By Diane Vivona
Art in General’s group show _Custom Car Commandos,_ which opened January 16th, occurs eerily close to the recent crash of the United State’s auto industry and this, in itself, gives it currency. Guest curator Sandra Skurvida (a lecturer at Parsons, SVA, The New School and FIT) may not have had access to General Motor’s financials when planning her show, but her savvy ability to pull socio-cultural commentary from disparate artists and link them through both their common product (video) and a common subject (cars) is worth deeper examination. The exhibition brings together video works by the artists Nancy Davenport, Lars Mathisen, Alex Villar, and Angie Waller as well as an assembly-line-driven publication by Dexter Sinister that will be released at the close of the exhibition. Liam Gillick is also slated to participate via a talk on March 7th.
Villar’s _Crash Course_ (2008) is the most accessible of the video works. A man interacts in Chaplin-esque style with a Hummer – rolling off its roof, sticking his head into the bumper, kicking its doors and sides, and climbing underneath it in a military crawl. His movement is choppy and jumps in minute ways, mimicking the action of early hand-edited films. Villar’s cinematic nostalgia is enhanced by his choice to show these images in black and white as well as through his decision to set the actions in a non-specific cityscape that alternately appears to be specific locations in New York, Paris or Beijing, but then collapses into a kind of modernist, stylized nowhere. It is an every-city for the everyman facing the product of his own industry. Throughout the film, the Hummer is unaffected by the man’s attacks, reappearing in each new sequence as formidable as ever. In Villar’s world, David does not triumph over Goliath.
Two works by Nancy Davenport, _Final Inspection_ (2008) and _Conversation_ (2008) are sobering documentaries that together parse the social consequences of industrial and technical innovation. In _Final Inspection_, Davenport places her camera inside a Jaguar factory and captures a seemingly endless parade of shiny new cars and autoworkers in their final tasks before the cars are released to the market. The footage is shot in tight close-up, confining the men, fragmenting the cars and showing only partial views of the worker’s duties. The second work, _Conversation_, records an exit interview by a press agent of a small group of Norwegian workers who are losing their jobs due to the closure of the local auto manufacturing business. Davenport focuses on one man who is silent much of the time. Occasionally he smirks and once he nods in affirmation of his colleague’s remark, “We do talk about it, but we try not to talk about it too often.” By ignoring the customary news-style of picturing the person who is speaking, Davenport reveals the men’s fundamental response to the factory’s closure: to preserve their dignity in the face of despair. The curatorial placement of the works allows them to be viewed in tandem and the effect is disturbing – as though man were unable to stop the machine he has put in place from destroying him.
Waller’s documentary project _Armored Cars: Protect Yourself from Ballistic Attacks_ (2007) appears as a spoof on the public marketing of armored cars but is more complex than a mere lampoon as it consists of fact that, in this context, becomes stranger than fiction. The two-part work includes a video and photo collage made up of actual marketing materials with slogans such as ‘What would Jesus drive?’ and ‘Don’t become a statistic.’ Waller skillfully interjects benign drive-by images of Los Angeles neighborhoods with the promotional materials. In one sales pitch, a spokesperson states that “…because of the new democracies, there are more and more dangerous places in the world.” Um….Beverly Hills? Docu-drama style renditions of attacks on cars are inter-spliced with tacky versions of American iconography — a cartoon of the raising of the flag at Iwo Jima, a building-sized inflatable American eagle. The absurd combination results in a dramatic farce, where fear is the main foil and freedom has become its ready platform.
In the backroom, Mathisen’s _Park Here_ (2008) explores the landscape of New York City through traffic patterns and, potentially, the idea that there is nowhere to park in Manhattan. The video is projected onto a model of a 3-tiered building with railroad tracks, ladders and telephone poles, and there is a sense that, like Dorothy, Mathisen wants to go home. Through high-speed travels along highways and avenues as well as still shots recording a traffic cone spinning or the inside of a parking garage, Mathisen reflects the loneliness of a city where 1.6 million residents drive, ride, and walk the same 12 miles in anonymous synchrony.
Book-ending the show is Martin Murphy’s work _Today’s Face_ (2008), installed separately in the Art in General Elevator. In this short video, a man’s face is slowly engulfed by a digitized liquid made up of news footage. The dross of contemporary disasters and diversions spills over the man’s features, drowning his individuality in a swill of concerns and clichés and he, fully covered, looks up with his mouth open in ecstasy. The work is a fitting frame for Skurvida’s show, bearing the same mix of horror, humor, and pathos. To prepare for the flood, look first at the news that trickles.
Vivona, Diane. "_Custom Car Commandos_ and Martin Murphy at Art in General," _Gallery Crawl_, January 26, 2009.