Art is fundamentally errors and corrections. At its most basic, drawing is a series of marks and corrections. Painting is popularly discussed as a process of experimental alchemy. Throughout Art History, the final mark, tweak or adjustment has often been the true badge of authorship for an artist. Contemporary artists often look to errors as raw material for new and personal systems of creative language. Eventually, through, learning how to replicate these errors and repeating them, they become systems themselves. The current Nathaniel Mellors & Jimmy Joe Roche exhibition at the Baltimore Museum of Art layers these artists’ favorite errors—perceived errors of brain function, errors of social interaction, and failures of technology—into intriguing and occasionally off-putting sculpture, video, photography, and painting. Short-circuits of cultural, social and psychological stability are themes that unify their work. Outcasts and demented figures tend to be dominant characters in their photo and video work, in particular.
Jimmy Joe Roche: Cracked Actor
Jimmy Joe Roche moved to Baltimore in 2006 with the Wham City Arts Collective, with whom he had already been making digital short-form videos. Since receiving his MFA from MICA’s Mount Royal School of Art in 2008, he has expanded his practice to include experimental electronic music and wall-based sculptural installations.
Conventional wisdom attributes emotional and psychological disorders to errors of brain chemistry and errors in neural pathways. These errors can be caused by chemical, biological or even social factors. Not surprisingly, psychedelic drugs similarly short-circuit the brain, resulting in a disconnection from reality, a loss of time and intense hallucinations. Drugs cause a sort of deliberate psychotic experience.
Entering the Contemporary Wing Front Room, visitors are greeted by Great Alaskan Meta Dripper, Roche’s oversized wall installation. At approximately 8 x 12 feet, it weaves together hand-cut tendrils of card stock painted with clashing flat neon yellow and orange, white, and metallic gold. The cut paper shapes have an organic quality and symmetrical composition that merges ornate head-trip 1960’s concert poster design with visual elements of an MRI brain scan. Magnetic Resonance Imaging diagrams brain activity with clusters of bright color and photo-imaging of brain tissue. This collage/wall painting installation synthesizes these references into a massive neon-colored magical symbol, or sigil, suggesting an altar of magickal worship.
A wall sculpture in the adjacent gallery, Greater Black Astral Dripper is similar in shape and symmetry, but trades the hand-cut arts-and-crafts look of the collage for digital and mechanical methods of production. Smaller at approximately 6 x 5 feet, the sculpture is assembled from a half dozen large puzzle pieces computer-cut from quarter-inch thick aluminum. Instead of flat paints and paper stock, here the colors are variegated and the shapes are swirling pinstripes—digital print on vinyl computer-cut to ribbons and applied to the matte metal shapes as a giant lace-like sticker. If the paper piece in the previous room evokes a craft-art drug trip, this piece is just as decorative and loopy, but more sci-fi in material and design. If Meta Dripper is “your brain on drugs,” Astral Dripper might show the malfunctioning neurons of a cyborg.
Roche started out as a filmmaker. He began his career showing his eccentric short films at musical happenings, at warehouse parties and via YouTube. Three recent videos are included in the BMA exhibition. In these 2 – 4 minute films, Roche is the only cast member, playing a different character in each. Through a combination of performance and digital effects, he communicates consistently severe and disturbing experiences. Peaceing Out shows the artist dressed as a homeless person. Tipping-over, messed-up, stumbling in slow motion as CGI fireworks stream and explode around him, Roche as homeless person flashes peace signs with his fingers. His surroundings are murky and dark and match his costume, allowing his head and hands to float a bit on the inky backdrop and accentuate the molasses-slow flow of the film.
Beam Splitter, in black-and-white, and Welcome Home, in color, both rapidly distort portraits, occasionally achieving beauty. Each is composed of many snippets of film and still image edited together using morphing transitions. The frames and bits of video don’t cut traditionally, but bleed and streak into each other. In Welcome Home, Roche’s grimacing face blurs across and darts in and out of the darkness of the screen. The effect is transfixing and eerie. In Beam Splitter, the footage is stark and high-contrast, a black metal character thrashing and jerking about with a clubbed weapon… The films’ fuzzed electronic soundtracks are crucial to the experience—they further the films’ fractured dreamy qualities.
