(Originally published in the San Francisco Bay Area Reporter, 1992)
Please step away from this dreary projection of the future … the viscous microcosm … (where) dynamics of the monsoon waves of memory lap the shore … (at the) residue along the waterline … a wheel within a wheel … I want to tell you everything about myself. – Margaret Crane, “Real Tears,” The Audio Tour
What our culture threw out, the seven artists in Real Tears have dragged back in. One of the show’s many subtexts is the life span of trends. Reference to early 1970s disposable pop, and some of the ‘80s minimalist strategies that followed, makes this ‘90s show, curated by local art maverick Glen Helfand, seem retro-futuristic and luridly humorous.
Dusty Springfield is your ghost host, breathy as a fallen soufflé. She is the audience’s first contact with the show, provided via an audio tour by artist Margaret Crane’s. With headphones clamped on, the audience glides like zombies past each other in a privately fevered whirlwind of guided affect.
Although shiny surfaced art practices of the past few decades are banished in Real Tears, we’re still talking conceptual art here. It’s just that dishy forms of delivery are replaced here with sincere irony. Humility and an obvious, often neurotic authorship is at work within each piece’s keen social commentary. Earthly delight, albeit at the edge of chaos, bubbles up in this show with enchantingly cheap flamboyance.
Scatter and tatter art, ranging stylistically from an updated arte povera to an anti-aesthetic are on view. Melissa Pokorny’s stale, crudely over-upholstered bolsters seem to let the show rip while cushioning the fall. Her incisive balancing act deflated some of the puns and one-liners in the rest of the show, while grounding many of the tactics used by the rest of the artists. For example, John-Eric Otter’s pop oceanic oil slick felt directly related, with an edgier weight through the juxtaposition. Hewn from a similar social under-pinning, his piece revealed our maintenance habits, whether it’s an oil change, keeping a pacifying surrogate, or passing a brewski. The piece was a tailgate beer tub, with a plush stuffed seal soaked in motor oil.
The other artists that fill out the context of this show are Clfford Hengst, Leslie Singer and Kevin Sullivan. Cary Leibowitz is the brashest self-effacing and economical persona in the lot, however. His Rolodex cards strewn on the floor, were offered as freebies and used like a doormat for his cheap knickknacks presented in vitrines at the back of the room. The theme of sincere irony made me think, it’s time to get “real.”
Glen Helfand provided his thoughts about performing a camp turnaround.
Elliott Linwood: What prompted you to curate Real Tears? How is this different than other shows?
Glen Helfand: I feel in a certain way it’s a reaction show. About a year ago I suddenly realized I’d seen so many shows that I felt were so cold they made me ready for something else. Things that I once thought were really wonderful became pat, easy, uninteresting and sort of repellent. For instance, it often became difficult to figure out what an artist was dealing with in their work, and that was irritating.
Are you referring to art that became too obscure or art produced as a smug end game with no conceptual next move imbedded in it?
Definitely. Art with no entry point made me want to start getting into it again. I became interested in what was going to happen next too.
Do you see camp as a viable entrance or alternate voice in current art production?
Well, a lot of that chilly ‘80s work was campy, but there were complex layers of it. Camp became just another thing that was incredibly mainstreamed, so it lost its function in certain ways. Around that time, camp got equated with snideness.
In the curatorial notes to the exhibition, you talk about the “tears” being real and ironic. It seems this show isn’t as campy as it is sincere – and that irony might be sincere again.
I was interested in the real possibility that you could turn the idea of camp around and reclaim it in some way. The artists in the show exhibit a fresh sincerity in lots of ways. So it was easy to use the appropriation tactic to frame the whole project. On the other hand, I also felt I had to go outside the Bay Area, which has often been a little bit too sincere – that the more conceptual work isn’t done here that much.
San Francisco has a reputation of being humanist to a fault. Is this an unusual show for the San Francisco Arts Commission Gallery?
It’s unusual in the fact that we haven’t had one person curate a focus show for quite a while.
Real Tears reminds me of two other recent shows – SFMOMA’s Facing the Finish and New Langton Arts’ Situation.
The Situation show much more than Finish was inspiring to me in that the work of several artists was funky. The idea of low-tech art within our particular time frame – to me seemed pretty important. This kind of work seemed especially effective.
Right. Finish had work that was generally harder to penetrate and also required more money to produce. In planning the show, people kept asking, what’s the theme. It’s more about a post ‘80s feeling than anything else – the return of a personalized relationship to art. All the work within Real Tears re-attaches the voice of authorship that has been lacking in art for a while. Artists that use low-tech means to make art, show a very different kind of commitment that becomes obvious in their work. Among other things, this kind of approach comments on throw-away culture. In certain ways, preserving the cheap has something really endearing about it for me.