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Review: Other Voices, Other Rooms

 Jeff Regensburger Review: Other Voices, Other Rooms
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In the interest of full disclosure I’ll start by admitting I’m not the Warhol fan I used to be. If my regard for Andy Warhol were to be drawn as a bell-shaped curve, I’d estimate my current position at about halfway down the far side. I haven’t completely lost interest, but I’m nowhere near the advocate I was before. As to whether my waning appreciation is the result of hating the player (Warhol) or the game (his work), I’m not entirely sure. I expect it’s a bit of both. Given the span of a 40 year career, it’s pretty much inevitable that an artist will make some lousy work and do some lousy things.

And while many would argue that “it doesn’t matter how the artist behaves, we should judge them by their work”, that suggestion falls flat in Warhol’s case. His personality, his quotes, his likes, his dislikes, his wounds, his face, his friends, and his fears are so much a part of his oeuvre that it’s impossible to separate him from his work.

“Other Voices, Other Rooms” presents a similarly problematic dichotomy. Think of it as the age-old question of form versus content. There’s the thing itself, the form, which is comprised of materials; how it’s made, what it looks like, how big or small it is, how you navigate your way through it, etc. And then there’s the content; that is, what it says and what it means.

I point this out because OVOR absolutely slays when judged on form. It’s easily the most inventive and ambitious installation I’ve seen at the Wexner Center. There’s plush carpeting, there’s sound booths, there’s two-sided screens, string curtains, and thirty-foot high wallpapered walls. There are objects, knick-knacks, bright lights, and balloons. The form, that is, the stuff of the exhibition is first rate; well designed and well executed. Kudos are due everyone involved for transforming the Wexner space in a way few could have imagined.

The content though is an altogether different animal. It’s hard to imagine that snippets of conversations, half-realized video projects, and interminable screen tests would mean anything to anyone other than the most fervent of Warhol fans. It’s the kind of treasure trove a biographer might find useful, but I’m not sure it says anything greater than the fact that Warhol had pretty much unlimited access to camera equipment, beautiful people, celebrities, and drugs. Of course all this can be contextualized by insisting that Warhol foresaw a future where we’d all have cameras and 15 minutes to spare. And while that may be true, it’s sad to see how seamlessly the hapless acting, pointless dialog, and inattention to craft from 40 years ago fits into today’s YouTube idiom.

This bumbling lack of effort, this unwillingness to care about the product or say anything meaningful stands in sharp contrast to the early drawings on display. Warhol had a way of laying down lines that I’ve never figured out. They’re simultaneously confident and delicate; exact while also appearing spontaneous. If there are indeed “other voices” in this exhibition it’s the voices of those drawings. They’re saying, “Here’s the hand of the artist not obscured by fame. Here’s some modest works, not bathed in cynicism”.

Jeff Regensburger is a painter, librarian, and drummer in the (currently dormant) rock combo The Patsys. He received a Bachelor’s Degree in Fine Arts (Painting and Drawing) from The Ohio State University in 1990 and an Master’s Degree in Library Science from Kent State University in 1997. Jeff blogs sporadically (OnSummit.blogspot.com), tweets occasionally (@jeffrey_r), and paints as time allows.

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  • I really appreciate your thoughtful review. And my apologies for my very wordy reply, which I hope makes sense.

    I will say, and I’m not sure if I can explain this correctly: I look upon Warhol as some kind of Zen master. I know it sounds ridiculous, but hear me out. I think his early graphic work, as you’ve alluded to, displayed the kind of sure-handed freshness of line that the most accomplished traditional eastern calligraphy strives for. The linework is witty, yet the content is banal– rote. In a lot of ancient eastern art, the content, and even the brushstrokes themselves, were preordained and repetitive. But it was the liveliness and control of the brushworker that made the work sing.

