Review: Oh So Fail

This weekend is your last chance to catch Alex Kvares' "Oh So Fail" at Beep Beep Gallery. One review of this show has already surfaced over at BurnAway, but here is another perspective from a guest writer, Becky Bivens, who will hopefully be contributing more reviews in the future.

The first few days of December have been strange. For the first time in years, I’m not in school and not stressed out about finals. Because I have no clue how to function outside a cycle of anticipation, procrastination, guilt and relief (and because I take pleasure in perversity), I gave myself a last-minute homework assignment. Alex Kvares’s solo show, Oh So Fail, is up through December 6th at Beep Beep Gallery. What follows is a fake short essay on Kvares’s work.

Prompt 1: Image Comparison
“Please compare the following two images: Alex Kvares’s I doubt we can do it again (Gagarin I) and Shepherd Fairey’s poster of Obama. Please describe the similarities and differences between the works, then draw some conclusions.”

I doubt we can do it again (Gagarin I)

I doubt we can do it again depicts the Soviet cosmonaut Yuri Gagarin, the first man in space. Gagarin, an official Hero of the Soviet Union, is a reminder of the USSR's failure to win the space race. But both Kvares and Fairey's images take up the question of what Fairey calls HOPE. Obama and Gagarin are figures onto which people project imagined possibilities. They are the objects of our political desires. Sometimes they fail us, as in last Tuesday, when Obummer committed another 30,000 troops to Afghanistan.

But the two works are quite different--Kvares's drawing deals with political desire in a more compelling way than Fairey’s. In a conversation about the exhibition, Kvares suggests that the two Gagarin drawings in Oh So Fail depict “hopeful, messianical figures that can’t...pay off.” His comment underscores the anxiety and embarrassment that often accompanies political optimism. After all, everybody knows that smart people aren't stupid enough to have hopes. In Gagarin I, Kvares manifests this embarrassment by feminizing the traditional décor of the Hero of the Soviet Union. What looks like a medallion on Gagarin’s right shoulder dissolves into a doily. Whereas Fairey has polarized Obama’s face with the high contrast colors of the American flag, Kvares’s Gagarin sports tiny flag-like clusters of pastel lines that are smattered throughout his hair. They look like barrettes. All the while, muted and dinky fireworks explode behind his head. In Gagarin II, the cosmonaut carries the tool of a mythical hero—Poseidon’s trident—but also wears of pair of booty shorts.

I doubt we can do it again (Gagarin II)

Oh so fail. No longer, it seems, can we express our political hopes with bold blocks of brave colors, a la Shepherd Fairey. Fairey himself loves to quote Marshall McLuhan’s oft-cited statement that “the medium is the message.” In Kvares’s case, it certainly is. The drawing takes cues from pointillism, and I imagine that the piece was slow to make. It is calculated and not spontaneous. The work is slow not just for the artist, but for viewers too. I looked at the drawing from up close and I looked at it from a distance. Forms and contours gained definition and disappeared along the way. It is crucial, I think, that Kvares’s drawing encourages thoughtful and meticulous engagement, that he asks viewers to piece together images in their own minds. He models a new, more engaged attitude for a world whose problems are far from obvious or stark, as in the sharp contours of Fairey’s image. Kvares’s process—slow making and slow looking—models a new way of dealing with our hopes. Our hopes can’t “pay off,” Kvares explains. But we can bargain with them. Lauren Berlant argues that productive political optimism is not about attaching to naïve desires, but rather engaging with and managing what we imagine to be possible. Political optimism is a commitment to the process of dealing with our desires. There may be no “pay off,” but the shifting forms on Gagarin’s face offer viewers a site from which to shift their visions.

-Becky Bivens is a native Atlantan. She has degrees in art from Agnes Scott College and the University of Chicago.-

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