young’s intimate piece would have blossomed in a more informal environment: we should all have been standing around her magical table.

Steve Jones’s Open Sore Series, #2 was not as successful as the other two pieces. Open Sore Series, #2 began with a pseudolecture on Marcel Duchamp and his theory of ready-made art: the artist merely chooses an object, Jones says with his tongue in his cheek, that is “aesthetically interesting, full of provocative and evocative meaning, dense and multilayered, like all art, and above all, subtle.” During this lecture, Jones revealed his own readymade, a globe fixed on top of a bar stool. Speaking in the classic pompous gibberish of art historians, Jones pointed out that not only was his work a kinetic readymade, since the globe could move, but it was an audience-participatory readymade, since an audience member could spin the globe and develop “a relationship with the object.”

Jones’s lecture was quite funny, pointing up the tendency in art criticism to evaluate work merely by labeling it. Calling something a “kinetic, audience-participatory readymade” gives it authority, regardless of the object’s absurdity. After his lecture, Jones “violated the surface of the object” by hammering a nail into it. The result was a steady stream of red liquid, which burst out of the globe and ran all over the floor. Jones then tried to plug the hole with his finger and even with Band-Aids, but to no avail.

This gesture, causing the earth to bleed, made little sense to me in the context of the piece. It smacked of political statement, of course, and especially since Jones had handed out to the audience quotes from American political figures defending the American tendency to allow the world to starve while we luxuriate in our wealth. But Jones’s rhetorical strategy was muddy at best, and this potentially violent gesture fell flat. Unlike Young, who used confusion and indirection to mystify and intrigue her audience, Jones left me frustrated and unconvinced that he knew what his piece was about. Like deVallance in History of Toast, Jones in Open Sore Series, #2 needed to examine more rigorously the issues he raised, so that a promising beginning could lead to an enlightened conclusion.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/Frank Loose.