Taxonomy is a fundamental human activity … the behavior that enables thinking. It separates humans from the rest of the earth’s animal population. The science of distinguishing and classifying is what enables us not only to identify and react to the myriad things we encounter every day, but empowers us to take more than just basic actions: not just “can I eat this,” or “is that dangerous,” but “would I be better off investing in an apple for lunch, Apple stock, or an apple orchard painted by a Barbizon artist?”
Taxonomy is usually something art critics and art lovers take for granted. A gallery exhibition has traditionally been an assortment of one thing: painting, sculpture, found objects. But recently, more and more multi-media artists are choosing to present the range of their genres, either to demonstrate their versatility, or to foreground the focus of their subject matter over their technique. Two shows at Finch Lane have in common that the artists on display present what amounts to a taxonomic challenge. In both cases some sorting has already been done in hanging the art, but the audience is permitted, even invited, to decide what lines of demarcation to draw, and where.
“SUPREME CLIENTELEMENTAL (aayyzemm-aatt) never ready to wear,” in the front room at Finch Lane, is the work of Haze Mat, the collaborative identity of two artists. For good reason, they tend towards linguistic overabundance, starting with their name. “Haze Mat” invokes one of the characteristic verbal tics of modern life: HazMat, the portmanteau made from “hazardous materials.” But haze further suggests moderate obscuring, whether of the atmosphere or one’s mental state, and the use of force to compel others to perform strenuous, dangerous, or humiliating tasks. As a footnote, that use dates from 19th-century cattle drives, when cowboys were said to “haze” cattle toward their inevitable destination, the abattoir. Meanwhile, the six syllables of Clientelemental are also a portmanteau word, made by crashing together “client” and “elemental.” The result might be defined as the fundamental identity of a consumer, rather than a producer, of goods and services.
Art is classically oriented to the past: to objects, historical scenes and events, and people that pre-existed, and will be memorialized by, the art work. Not so Patrick Winfield Vogel, who describes himself as “a sculptor and performer in the ongoing science fiction story termed North America.” Through his work, he asks what might follow the present, historical age of environmental degradation, racist and sexist politics, cultural fragmentation tending toward civil war, and the capitalist economics that underlies these destructive forces. His orientation towards the future is anchored by the work of Salt Lake City resident Albert [Abdul-Barr] Wang, whose projects plumb historical archives and economic records. Among Wang’s particular interests, he lists “Afro and Asian identities, surveillance, post-language relating to science fiction, capitalist machinery, and the architectonics and commodification of sociopolitical violence via technology and social media.”
Between them, the two variously produce prints, photographs, paintings, textiles, performances and critical theories. Unsurprisingly, they don’t attempt the same levels of technical polish in all these media, nor for that matter within any one medium. Each work is to be judged by how well it satisfies its immediate function. The two tapestries at Finch Lane are extraordinary, as indeed they must be to achieve their desired effect. Seen across the spacious room, they look like antique maps, done in axonometric perspective, which uses no vanishing points and produces a kind of bird’s-eye view . Come a little closer and they begin to resemble aerial photos taken by drones, which have become part of the visual vocabulary of our age. Closer still, and even this appearance breaks down, until up close they can’t be read at all, but resemble the dazzle patterns computers use to conceal details of a screen image. They’re an essential lesson in the presentation and manipulation of data, along with the impact of perspective, distance, and technique on what can be shown (or said), what can be concealed, and what can, or on no account should ever, be trusted.
By comparison, much of what surrounds these high-tech works might best be called documentary photography: the artifacts of other media, like performance, or something Haze Mat stresses almost single-handedly: clothing. The clothing industry has hidden beneath the public’s eye until recently, but is now getting the attention it deserves. By operating on a global principle, the makers of our clothes are able to pay the least amount for materials and labor, while making the most profit. They can keep prices low enough that consumers can buy things they wear only once, or not at all, and which end up in the waste streams and landfills that pollute the environment. Haze Mat’s response to this is to utilize garments as part of their creative process.
The photographic prints that document much of Haze Mat’s outside work are uniformly untitled — which in context feels like a “small-d” democratic gesture — and shown clipped to the wall, without frames or glass. This contemporary presentation is a welcome alternative to the wasteful practice of framing every work of art under glass, as though every digital laser print or cyanotype needs so much metal, wood, or plastic and a sheet of glass to signal its seriousness. This exhibition shows its bona fides by not abusing either the viewer or the planet. Without having catalogued them, it’s nevertheless clear that one of the major purposes is to present the message via a population of like-minded and cheerful persons who agree with the artists’ message. Given the widespread despair over the ongoing environmental crisis, it’s important for those of us who may be losing faith to encounter young activists who clearly think the fight is still worth fighting, and that good humor can not only do more to save the Earth than anger or terrorist threats, but help keep the eco-warriors from burning out.
SUPREME CLIENTELEMENTAL (aayyzemm-aatt) never ready to wear, Finch Lane Gallery, Salt Lake City, through June 9