By Ksenya Gurshtein
Department of Art History, University of Michigan, August 2007
The word “utopia” entered the English language in 1516, but human conceptions and dreams about an ideal communal life had existed much earlier and continued to come about with striking regularity in the ensuing centuries. In the context of that history, the very notion of a “private” utopia strikes me as counter-intuitive; utopias by definition are supposed to embody a collective ideal, a social striving. And yet the diversity and heterogeneity of work in the Gallery Project’s “My Private Utopia” show necessitates the insistence that each piece is a deeply subjective vision of perfection, making one profoundly aware of the fact (among other things) that one (wo)man’s utopia is another (wo)man’s dystopia.
The logic of the show’s lay-out guides one through the possible sites of utopia. As one enters, she encounters depictions of the natural world – some whimsical, like Joe Meiser’s Groundhog with Cheesecake (yes, the title does actually describe the content), some desolately beautiful, like Scott Hocking’s photographic studies in neo-sublimity with snowscapes of white horizons lost again white sky and ground. From there – a logical progression – one goes into the territory of flights of fancy – mindscapes, one should think, of which the most striking in their expanse of imagination relative to diminutive size are Nele Zirnïte’s surrealist etchings. An interesting third segment stalls a logical flow into a vision of ideal future by taking one back – into history – inviting a post-modern self-referential glance at the utopian potential that art itself was (and perhaps still is) thought to embody. Some of it is mocking – take Viktor Witkowski’s comic-like images of tourists beholding canonical 19th century French paintings by Ingres and Gericault, but failing, it seems safe to say, to get much more than a Kodak moment out of them. A contrast to this is the wry comment on the limits and meaning of artistic “realism” in Mel Rosas’ El Poder and its subtle modulation of the surface depth of a painting.
The wall dividing the gallery’s space at this point seems also to make a conceptual break. I may be wrong, but I find it difficult to image that the works shown here are anyone’s idea of heaven on Earth. Instead, one sees narratival naturalism put here in the service of visions of the present or – more disturbingly – phantasmagorias. Of the latter, Matt Gordon’s two pieces should be noted for their ability to create what I would take for a powerful vision of hell through the mainstays of “cutting edge” art – pop culture references and extensive uses of kitsch. I certainly won’t ever look at a Waffle House in the same way...
Finally, In the basement space, one finds the show’s two video works which – as video art is wont to do – do require a fair bit of time to process, though I found Anthony Fontana’s Machinima Paradiso to be a rewarding investment of time.
The works in the show fall all along the spectrum between dead-pan earnestness and tongue-in-cheek commentary and are not always persuasive as even the most private of utopias, but I did find myself immersed and taken by the works of small scale – both literal, but more importantly, metaphorical. The sense of care, attention to detail, investment in physical objects and scrupulous observation do produce a kind of intimacy that makes it a pleasure to wonder about another person’s mind – and sometimes wander through it.
Ultimately, perhaps the most utopian aspect of the show – and the Gallery Project’s existence in general – is the ability to bring such a show together at all, to achieve as much as they do in terms of visual and conceptual richness through willing collaboration and sheer perseverance. Thanks to it, one gets a tantalizing glimpse of artists’ attempts to be distanced from themselves, but aware of themselves as they observe themselves – and inviting the viewer to do the same.