Attending an art opening usually means agreeing to a trade-off: in exchange for free booze and the company of other humans, you won’t be seeing much, if any of the art work. But at “Slow, Dimwitted Carnage,” the second exhibition from newcomer gallery Coustof Waxman, guests can have their art and, um, drink it too.
The concept of this “group show of 22 artists and one collector” is immediately obvious from the distinct stank of liquor that permeates the air. The gallery invited 22 artists to make vessels. The only “rule” in this game of Pictionary for sculptors was that “each work must hold and serve liquor.”
For the task, gallery owner Tom Simon recruited artists from all backgrounds including ceramicists and sculptors (duh) as well as those with a taste for functional objects. But he made things a little more interesting by throwing some confetti onto the potter’s wheel with the addition of a photographer, painter, and others. On opening night, each of the 22 works held some kind of libation, everything from nice tequila to purple drank, Franzia and mouthwash, which guests on opening night sampled as part of a special “tasting” event (of which Tom said there will be more).
The containers themselves were as colorful as their contents: Cody Hoyt’s Oblique Variation Vessel is a teetering, diamond-shaped, vase-like, sharp-cornered tube that looks like it was carved from hardened carpet padding; Morgan Pearse’s When A Girl’s Eyes Are Glowing is a Hypnotiq huffing device.
These fine art objects are covered in varying levels of stickiness left over from their debut run. Even stranger are the 22 guitars hanging around the room. All but one of them are promotional objects for various beer and liquor companies, ranging from finely crafted objects to cheap pieces of throwaway schwag with decals slapped on their too-shiny bodies. One Coors Light-themed axe (Tom’s favorite) is beautifully airbrushed, and almost looks like it could have been carved out of a single block of mahogany, then whittled down to the shape of a squat medicine bottle.
There’s a teal and pink axe bearing an outdated Bud Lite logo (the Floridian jet-ski wetsuit of the bunch) and then there’s the virgin varietal that stands out like a sore thumb: a highlighter-bright guitar bearing the likeness and curves of a yellow Slurpee (bubble cap, straw, and all).
The guitar collection was a preexisting piece of living, growing art, which Philippe Labeau has been collecting for the last 25 years or so, give or take.
“I’ve long been fascinated by American collectible culture, and there’s this series of vessels that Jim Beam did over the years, these collectible ceramic decanters that they started doing as a lark, and then it took off and became adult-Beanie Babies for 30 years in Middle America,” Simon laughed. The result was a bunch of people with “huge collections that they’re now trying to dump on eBay”– i.e. garbage crap. But Simon assured us that “it was regarded as an investment at one point, which I always think is fascinating.”
When Simon began thinking about the vessel show, the guitars were a natural pairing that came to mind. “The collector of these guitars, he’s family and he’s like a French-Morrocan immigrant,” Simon explained. “And he really doesn’t believe in less-tangible investments, so he’s got real estate and he loves pawn shops. He’s got hubcaps, hood ornaments, and these.”
Maybe the strangest thing about the “collector impulse,” as Simon called it, is that people like Philippe Labeau get off on purely amassing the fetishized objects, without necessarily even knowing how to use them. “He doesn’t play guitar, and he’s never played,” Simon explained. “I’ve talked to him about this many times and he’s said, in a way, it’s fantasy. He would love to play guitar, but instead he just owns them. He just squirrels them away.”
The show says a lot about the kind of operation Coustof Waxman is running in general. The gallery is much more of a “project space” in that it doesn’t represent any artists, let alone fancy ones, so the emphasis isn’t on sales or art fairs, or any other trappings of the art market. As an artist himself, Simon aims to continue presenting the results of these strange, super fun challenges that push artists beyond what they’re working on at the moment– scenarios that are fewer and farther between after artists get their MFA. “We’re committed to doing things that, more or less, other people are not,” he explained.
Even though Waxman, and especially “Slow, Dimwitted Carnage”, feel like a post-art school dream, there’s esoteric discussions of theory, either. Case in point, Nick Van Woert made a three-part piece, three untitled works, that includes a copy of the hefty book, Art in Theory, the unofficial bible for people whose religion is contemporary art, which he fashioned into an incognito decanter. The only detail that gave the book away was the cork sticking out of the spine.
That’s sort of an inside joke for art farts (“Ce n’est pas un livre,” or something) but visitors don’t have to know squat about Dada to enjoy the bible bottle’s twin brothers: two dusty bottles of neon cleaning solution, hacked in the same way and made into workable, if not somewhat terrifying, flasks.
There’s another theme Simon’s messing with here, too: The fact that design and functional art objects are so deeply connected with commodification, and therefore frowned upon the fine art world. What “Slow, Dimwitted Carnage” is asking these artists, maybe: Do we have to take ourselves so seriously? What would happen if we just had fun with it?
Simon pointed to Richmond-based artist Ryan Crowley’s sculpture, Scorpion Bowl Noodle House, with a sort of glass bendy straw extending upward from a concrete, cast iron heap of wild matter.
“When he was younger, Ryan used to do lampworking, so he used to make pipes, which is its own kind of weird ghetto in the glass world,” Simon said. “Glass is kind of to the side in the art world anyway, so people who are glass artists making functional glass, especially pipes, is sort of a no-no.”
You can see some of that pipe-thinking happening in this piece.
“I feel like all artists have that play between [design and fine art]— one of the reasons for doing this show is that, as a friend of mine said, ‘Design is the dark side,’” Simon explained. “But sometimes it’s good to go to the dark side.”