In Roche’s wall sculptures, bright colors and ornate designs seem to illustrate something similar to the short-circuiting brain activity of his characters. In all of this work it’s apparent that Roche isn’t interested in telling stories, instead he provides fleeting glimpses of these figures in hallucinogenic mania or reverie. Roche seems interested in illustrating psychological states. Not that art has to be about creating empathy, but without a narrative to relate Roche’s characters to, viewers may have difficulty finding an emotional connection with his photographs and videos. Outside of a story, Roche’s characters remain grotesque, lost in the loop of disassociated snippets of time.
Nathaniel Mellors: Nothing is true, everything is permitted.
For this exhibition, Nathaniel Mellors’ installation includes both short-form and episodic film as well as experimental photographs, sculptures and paintings. The style and polish of his work varies greatly between media and materials, and this could leave visitors grasping for a consistent message or theme. It’s possible this is precisely the sort of grasping search Mellors wishes to elicit from an audience.
When working in film, Mellors is interested in story, if not exactly a clear narrative. As in Roche’s films, Mellors’ films feature characters disconnected from ordinary reality, but Mellors uses conventions of episodic television storytelling to provide structure for his films. Mellors’ characters also behave strangely, their dialogue of improvised-sounding gibberish slowly builds odd moments into satire. Ourhouse: Home, Part 1 is a 34-minute short film shown in the BMA Black Box projection room. The film is surreal, hilarious, and very British. Imagine a mix of the social caricatures of Monty Python and Twin Peaks, David Lynch’s surreal soap opera parody—but with the visual style of a flatly-lit BBC melodrama.
Through the episode, various members of the Maddox-Wilson family interact in vignettes that barely cohere through language or narrative. Ourhouse is fueled by irony and criticism of status, winking specifically at the conventions of Art. In one scene, one of the brothers digs in a field for an “Art, from Germany,” a fertility totem similar to the classic Venus of Willendorf. But the film prop, this German totem, is crudely chiseled from lumberyard timber. The joke in this is that while the form is ancient, the sculpture is clearly new. Simply being from Germany imparts awe in the Maddox-Wilson family group.
In another scene, the father receives a piece of mail from the local government then submerges himself underwater to read it—in the process, turning the paper into soggy clumps. The document seems important, but the father destroys it while attempting to understand it. Despite their absurdities, there is a logic to the scenes and their interdependence. The overall story of the film develops only between scenes, in a co-dependence among them which reflects the co-dependence between characters. If Roche’s films represent hallucinatory moments, Ourhouse suggests that the family unit can be the foundation of self-sustaining delusions that can contribute to a loss of what might seem like normal social reality over time.
Mellors’ other film included at the BMA, The Saprophage, shares some actors with Ourhouse. A saprophage is a creature that feeds and subsists on decaying matter. This film condenses all the weirdness of Ourhouse’s 34 minutes into 4. The visual polish of Ourhouse is replaced here with handheld footage, lower-quality digital recording and self-consciously jittery editing. An aesthetic of errors defines the film. The visual glitches, skips and rewinds feel like deliberate choices by the artist; stylized errors caused, not discovered. Like the longer film, the actors are professionals, Gwendoline Christie from Game of Thrones among them. Footage cuts between a male and a female character speaking to the camera. The man is dressed in a yellow Angry Birds costume ranting about the end of the world. The woman muses poetically about myth. A third character cuts in—from among Mediterranean ruins—to interrupt with a bit about time travel and America. It’s all very pretty and existential, but it doesn’t add up to much.
