Through Jan. 21 at North Avenue Market
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The term “retrospective” may summon up visions of artwork displayed reverently in a sober white-walled gallery, but Search Engine, a riotous mid-career retrospective of artist Lou Joseph’s work, is no such thing. The show entirely covers the walls of the cavernous North Avenue Market space from floor to ceiling, a monumental mishmash of color and style and tone. Some of the work is stapled or tacked to the wall, other pieces are framed, and much of it is partially obscured by what hangs on top of it. A glass case holds a towering stack of journals, and one wall features around 800 snapshots, some related to Joseph’s artistic pursuits and some not.
Joseph’s decision to display his life’s work in this casual fashion has nothing to due with lack of expertise. His day job, in fact, is as senior preparator for the Maryland Institute College of Art’s exhibitions department. He made a conscious decision to discard the traditional chronological, curated approach, to see what patterns and connections might emerge when he put work from different eras together. “I’ve switched up [styles] enough times that there are some things I can maybe let go and some things I can bring back and really think about,” he says. “That’s what I was hoping to figure out.”
Joseph’s show is the first for ICABaltimore, a new roving museum venture that he is spearheading. ICA—the acronym stands for Institute of Contemporary Art—aims to present solo retrospectives of work by mid- and early career artists, in a variety of venues. “I like the solo shows I usually see in Baltimore, but they’re always the most recent stuff,” Joseph says. “I think it could be really interesting if these shows could be more expansive. . . . And maybe it’s also a little bit of a challenge to the idea that your newest thing is your best thing.”
Though Search Engine is decidedly nonlinear, distinctive periods are nevertheless evident. Much of the backdrop work, the art that lies on the bottom layer, is colorful, cartoonish. Along one wall, a shiny horde of stenciled skulls crowd toward the viewer as a mob of hairy tentacled creatures à la Philip Guston converge. Joseph says much of this work was made in collaboration with friend and fellow artist Ben Fisher and predates his move to Baltimore from North Carolina in 2008.
Other pieces betray a fascination with repetition. A print of a target is multiplied hundreds of times; another of a hieroglyphic-like figure on a strip of paper is as well, though with slight modifications. (A slide-show in one corner of the gallery provides some context by showing the original intentions of these repetitive pieces: to cover an entire stairwell or room, in many cases.) Paintings are also often repetitive, as with a series of five highly detailed pastel-toned works made up of tiny marks that visually vibrate, Pop Art-style. “I think my interest in repetition came from printmaking,” Joseph says. “There’s something about the boringness of it. There’s something about knowing exactly what it’s going to look like.”
Joseph provides a “field guide” to the show, available at the front desk, but it candidly states that it “is not completely comprehensive or always accurate.” The field guide divides the show into discrete categories and assigns particular years to them, e.g., “Monotypes (1998-2000)” and “Repetition Projects (2001-2004).” But as soon as one tries to categorize the work in the show, problems arise. The skulls are highly repetitive, for example, but turn out to be from the collaborative “Fort Grunt” period (2006-2008), which is said to be characterized by imagery of infestation, disease, conflict, and death. The field guide serves mainly to show how blurred the boundaries between periods actually are, and illuminates the threads of commonality visible throughout the retrospective.
If there’s a complaint to be made about Search Engine it’s that the forest is so overwhelming it’s hard to concentrate on the often fascinating trees. Works from Joseph’s “Middle States” period (2009-2012) are particularly interesting. These tend to be in muted blacks and whites and grays, and, in general, are more representational than earlier works. Some large paintings of urban decay—crumbling cars, landfills, ruined buildings—are rendered in an abstracted gray gradient, resulting in eye-catching, apocalyptic images, akin to what one might see through night-vision goggles. A series of paintings of tent cities—created, incidentally, before the Occupy movement—is equally compelling. And the meticulously rendered pencil drawings of cars on fire are so detailed as to seem like prints or photos of a fuzzy television screen.
Joseph says he’s been more preoccupied with current events since the economic collapse. “I’m kind of attached to the idea of how things are failing,” he says. He looks up at a wall full of his life’s work. “There’s an element of failure in all of it. Sometimes the connections don’t all line up for me, which is kind of the idea with putting it all up.”
Search Engine is open Tuesday-Friday from 6-8 P.M. and Saturday and Sunday from noon-4 P.M. at the North Avenue Market (16 W. North Ave.). A closing reception will be held on Jan. 20 from 6-9 P.M. For more information, visit loujoseph.com.