A joyful mess

‘Dead and Gong’ at Stairwell; plus, summer at Lenore Gray
By GREG COOK  |  August 20, 2008
Stairw678ellinside.jpg
NEVER TOO MUCH OF A GOOD THING: A sampling of the fare at the Stairwell Gallery.

“Dead and Gong,” on view at Stairwell Gallery (504 Broadway, Providence, through September 4), is a hodgepodge installation that feels a bit like a teen’s bedroom, the treasure horde of some ancient Latin American crypt, and a squatter’s camp in the woods.

It’s the collective generous, joyful mess of Muffy Brandt and Ali Dennig of Providence, Ryan Riehle and Keith Waters of Boston, and Miles Huston of New York, who all played with the band Dreamhouse at one time or another. And it feels right on.

There’s so much stuff that it’s hard to focus. A Donald Duck-headed figure stands in the window, carrying a pair of what seem to be weapons and wearing Rainbow Brite clothes fashioned from bottle tops and leis and the like. Another figure, cobbled together from plastic jugs and football pads, lays at its feet. Its face is smashed in with a plastic bat. Broken drum heads hang from a rope running across the gallery. The leg and butt of a mannequin sit on the floor before a tall patchwork quilt. A skull is decorated with beads, snake skin, and butterfly wings. The walls are covered with dozens of newspaper clippings, photocopies, and urgent drawings resembling folk art or adolescent notebook scribbles of strange creatures and goons. An abstract stripy yarn thing hangs in a corner near the ceiling, next to the packing from a fruit crate.

In the back room, a figure — well, just a shirt and coat and pants — is pinned to the wall by a board wedged under a tire, next to a folding lounge chair. A chain of flattened drink cans snakes across a tarp on the floor. Video, on monitors and projected onto the wall, shows Dreamhouse clanging along in some rainy mudhole.

The stew of goth and garbage and glam somehow bring to mind The Electric Company and New Zoo Revue — 1970s kids television shows that are underappreciated for their influence on art today. This style is sometimes called “scatter art” (or “scatter trash” by less generous observers). Poetry offers its own flavor of this stuff called “flarf.” An early seminal and masterpiece work of this sort was the astonishing, crazy art- and junk-encrusted interior of Providence’s Fort Thunder, the famed artists’ loft and music and wrestling venue in Eagle Square that was demolished to make way for a shopping plaza in 2002. The style is predicated on the proposition that you can never have too much of a good thing. It’s one of the dominant modes of art these days — I suspect because it represents artists trying to come to terms with America’s post-industrial glut.

Here, Riehle tells me they have recycling on their minds. (Note that in 2004, the band toured in a school bus converted to run on vegetable oil.) But this doesn’t feel green. Instead it’s a snapshot of a shiftless, aimless, tired, bumbling, gluttonous, flush-with-stuff America. The installation resonates with the nation’s current gloomy, itchy feeling that maybe, maybe this time we really are living through the decline and fall of the empire. (I know it sounds grand but, hey, even our depressions our great.) “Dead and Gong” feels like people sifting through the pieces, wondering how they might be juryrigged back together, and in the meantime partying among the ruins.

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Related: Architecture of Heaven and Earth, Hearts of glass, Exhibition expedition, More more >
  Topics: Museum And Gallery , Eero Saarinen, Donald Duck, Peter Fonda,  More more >
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