The BMA exhibit also includes a series of color photograms by Mellors. A photogram is generally created by layering objects, textures and film positives on photo-emulsion paper before exposing and chemically processing the sheet. Each photogram is unique and singular. Perhaps the most interesting qualities of Mellors’ photograms are physical. Before submerging the exposed paper in developing baths, the artist folded and creased the exposed paper; the uneven topography of the paper causes organic irregularities and flaws in the exposures. Mellors’ photograms feature subtly recognizable images in light washes of value and muted color. Here, the Venus form from Ourhouse appears again. In the film, it represents cheaply-made art given dubious value by provenance—it’s from Germany, after all. But, does the venus only have meaning if you’ve seen the film? I’m not sure it has stand-alone value.
As digital imaging continues to render chemical photo-processes inconvenient if not obsolete, these photograms highlight their unique thingness by calling attention to their analog materials and unique quirks of process. Shown behind Plexiglas vitrines hanging on the wall, these idiosyncratic photographs might be Mellors’ best sculptures in the exhibition.
The sculptures installed on the floor of the gallery are less compelling. They are armatures of raw, narrow pine lumber. Each is decorated with a single chicken wire limb-form covered in plaster, the plaster lightly sprayed with paint. To me, the sculptures suggest the crudeness of visionary or amateur art, but without any of the passion or compulsion commonly associated with such work. Mellors’ paintings on plywood panels are thinly layered with visual elements. At the foundation of each is one image—a large digital print of a glitched JPEG. If you’ve ever opened a corrupted image file, you’ll recognize these images—the rendering of the stable image stops and the pixels are replaced with geometric blocks of flat color. A gravelly slurry of plaster is applied to the surface over the glitch-y image creating a gestural shape, and then scraped away to reveal swaths of color from the print beneath. The pebble texture of the plaster is misted with paint to create smooth, rendered transitions of color which give a digital look to the surfaces, as if Photoshop lighting effect filters have been applied to these analog painting-sculpture gestures. The way the colors hit the textures resembles old-fashioned bi-color 3D effects which makes the textures pop from the surface.
Text on the wall of the gallery explains that the paintings and sculptures were created specially for the exhibition on-site in the museum; which could be considered both conceptual and mitigating justification for their thin and fast quality. They are prop-like. It looks like they were fun to make, intended to be used in performances or television plays but perhaps not to be seen out in public on their own. This provisional sense extends to another sculpture (likely not created on-site) where the Venus figure from Ourhouse appears again, cast in clear plastic and installed on a pedestal in the Black Box theatre a few feet from where the film is projected. Lit from below by a lamp filtered through vibrant stage-spotlight gels, the object resembles a B-movie parody of archaeology and art history.
As artworks in a museum, though, most of Mellors’ prop-like objects do not feel special, which is somewhat shocking, because museums tend to function as aura generators; to put objects in such spaces makes them special. Mellors is very clearly intelligent and talented. It’s unfathomable that he isn’t capable of making better art objects. But the paintings and sculptures read as jokes that mock art. Perhaps installing this work in a museum is an attempt to critique the institution or question standards of value and beauty. Even if that is the case, I still wish the objects were slightly more engaging.
Roche and Mellors
The short format and economical effects of Roche’s non-narrative films counter the visual polish and linguistic complexity of Mellors’ films. Roche’s sculptures show much care and consideration, even when considered separately from Mellors’ deliberately shoddy sculpture and painting. Where Roche’s characters are enigmatic because of their nightmarish qualities, Mellors’ are so absurd and complex they remain puzzles. Perhaps most importantly, there’s an analytical or intellectual distance–if not cynicism—that runs through the British artists’ work that counters Roche’s engaging inner weirdness and down-the-rabbit-hole sincerity.
Ian MacLean Davis is a Baltimore-based artist, educator and writer. His work has been exhibited nationally and is collected internationally. He works and teaches in Baltimore and its outlying counties. He also writes for bmore art. Davis took What Weekly readers to Washington, DC, back in May. Art Criticism in What Weekly (whatweekly.com/artcrit) is made possible with the generous support of the William G. Baker, Jr. Memorial Fund, creator of the Baker Artist Awards, www.BakerArtistAwards.org. Marcus Civin edits these art criticism articles for What Weekly. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org.