Who’s Your Dada?
By Tom Wachunas
Switzerland in 1915 – Zurich, to be exact - was far from detached or neutral when it came to positioning itself for making war on the world. In the wake of the most devastating war Europe – indeed the world – had ever experienced, Zurich had become home to an increasingly vocal enclave of dissident citizens bent on usurping not governments as such, but entire systems of thought. Artists, Communists, poets, and philosophers, among others, locked arms, as it were, to embrace “anti-art,” their perceived vehicle for destroying, once and for all, the societal traditions and ideals that they blamed for World War I. Ironically, in their disdain for intellectualism and conventional social values, they promoted yet another kind of intellectualism and value system - one that formulated elaborate, albeit nonsensical manifestos promulgating cultural anarchy. This, then, was all-out war on art and art-making as it had been formerly known, shown, and practiced.
The movement acquired the name ‘Dada’, a term that artist and movement ‘historian’ Hans Arp once said, “…means nothing, aims to mean nothing, and was adapted precisely because it means nothing.” So there you have it: a movement destined if not designed to collapse under the weight of its own vapidity. Or…?
Before summarily dismissing Dada as an historic fluke, blip, glitch, or an ill-fated, arrogant attempt to destroy conventional art values, consider the art developments of, say, the entire 20th century. More specifically, Modernism and its cantankerous child, Post-Modernism (where we are, arguably, now). So what’s next – Post-Postism? Contemporeactionism? And considering what we now so readily accept as art, who really cares? The point is that Dada and the ‘styles’ it spawned forever changed the face of art. The ‘freedoms’ it unleashed, like it or not, have long since re-drawn how we define, practice, look at, and value art.
So now along comes the unveiling of “The 28 Variations Project” at Anderson Creative in downtown Canton. The statement released by curators Craig Joseph and Kevin Anderson tells us that the show was inspired by Dadaists. Some of those endearing revolutionaries of yore engaged in communal art-making processes that were intentionally random, chaotic, free-for-all soirees to make “non-art’’ works which they claimed to be every bit as legitimate as anything in the Louvre. Art by attitude. Or, depending upon your predisposition to such a “philosophy”, art by mad-itude.
And so it is with some trepidation that I went to the March 5 unveiling. Knowing in advance that each of the 28 masonite panels (each measuring 3’x3’) was an individual work generated by the artist’s reaction to seeing only an exposed six-inch swath of the previous work by another artist in the sequence, I was fully expecting to see an indulgent foray into sheer, ugly nonsense. In fact I was sure that I would be writing a review of so much garbage. I’m elated to report otherwise.
Whether viewed as a single work comprised of 28 related parts, or 28 individual pieces sharing formal and/or thematic content, this is an astonishing, spectacular exhibit. For as much as there is to look at here, this is a show that requires seeing in the sense of “reading” its connective elements. The time spent, I assure you, will yield some delightful surprises.
Start, then, with the first work in the sequence at the far top left – Craig Joseph’s assemblage - a delightful parody of a family keeping up appearances, rendered in a style reminiscent of Monty Python animations. Then “read” to your right, into Kevin Anderson’s hilarious ad for an electric cheese-scent air freshener. Notice how the right edge of the first piece cues into the left edge of the next, and so forth through all 28 panels (reversing the edge-to-edge cueing for the bottom row). Through color, or shape, or texture – or combinations thereof - it’s the peripheral visual elements of each work that give rise to its larger internal content, which in turn inspires the adjacent work. So in a very real way, this show brings a refreshing application of that pesky, overworked term “edgy.” Additionally, the whole process generated some uncanny, unplanned “accidents” of recurring visual elements, as if some of the artists were psychically connected. For example, deep in the picture sequence, the word “façade” is an important element in Vicki Boatright’s explosive and densely textured assemblage, which is the same word we see as intrinsic to Craig Joseph’s work at the very beginning of the sequence.
Also refreshing is the evidence here that each artist clearly took this project to heart and set out to make a “serious” work of art (some, of course, more interesting than others) that can stand on its own, independent of its place in this grouping. In so doing, some participants just as clearly ventured outside their established styles to render works that are nonetheless engaging. It’s exciting to see Erin Mulligan experiment with color and physical texture, or to see Lynn Digby get loose with abstract figuration. And who knew that Brennis Booth (co-owner of Second April Gallerie) was so capable of such remarkable painterly lyricism?
This show convinces me that as a bold, visionary establishment for showcasing truly noteworthy local artists, Anderson Creative has set the bar high, and has arrived. Further, piece-for-piece, and for sheer contemporary brawn and brains, this is by far the most compelling group show of Canton-area artists I’ve seen in all the 18 years I’ve been reviewing them.
Dada is dead. Long live Anderson Creative.
The 28 Variations Project, on view through March 27 at Anderson Creative, 331Cleveland Avenue NW, Canton. Viewing hours: 12 noon to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday. www.andersoncreativestudio.com