Eli Hansen, are you high right now?
Scott Lawrimore, to his credit, is a very well spoken man. His shows kick-ass and he knows how to warm up an audience: introducing the artist and his ideas, bringing up interesting questions, all the while using colorful language that is still intelligible, if not at times cathartic for me. Scott has a way to make even the most elevated artspeak ring true for a ranged audience.
You Live Just Down The Street, Don’t You?, Elias Hansen, 2010
I was stoked for the current artist Eli Hansen's talk last Saturday. I walked over to the Lawrimore Project on my break at work. The crowd was ready and still gathering. We'd been reading and looking at Eli's show for several weeks. The show called We Used To Get So High is a side-show within a show. The walls are plugged with cigar boxes you can open to secrets within, DIY tattoo kits tempting you to touch, and the most sensational of all: homemade drug labs in the middle of the gallery. The audience's collective curiosity was primed. We were ready for what the press release told us to expect - that redemptive look back while at the same time laying bare the problems and impotence of hindsight. So the artist used to make drugs? Maybe. Here was our chance to glean insight into an artist who crafts drug paraphernalia out of hand-blown glass, and posits that what you find on Dearborn and Maynard laying in the bushes is art too.
We Used To Get So High Installation View, Eli Hansen
I don't know what happened next. I think as Eli stepped behind his hand-wrought meth lab he had a devastating flashback. He talked about the pieces in the other room. He talked about things that weren't even at Lawrimore, but never by introducing them first. Every sentence out of his mouth was like reading the last sentence of a book without reading the previous 299 pages. No lead up, no lead in, no descriptions or concepts introduced, just one determinate conclusion after another.
Scott, bless his heart, tried to save the man by asking questions. But the first question, about how precise the paintings in the other room were, falls flat when we are not in the other room. And Eli didn't even talk about that piece or even about the precision of it. Neither person related that the paintings are molecular structures of drugs or what the significances of the titles and forms are.
We Used to Get So High, Elias Hansen, 2010 paint on wood
I looked around to see if anyone else was hearing what I was hearing (or not hearing). I saw the obligatory beer sipping and head nodding that I always see at artist talks, and I asked myself, “Is this what we settle for?” It's not esoteric or deep if the artist never knew what they were trying to complicate in the first place. Why do we settle for artists that cannot communicate a damn thing, let alone artists who confuse us on their work instead of communicating it? And Scott why do you settle for artists that can't explain their work? How did you select Eli from the herd?
I expect more Eli. I truly hope you were high. Or I hope you put LSD in that piece of bread I ate, because there is no other excuse for the lack of communication that went on. I hoped to stay and ask questions like “what's the risk involved in making work like this?” Y'know something that the audience wanted to know, but hey it's your talk – so go on with your bad self.
I looked at my friend and decided I'd rather spend time with him on a walk then swizzle beer and nod our heads in unison. We walked back through the International District and the conversation flowed. I liked the show, just not the talk. My friend noted the death of the author – that a creator doesn't control how their creation is interpreted after it leaves their hand. Fair enough, I said, but as long as the artist or author is alive and still talking about their work, they still have a hand in how it is received. He noted that this is the quandary of contemporary art history – how does an art historian talk about work that hasn't rooted into history yet? I liked this conversation better than the artist talk we'd just left.
I didn't write this blog to complain - what I offer is a challenge. Artists: in a world where you will be bullied into answering questions about your work, consider your intent before signing up for an artist talk. The visual arts often communicate that which isn't legible or even comprehendible through speech. Say that and still try. And if you have a hard time as a speaker - be transparent and let us know. Admit that someone else wrote the press release.
This Is How I Tell The Story, Elias Hansen, 2010
cigar box, glass, installation view
Editor's note: There was a lot of buzz about this post on Facebook. Here's the conversation in it's entirety thus far as of 10:58 pm May 10, 2010 AD. Please for the sake of page hits... I mean feel free to comment here from now on.