Srijon Chowdhury group show reviewed in Art F City 6.21.16

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We Went to Philly Part 1: Vox Populi

by Michael Anthony Farley Whitney Kimball

Five shows through June 19th
Vox Populi
319 North 11th Street, Philadelphia

What’s on view: Three solo shows, and a plant-centric group show curated by Caroline Picard. A giant T-shirt, an old phone connected to a voice message, posters celebrating vaginas, a seed vending machine, and a cat feeder that looks like Donald Trump are among the more fun highlights in the project spaces.

Michael: I like this collection of small shows because it’s like a survey of what’s hot on the NADA circuit without being as polished or obnoxiously-soul-less as an art fair. (How sad is it that art fairs now feel like the default art-viewing point of reference?) Houseplants! Oversized clothes! Cartoonish vaginas! These are all trends we’ve talked about before, and they’re all trends I’m 100% on board with. Sri Chowdhury’s installation is the first thing you see walking into the space, and I can’t think of another piece that’s as easy to fall in love with. It’s really evocative of a stained glass window or sets from the original Star Trek, but you can walk behind the composed screen and see the messy contraption that projects the image. I’d love to see this at night. I for one am glad plants are everywhere these days—they’ve gotta be cleaning out the nasty VOCs left over in galleries’ air from all the oil-and-spray-paint provisional painting that was this ubiquitous a few years ago.

Imperceptibly and Slowly Opening

What’s on view: a plant-centric group show curated by Caroline Picard. With work by Sebastian Alvarez, Srijon Chowdhury, Katy Cowan, Zoe Crosher, Lindsey French, Essi Kausalainen, Steve Ruiz, John Steck Jr., Linda Tegg, & Andrew Yang

Whitney: I think it’s safe to say by now that plants are no longer a trend; they are a medium (except for potted palms). The intimate scale and light touch like a feminine, intellectual antithesis to Earthworks’ macho-ness. The loving scattering of little clumps of dirt and treasured seeds– like Andrew Yang’s Kentucky Coffeetree seeds in a gumball machine– nurtures the landscape rather than the Art impulse to roll out a bulldozer. 

Kind of separate from that is Sebastian Alvarez’s timeline of drugs derived from plants, which is illustrated by a long horizontal branch sprouting various species of flowers and leaves. For example:

  • in 1492, one of Columbus’ crew brings tobacco smoking to Europe for the first time
  • in 1500, China establishes the medicinal use of pure opium
  • in 1995, Bill Clinton legalizes the use of peyote by members of a Native American church
  • etc.

It made me stop to think about how much plants shape international politics. I take plants for granted.

I do wish more of the artists’ backgrounds were visible (though I don’t know how you’d do that without making people read a bunch of wall text or providing work documentation). When I googled their names, I found lots of strong botanical statements, which aren’t clear here: Andrew Yang has made philosophical arguments nature as art, Linda Tegg recreated pre-colonial grasslands at the State Library in Victoria in as a political statement, Zoe Crosher initiated a series of artist-made billboards along I-10 from Florida to California. With such an ambitious group, you’d think more could grow/hang/jump off the walls.

Michael: Yeah, I had some mixed feelings about how this was curated. I really loved Sri Chowdhury’s piece (see at top), but felt that the rest of the show was a little sterile. It took me a minute to realize this was a group show—at first I thought this was another solo project and this room was showing some sort of research-based supplement to the installation. Obviously, that’s not the case because there wasn’t much in the way of the didactic here beyond Alvarez’s timeline. John Steck’s “Disappearing Photographs” were blank by the time we saw them, and Lindsey French’s vial of mystery liquid just didn’t give us enough information. This was one of the few times I thought an exhibition would be nicer as a catalog than in a gallery (indeed, there’s a catalog coming out in the fall), with a few notable exceptions.

I think I liked Linda Tegg and Essi Kausalainen’s respective videos more than you did. In Tegg’s “Human Plant Movement,” we see a bunch of plastic, industrial-looking trays of plants in a pile on the floor of an empty room. They quiver and bounce—presumably there’s a person hiding under them—like they’re dancing in the sunlight coming in from the window. Kausalainen’s videos are also cute and a little absurd—actors cycle through goofy motions interacting with houseplants, because really, what are you supposed to do with these strange living things we collect? They remind me of a piece/anecdote from the photographer Milana Braslavsky, which depicts a figure ominously crouched behind a houseplant in a suburban home. She told me that her family thought houseplants were really weird when they first moved to the U.S. from Azerbaijan, like, “Why would you put a tree inside?” I guess we don’t really know, other than the fact that some varieties can get you high.

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