Chain Letter is an ambitious maelstrom of eclectic works, but a caution to visitors: Go with an insider, a participating artist, or someone who’s close to the show.
By Youme Araki
Nestled amongst South Boston’s artist row along Thayer Street, Chain Letter opened its Boston manifestation on July 16th at Sams∅n Projects, a gallery where film, performance, music, and visual arts converge to create a cozy, experimental exhibition space.
A simultaneous, worldwide exhibition showing across 11 different cities, Chain Letter is an intriguing viral project where 10 exhibiting artists call upon 10 artists they admire to show their work. Those 10 artists then recruit 10 artists of their choice, continuing this sequence for 30 days. The result is an exponentially dynamic, artist-curated, group show, tightly filling every crevice of wall space of the Sams∅n Projects gallery.
When I stepped into the gallery, my initial reaction was a mild fit of epilepsy. Bright colors, flashing video montages, and jutting shapes from some of the sculptural installations jumped at me with chaotic vibrancy. The experience was reminiscent of a dramatic, slow-mo scene in a film where the character is at the center while his or her surroundings spins violently, signaling a moment of profound confusion or sheer panic. Once the spinning subsided, I scanned the thickly covered walls to try to pick out individual works amid the jumble.
I turned my gaze towards the corner closest to the entrance, where common objects found in a typical daily workday were grouped together. Two pieces caught my eye as whimsical, hyper-realistic renderings of menial office paraphernalia: a drawing of an Excel spreadsheet blown up on to a canvas and a business card enlarged into an acrylic painting. It struck me that, contrary to my first impression of the exhibition as a disparate cluster, there might be a method to the madness.
These particular pieces shared the same quality of “un-peaching the peach,” the enigma Annie Dillard describes in her famous essay “Seeing”—the notion that the image of something can change via time, experience, or through the alteration of context. Regrettably, the spreadsheet and business card were too unassuming to make their point amid the swarm of pieces that competed for your attention. This is not an exhibition that encourages reflection.
As I glanced towards the adjoining room, a bold painting of a deflated Sarah Palin blow-up doll and a pastel painting of a cake that faintly resembles Barack Obama stood out. Another pattern in the exhibition emerged: political satire. Each wrinkle and fold on the deflated Palin blow-up doll radiates the artist’s despair regarding Palin’s politics. On the opposite wall hung a comic drawing of Obama’s face as a cake; an eighth slice had already been eaten. I couldn’t help but chuckle, as I squinted in search of the titles of these pieces and the artists’ names.
To my disappointment, there was no caption detailing the artwork’s name, or the name of the creator. All the works are anonymous, which is frustrating for those with no connection to or prior knowledge of the artists. An attentive gallery worker, however, informed me that the artist behind the eye-catching glass installation near the entrance was extreme performer and shock artist Todd Pavlisko, whose exhibit All of Nothing had ended at Sams∅n just before the opening of Chain Letter. Pavlisko is noted for his experimentalism as well as his use of eclectic sculptural materials. In his heart-stopping video piece Centerpiece (2009, not shown at Sams∅n), three different camera angles document the artist as he nails his foot to the floor.
To the relief of the squeamish, Pavlisko’s pieces at Sams∅n concentrated on his pop art works and sculptural collections. His installation by the entrance—an untitled piece of boldly colored, glazed, ceramic stalks adorned with foam, champion hands of sports fans—was the inspiration for similar offshoot constructs scattered throughout the exhibition.
More impressive, however, was a large portrait of a robust, afro’d Richard Pryor that paid tribute to Warholian pop art. From afar, the canvas depicts Pryor’s face. But a look up close reveals Pavlisko’s genius: the portrait is made of individual strands of retail price tag fasteners.
For me, Pavlisko’s Pryor portrait rules the roost, though, I did encounter several anonymous gems. In the gallery basement space, I discovered a scrubbing brush on a wall, its bristles nails hammered into a wooden board. Stuck atop the bristles is a clear, red disk, which was connected to some kind of motor that spun the disk around on the brush. Despite the piece’s threatening aesthetics, when the bristles brushed against the red disk an intriguing underwater-like look was generated — the red disk was a window on the undulations of a clump of seaweed or a sea anemone. With every slow revolution, the shape of the bristles changed, creating a surprisingly entrancing illusion.
A handwritten poem on a tile-sized piece of paper caught my eye as I left the exhibition. The poem read like an associative word game: “chain” was the connecting term. The riffing resembled the frenzied accumulation of the participating artists in Chain Letter—each line of the poem paid homage to the previous, creating different spins on the meanings of the word. It was a simple and compelling piece, but, emblematic of this overcrowded exhibition, it was far too easy to miss it amid the jammed gallery walls.