    In film work, I have found that the flatter the style, that is, the more seemingly lifeless, the more transcendental the content may be. This appears to be easy, but in fact requires a great deal of control. It’s like some kind of magic mirror: some media just lend themselves to certain traditions to reach certain means. The “emptiness” of Warhol’s film style is very much in keeping with the “emptiness” of many great, much-lauded film masters. I know I’ve said it before, but I think it bears repeating, that Warhol’s films are strangely similar to the work of Bresson, Dreyer and Ozu. I think of them as the American, consumerist version of the same project these directors were assaying in the language of western classicism or conservative eastern tradition. This is a deeply conservative film tradition. Make no mistake, though his films may be full of a decadent demimonde, the overall message is not one of free love, although there is a certain willful (and intermittently charming) naivete at work. But Warhol’s films, in essence, are deeply conservative, almost funereally so. I always think of the Velvet Underground’s reception on the west coast, during the height of the hippie phenomenon: they were not liked. They are not a beam of sunshine by any means. And strangely, I make the visual connection between the name of Michael Snow (creator of a much-cited example of transcendental cinema from the 70’s), and a pile of blow: coke. Dead. And despite all it’s decadence, deeply conservative. And the thought of snow itself, I connect with Warhol– sterile, open, vast, devoid, sleeping, white, cold and dry, charmingly deadly. But necessary and very instructive.

    I think that while the west has a very rich past in transcendental art (NOT referring to the much different strain of Emerson, etc.), we have mostly lost contact with it and no longer, as a whole, understand how to relate to such art. America has been the most removed from this tradition, with our emphasis on constant growth and stimulation (not knockin’ on it, just saying). Around the turn of the century, and then steadily building in influence, we experienced a introduction of eastern philosophies into our culture, and I believe this has had far-flung and varied results, some very unexpected, such as Warhol’s films. I must confess to using a strangely unsophisticated mental parlor trick to digest this kind of art: turning all of my conceptions inside out, and then just having a little patience to see what comes of it. Literally: as the formula for this method of expression was perfected in the east– on the other side of the planet– so I have to posture myself to receive it. This technique has delivered amazing results in the past. I have a much longer (haha) tutorial I give on this subject, and I’ve had some great experiences with that. I’d love to do this in Columbus sometime, if you’re still awake after reading this, and are at all interested, let me know :)

    Anyway, that was all to say, it seems strange to devote so much patience to something that seems so slapdash and cheap. But it can be very rewarding. The thing I like about Warhol, and about so much of art in general, is the ability to meld seemingly disparate influences into a magically coherent whole that leads us in new directions. If the art left you unsatisfied, well, perhaps that might have been part of the intent.

    Thanks again for the post… I love talkin’ art!

  • jeff_r

    I’m willing to make the distinction between Warhol’s more realized films (like “Empire” and “Sleep”) and the more ad hoc works (“Kitchen” for instance). The difference I see is this: in the former you get the sense that Warhol had a vision and then used the equipment and resources at his disposal to realize that vision. In the latter, he had a vision too, but never realized it. Using “Kitchen” as an example, he wanted “white”. He wanted to make Edie a “superstar”. He got neither. White meant shooting in a kitchen (presumably the whitest room of convenience) and making Edie a superstar meant feeding her lines every time she forgot (which was all the time!). The whole project is so rife with compromises and so far from what Warhol espoused that it’s impossible to take seriously.

    …as a counterweight, I spent more time in front of “Empire” than any other work in the show. I’d never seen the portion of the film where it’s completely dark. The building glows and hovers like ghost. It’s been transformed; and through that transformatoin I have the chance to see this thing I’ve seen a million times before in a whole new way.

  • Jeff- thanks for your well thought out perspective on the exhibit. I have always appreciated the idea of Warhol more than his actual work. In that regard I thought it was interesting to take in bits of his ideas but honestly it was all just too overwhelming for me and I lost interest halfway through. I think it is also tough because, at the time he was pretty revolutionary (or atleast he sold the revolution better than anyone else) but in our current era his work seems really pedestrian unless you keep reminding yourself of how groundbreaking it was at the time.

    I am no expert on the subject so don’t tear me up too much, this is merely my opinion.

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