I went to the last day of Jonah Freeman and Justin Lowe’s Stray Light Grey exhibit at the Marlborough Gallery to see what everybody was instagramming about. Surprisingly, all the hullaballoo was very well deserved. I love art, but I loathe the gallery world. Video art is usually film made by people who don't have the discipline to use a camera. And installation art is made by people who can't create something beautiful, so they make something gigantic and hope that you can't tell the difference. There's some great video and installation art out there, but I feel like those fields are mostly garbage. Stray Light Grey, however, was different—I liked it a lot.
We did an Art Talk episode with artists Jonah and Justin a while ago, which you should watch. It explains their whole deal. They are two friends who create believable interior spaces that appear to be real, lived in spaces—except the occupants are mysteriously absent.
If you missed the show, which closed this past Saturday, it went like this for me: I walked through a small gallery with some paintings that were pretty and reminiscent of some of Angus Maclise's art. Although the paintings were good, it looked like they were intended to be parodies. From there I walked through a small back room with framed posters of the Marlborough Gallery's past shows and a work bench into the gallery's bathroom. There was a hole punched through the gallery's bathroom wall into what looked like a residential bathroom. I walked through the bathroom and came into a dingy hallway you might see in a bad apartment building. From there I continued to what appeared to be a dingy, abandoned bank. There were printed out pieces of paper with phrases on them similar to the names stamped on bags of heroin, like "Pan-Asian Death Trip" and "Frenching Italians."
I continued through to a hallway that had a window into a room with electronics that were caked in a white waxy buildup. It looked like the inside of a computer or the spaceship from Alien. There was a barely noticeable sign that read that the machinery could be turned on at any time remotely and to make sure that it was turned off before entering it. I was free to go inside in what I realized had been a prime location for all those Instagram photos ops I mentioned earlier.
I walked up stairs into what looked like a dingy and abandoned doctor's office. There was a giant scary examination chair, three waste bins with biohazard stickers on them, multiple junk drawers, and pill bottles. I noticed that there was a fire extinguisher hidden under the sink in the doctor's office and I wondered what would happen if the giant installation caught on fire.
I considered pocketing some of the junk but reminded myself how unbelievably shitty that would be of me. There was something about the fake environments that made me think it would be OK to steal stuff from an art show. While I was there I heard a guy mention that he'd been to the show nine times and each time there had been different objects. This made me think of a couple of different possibilities: The first was that people who walked through the exhibit had the same instinct to steal things that I did, but were actually acting on them. The second was that the artists were going in and rearranging things slightly to give the sense that the fictional inhabitants of these spaces were still using these spaces, except for when we were around.
The urge to pocket things quadrupled when I descended a staircase into what appeared to be a filthy and unmanned bodega. Every product was some bizarre art object that had been designed by the artists. The labels all had strange names and bizarre directions. The familiar Street Fighter 2 sex enhancement pill package, which you see in a lot of bodegas, was called something else. There were odd cake displays and pinatas that looked kind of funny. There was a poster and a VHS box for The Star Chamber, right next to VHS copies of T2 and The Wolfman. And there was an exit sign that was at an angle implying that it was for people coming from the opposite direction as you, and one last hole torn through a wall, which lead into the final space.
The last space was a hilarious send up of an upscale bookstore with books that had funny titles like Pre-Teen Huff Job and Honkies on Holiday. Around the corner there were some sculptures made out of coral and crystals and abstract paintings done on mirrors. The entire space had high ceilings and different types of varnished wood. I got the impression it was supposed to be what people who don't like high minded art see when they are presented with those things. There was something kind of aggressive and imposing about the final space, it didn't have the calming effect that a library should. Then I left and was back out in the hallway to the Marlborough Gallery.
Maybe I am just a bad person projecting my equally bad values, but it seemed like the exhibit presented environments where you might want to steal things: a bank, a doctor's office full of pill bottles, a bodega full of weird sex enhancement drugs, and a book dealer's library full of rare and weird books. When I went through the second time I spoke to the gallerists and got the sense that maybe they gave me the go ahead to grab something. But maybe I'm just a totally insane and a shitty and paranoid guy. The show presented situations where I felt like I was alone looking at cool things that I could take of without anyone noticing. My paranoid guess is that these rooms were probably being monitored with hidden cameras. It is very likely that nobody else went through Stray Light Grey and thought about stealing pieces of the displays or wondering if they were being filmed.
The exhibit's appearance was well timed for the months leading up to Halloween, since it felt a lot like wandering through a haunted house. Even though no part of the experience felt nightmarish, every room looked like it could have been a set from a horror movie. I think Disneyland is the greatest and most successful piece of installation art, so it's what I compare all installation pieces to. Like Disneyland, Freeman and Lowe graduated the environments and built up to the really odd stuff. The two artists presented a bunch of peculiar and beautiful spaces that made me turn on and off different parts of my mind. Like Disneyland, going through it felt like walking through a movie. On major difference, however, is that Disneyland has never made me want to steal things—even though a lot of people try and are caught by Mickey’s hidden cameras.
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