Open Space show examines freedom, pleasure, and morality


Through Feb. 23 at Open Space Gallery

I really don't like sports. I know this is not a popular sentiment in Baltimore presently, but it's true. I'm just not a fan. I don't watch any sports. I don't read the sports page. I usually have only the vaguest of conceptions as to who players are and what teams are from where. When Open Space collective member Nick Peelor and I were arranging a time for me to visit their new group exhibition, Liberti(n)es, we scheduled around "that Beyoncé concert." So when I walked into the gallery and saw two identical, life-size wall graphics of a basketball player mid-leap, my eyes began to roll, and I immediately assumed this piece was another tongue-in-cheek gesture toward the absurd. Hipster culture ironically appropriating icons of African-American pop culture is as played-out as it is problematic. (More Tupac art anyone?) But when I read the curator's statement, I realized this was not just any athlete. It was someone named LeBron James.

As I quickly learned, courtesy of Wikipedia, LeBron James is one of America's most disliked athletes, having left the Cleveland Cavaliers (a sports team) for the Miami Heat (another sports team) after a period of "free agency." In the piece by Benjamin Bellas, his image stands as a diptych monument to reckless freedom, twin towers of individualism. He is the contemporary libertine epitomized-publicly shunning whatever perceived ethical obligation the masses felt he owed to Cleveland and hedonistically declaring, "I'm taking my talents to South Beach."

This seems like an awful lot of backstory for a formally simple piece, but that's the way much of the work in Liberti(n)es functions. The exhibition's curator, New York-based Keith J. Varadi, is a painter and poet, and one can see the iconographic and semiotic concerns of those respective disciplines reflected in the artwork he has selected.

Ross Iannatti's "Hysteresis" series, described as "silicone-coated nylon fabric, sodium azide residue, and wood" are slightly warped, Mondrian-like compositions, sewn from what looks like dirty pastel-hued pieces of sailcloth. At first they are puzzling-clearly the material is found fabric, stained and marked with stitches demarcating unfamiliar pattern pieces. They are stretched like paintings, but the minimalist compositions, infantile color schemes, and feeling that the pieces are somehow even dirtier than they look somehow all negate each other and any painterly quality. From a distance, they read as cute formalist exercises. Up close, they are too repulsive to function decoratively, as suggested by the manner in which they are displayed.

Again, the curator's statement discloses another layer of information that changes the meaning of the piece. What I had imagined were once cotton candy-colored sails are revealed to be airbags that had deployed during car accidents. Now, the smudges and splatters that bothered me are sources of intense speculation. I wonder if one stain is dried blood. Another, I imagine, is the result of fabric colliding with an eyelash full of mascara; an ersatz Veronica's veil, produced in a split-second collision on the freeway to Calvary.

It's unclear whether the automobile and its implications of freedom and destruction or the artist himself represents the libertine spirit here, but Ianetti's use of airbags as decorative objects certainly raises questions about the ethics of found objects and disclosing their origins-and is bound to piss someone off.

After such a loaded revelation, the far more visually appealing fiber-based work in the show is disappointingly, well, soft. Jeffrey Scott Mathews' "DLTA SQNC (RED HEX)" is a roughly 4-foot-by-5-foot quilt, similarly stained and pieced together from uncomfortable-looking fabric. It is a beautiful object. Here, however, there is no discernible dark secret behind the piece. It is a painterly gesture against formalism-against the very qualities from which it draws its aesthetic strength. The paint splatter would seem like a brash afterthought, intended to refute any correlation with minimalism or design objects, were it not evident upon closer inspection that the fabric had been stained prior to being stitched together. The act of quilting a splattered canvas that is evocative of a mid-century action painting is indulgent, perhaps, but not quite decadent or crass enough to be remarkable within the libertine tradition.

Nearby, Peter Sutherland's "Dypset" series takes a unique approach to image montage. "Dypset (Come as You Are and Sit in Bob's Rover)" layers a perforated ink-jet print of a "Welcome to Aberdeen: Come As You Are" sign over a digital C-print of Bob Marley's jeep. The panel-one out of a series of four such layered snapshots-is nicely complemented by "Dypset (Nepal/Nirvana)," which combines an image of homemade Nirvana CDs with what one assumes is a photo of Nepal. They are punctuated with perforated prints of snakeskin boots on top of other photos. The photographs have a casual, point-and-shoot quality, but the care and thoughtfulness of their presentation give them an archival, precious feeling. As a series, they speak to a nostalgia for youth culture and some sort of journey: tracing the Nirvana lyrics humorously found on the Aberdeen sign back to the CD, back to the Himalayas, from which the concept of nirvana originated. They feel celebratory and a little sad at the same time, like an attempt to freeze memories of a quest for happiness that one undertook when young.

One of the best things about Open Space (disclosure: CP designer Jasmine Sarp is a member of the collective) is its unique combination of gallery and library space. Varadi took full advantage of the resource, curating a selection of 'zines and CDs along with recordings of his own poetry disguised in old album covers. Printed-matter highlights include Jamie Felton's "An Archive of Gated Plants"-photos of potted plants in rowhouse balconies, surrounded by the kind of mostly decorative fences I associate with the architectural vernacular of Brooklyn, N.Y. The hundreds of documented plants feel a little lonely, surrounded by cages designed to designate some semblance of private space in the city, but here portrayed as a prison keeping plants in.

Overall, the show is not exactly a slam dunk or a home run or whatever they do in hockey. Some of the artists do, however, remind us of the importance of playing. I also learned who LeBron James is. Next time I'm a spectator at Art Basel Miami (the Super Bowl of the art world), I will keep an eye out for him-and not just Beyonce.

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