‘I Am What I’m Doing’ at La Esquina gathers fearless works by 20 artists

08/13/2014 7:00 AM

08/13/2014 12:00 PM

“I Am What I’m Doing” at the Charlotte Street Foundation’s La Esquina gallery features 20 artists working with diverse mediums and themes.

Curated by artists Jonas Sebura and Alex Gartelmann, the exhibition posits that the artists share a sense of “fearlessness” and emphasize “personal accountability” instead of justification through art theory.

With this mandate, the exhibition offers a wide selection but, like most group shows, leaves some artworks unexplained and lacking context.

Twelve large photographs by Patrick Buckley show raw, gritty images of American life.

In one photo, a man in a plastic suit carries a dead pig on his shoulder. In another, male and female African-American youths walk alongside a police barricade as a white policeman leans against a tree and stares at them. Another photo shows a thong-clad dancer in a night club. In a few of the photos, solitary people walk in the rain with umbrellas and plastic rain coats.

The images are not pretty or happy, but they capture very “real,” uncensored moments of everyday life.

One of the most intriguing works in the exhibition is Duke Riley’s “Second Mission: Cohiba Carried by Pierre Lafitte for Duke Riley.” The artwork is in two parts: a Cuban Cohiba cigar encased in a block of resin, and a video, showing footage from a camera mounted on Pierre Lafitte, a carrier pigeon, as he flew from Key West, Fla., to Havana, Cuba, picked up a cigar and flew back to Key West.

The accelerated film is a dizzying journey, one that at first is hard to comprehend. Tiny buildings speed by, grids of different colors and sizes, flashing and changing so quickly that the film has the feel of a psychedelic animation or glitched-out computer graphics.

One questions whether the film is real or a computer graphic. But eventually, Pierre loses speed and lands in his roost alongside other camera-clad pigeons.

More than other work in the exhibition, “Second Mission” embodies fearlessness. Duke Riley is probably breaking laws, chief among them the prohibition against Cuban imports in the Trading With the Enemy Act of 1917, known as “el bloqueo” or the Cuban trade embargo, but doing so with a pigeon has a special metaphorical significance.

In the film, there is no clear America and no clear Cuba; they are indistinguishable from the air. The pigeon is ignorant of the political repercussions of the act, completely naïve as to its “mission,” making it an ideal accomplice.

As an artist and not a bona fide importer, does Duke Riley need to fear prosecution? Unlikely, but nonetheless, “Second Mission” is a true act of civil disobedience. Every time such an act goes unpunished, the embargo seems just a little more outdated, a Cold War relic and just a little more flimsy, like a speed limit no one follows.

A similar work by Amanda Wong took to the skies over Kansas City during the exhibition’s opening. For roughly one hour, a small airplane flew a banner reading “No More Masters.”

While it was part of the exhibition, the message went far beyond the gallery, probably baffling Kansas Citians who happened to look up. The ambiguous message could feel liberating or threatening, depending on how you interpret it.

Other interesting, if obscure, works include Daniel Petraitis’ “Spalding (Howard St.),” a basketball in which half of the sphere has been cut out, leaving only the black lines between the orange sections, and Michael Grothusen’s “Weight of Skin,” a brass cylinder that weighs 9 ounces, supposedly the same weight as the artist’s skin.

Tim Brown’s “If You Get High Enough, You Can Almost Break Anything” is a collage of motocross riders and bikes on a piece of holographic prism paper.

These works are interesting but would probably be more compelling and understandable with more work by each artist.

As a group show, “I Am What I’m Doing” feels a little disjointed — the works don’t always have much to do with one another. Curators Sebura and Gartelmann write that “The participating artists do not rely on art history, irony, pretentious language, or obtuse didactics to legitimize conceptual positions. The works produced question shared knowledge and how we comprehend it, but generate from the makers’ personal experience.”

This is largely true, and nothing in the exhibition comes off as pretentious, but many of the works do use some level of irony or theory. Tim Brown’s collages are either ironic or sincere, but it isn’t easy to tell.

Wong’s “No More Masters” surely implies some level of political theory or cause, perhaps left-wing Marxism or right-wing libertarianism. But the conceptual thesis of the overall exhibition isn’t nearly as important as the individual artists in this exhibition, whose artworks can largely stand alone, fearless, without any need for curatorial packaging.

On exhibit

“I Am What I’m Doing” continues at La Esquina gallery, 1000 W. 25th St., through Sept. 6. Hours are noon-5 p.m. Wednesday, Friday, Saturday and 11 a.m.-6 p.m. Thursday. For more information, 816-721-8752 or charlottestreet.org.

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