The subject gets all the play. In a sentence, the subject performs, affects the object, "the subject of a clause controls the verb and typically precedes it," says Chicago. When a sentence starts with anything but a subject, people get their knickers in a twist ("Avoid the passive voice at all costs," they say). Our grammar instructs us to be actors, not acted upon, subjects not subjected to.
But two current East Bay art shows think differently. They walk away from subject-hood, venturing into less-sure territory. Just Because There Are Questions Doesn't Mean There Are Answers at Blankspace Gallery and Becoming Non Object at Hatch Gallery both seek liberation and possibility through the processes of un-definition and inversion. The works and the methods are diverse, but the goal is the same: discovery through a shift in perspective.
Just Because There Are Questions... is a series of collaborations between Sam Lopes, Joy Fritz, Matthew Momchilov, and Erik Scollon. All the works were made through a game of copycat, in which the artists imitated one of their collaborators' styles. While the "art machine" encourages artists to develop a unique brand, these guys bravely try on artistic styles like different dresses at a thrift store. The result is an irreverent series of works that questions ideas of authenticity, imitation, and the integrity of identity, artistic as well as sexual.
A queer theme runs through it all, explicitly referenced in the show's literature and implied by many of the works. A sense of psychedelic domesticity is rampant. Hearthstones and shag-carpeted living rooms pulsate with bright colors and sexual innuendoes. In "Distracted by Joy in a Bathing Suit," by Sam Lopes and Joy Fritz, a life-sized paper-mache nude figure reclines beneath a crocheted afghan before a cardboard fireplace. A male body in a woman's bathing suit stands suggestively nearby. It's like we've walked in on something.
A wooden sculpture, entirely abstract and geometric, dominates one wall. "Quantum Leap," by Lopes, is a checkerboard of colors that intersect and depart, come together to make new shapes and take off to create other ones. How many different combinations are possible? How do the edges of one shape bleed into another? When does the merging stop? It seems like a metaphor for identity, one that informs the entire show.
Becoming Non-Object, a two-person show including paintings by Nate Crane and sculptures by Michael Deane, revolves around the "the intentional shift of the object as the subject, to the object as the reference point for viewing the energy and influences around it," the curatorial statement reads. The artists attempt this inversion in markedly different ways. Crane creates ordered and precise paintings of geometric shapes and astronomical phenomena, while Deane makes conglomerations of debris that look like the contents of a disorganized toy bin in the back of a child's closet. (That latter comment sounds like more of a criticism than it's meant to be.)
Crane's paintings are intriguing in their deceptive simplicity. Inspired by subject matter complicated and remote, such as astronomical dark matter and colliding galaxies, the result is pleasingly coherent. An abstract Persian snake, a common motif in Persian rugs, winds its way through the works, dancing in the sky in "Descent" and wrapping around itself in "Colliding Galaxies." Both works resemble screenshots from an Atari videogame: playful, vaguely scientific, and inviting. The work highlights the limitations inherent in depicting negative space with paint and canvas. A complex idea must be visually simplified and rendered in positive space. This simplification isn't a disappointment though. In this case it's more like a refreshing surprise.
Is this shift away from subject-hood a new trend? Will we see more shows dedicated to representing the space around the "I"? Deconstruction as muse? Given the spirit of possibility and play in these two shows, let's hope so.
Just Because There Are Questions Doesn't Mean There Are Answers is up through Sunday, July 5, at Blankspace Gallery, 6609 San Pablo Ave., Oakland. And Becoming Non Object runs through Saturday, June 27, at Hatch Gallery, 492 23rd St., Oakland.