Phil Bender, Mary Lucier, and the Failure Show

Denverites will remember Eye-Level, the Invisible Museum’s magazine of diverse commentary on the visual arts. Marina Graves is getting it rolling again, starting on the web. She, I, and Randy Brown have each contributed articles on the three shows that ran simultaneously at The Lab. Have a look, at http://invisiblemuseum.org/eyelevel.html

Here’s my contribution:

Phil Bender
Last Place

Old friends fondly poked fun at Phil Bender’s obsessive concern with ordering and sorting during his recent “roast” at The Lab, but ultimately one is struck not so much by his pieces’ broad organization as by their underlying musicality.

In a contemporary art world context that favors obsession over insight and reference over rhythm, one could easily miss Bender’s subtle grace of form. When one really begins to look at these compositions of covered coat hangers, of toolboxes, of potholders, cribbage boards, basting brushes, and so on, one starts to see the layered, contrapuntal aspect of these composite forms, the rhythms of color and variation that are wrapped around and interlaced with the steady pulse of the grid.

Nicks, spots of rust, subtle curves of bent wire, and both deliberate and accidental variations in manufacturing processes are treated as significant and shapely, and Bender’s sensitivity is as apparent on a close-up scale as it is in the witty, stately compositions of color, shape and mass that one sees at first glance.

At that very first glance, one sees repetition, but one gradually becomes aware of more nuanced patterns and ultimately, by extension, of the uniqueness of every object one encounters. By massing together apparent similarities, Bender ends up making each of his pieces’ components absolutely singular. Bender’s casual reticence protects a core of real sincere care and a unique eye. He may try to convince you otherwise but Phil Bender is not a hoax.

Mary Lucier
The Plains of Sweet Regret

Though it may seem counterintuitive, multiple projections of video tend to make a work less demanding. When it is clear that one can’t take it in all at once, distraction is excused. I think it would take a few moments pause to fully appreciate the slow, spare Western imagery that makes up one element of Mary Lucier’s The Plains of Sweet Regret, but the simultaneous moving imagery discourages focused reflection. The quick, arresting, brutal rodeo section of this piece begins with a cowboy’s brief ride, hard fall and subsequent pummeling by the angry bull. After this brief passage, translucent images are flipped on themselves, creating symmetrical, blooming forms in which rider and bull merge into pulsing things with flailing human and animal legs, and these beastly forms spit out objects and whole cowboys. This kind of video symmetry is easy to produce, but is inevitably intense and usually disturbing. It certainly is here, as these digital blossom-things are assembled from images of impact and injury drawn from the American West’s trademark spectacle of human and animal pain. A viewer can’t help but see the contrast between the gorgeous, quiet vastness of Lucier’s images of the plains and the adrenaline rush of violent Wild West fun, especially when rendered in symmetries that make rodeo seem demonic.

Failure: Feel Free to Hate This Exhibition

Failure: Feel Free to Hate This Exhibition includes strong works, more than a little false modesty, some “successful” failures and some real ones. Without elaboration, the word “failure” is perhaps too diffuse to shed clear light and this exhibition reveled in the freedom of its unfocused concept.

Stephen Batura’s Collapse is a strong drawing on a hard panel, with dark reds and browns in paint and chalk highlighted with dim white overlays and an area of gold leaf that seems to portray reflections on water. I take this to be a scene in a Western mining community, which would tie the use of gold in further. In the context of this show: where’s the failure here? This appears to depict the aftermath of a building or mine entrance’s structural failure, but one hopes for more than that to tie the work to the show’s title. It’s possible that this was conceived as an early stage of a painting that will remain unpainted. An artist is often surprised by the moment a piece is suddenly, clearly finished, and if (s)he is brave enough to scrap the original intention and leave a rough, complete work alone, that is hardly a failure. I would call it a success and I’d say the same of Gemma Correll’s modest drawing in which a girl’s (musical) triangle rains when struck. Is this “about” failure? It’s certainly no failure as an image and its straightforward, graceful style enhances its sweet, funny melancholy.

Other artists were bold enough to submit pieces that really did fail, with their potential vision and intelligence showing through the wreckage of abandoned works. These honest, embarrassing, lame works are far more striking than the mannered, faux-na•ve strategic clumsiness that one so often encounters. Other works strike this writer as simply weak and/or puerile. Failure holds no drama or interest if the attempt wasn’t sincere to begin with. In other cases, it seems perhaps disingenuous to present such obviously strong and accomplished works in a context of “failure,” and I could detect no convincing ties of process, content or implication. This is, perhaps, my own failure of vision. There is a lot to individually like and dislike in this exhibition and while the title invites one to actually hate the entire show, this selection of diverse works doesn’t have a clear enough center to generate anything so fierce.

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