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Sunday, September 28, 2008

Watch Your Back

Liz Armstrong sees the signs...

When you're on a road trip deep into this country, you know shit's getting scary when grocery stores disgust you. They offer nothing edible and, as further proof of widespread malnutrition, you see biohazard boxes in public restrooms for syringe disposal after insulin administration. This is when billboards get weirder, advertising a lucrative business owned by the likes of Dick Raper, advocating having your baby and hoarding firearms in the name of Jesus—unironically. Frightening though they may be, these are billboards of isolated, idealistic dreamers, so fascinating that you’ll even crane your neck to see around them on the other side. This is what Totalities, Chris Johanson's current installation at Deitch Projects (Soho outpost), feels like: you can't see the message until you're on the wrong side of it, looking back.

Walking through a painted patchwork wall of flesh tones, you're faced with an angular primer-gray Willy Wonka tunnel. The view at the end of it could be of nothing, or maybe a mirror? Will you get through? Yes, you will—you'll pop out into a labyrinth of billboard-style paintings made on reclaimed wood, all facing the wrong way. Any angle at which you initially approach the installation leaves you feeling like you can't see anything. Only when you get to the middle, where you face a spinning meteorite of more primer-gray ugliness and shards of mirror (death to the disco ball!), can you then turn around and face what's been in front of you the whole time. You've stepped into a metaphor and you can't get out: you have to head to the end before you can start.

On these billboards, beams of color fall off the page, and beams of color pile up like hemorrhoids in the ass of the painting. They tell us to expand and contract, or touch god and go back inside ourselves. Like signs in the heartland, they urge you to hang on to your unpopular values, you wild creature! Your dreams are yours, yours alone—keep them. Only one written missive floats by in Johanson's sea of wordless documents, a black board with gray text scrawled with the kind of shaky finger a bored kid in the back seat of the car uses on a fogged up window: “CAN YOU HEAR ME?” Yeah, I think I can. But more importantly, I think he means: CAN YOU HEAR YOURSELF?


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