The first chain convenience store in the United States opened in Dallas, Texas in 1927 by the Southland Ice Company, which later became 7-Eleven. 1 I’ve always been fascinated by gas stations and convenience stores; when I was a kid I would beg my parents to let my sister and I ride our razor scooters to the Kum & Go two blocks up from our house to get a koolie-slushie and Funyuns. Since the 1960s many convenience stores have chosen to stay open 24 hours a day and are stocked like a first aid kit packed by MacGyver. Every single convenience store is a microcosm supporting the surrounding neighborhood: a cool rest-stop in the heat; a bathroom when you can’t hold it in on the way home; a comforting indifference of the counter person listening to you cry about your car not starting, or something sweet to satisfy the end or fuel the beginning of a brutal day. This infrastructure exists on a transient spectrum of encouragement and excess and merges functionality with desperate necessity alongside strange but wonderful trinkets.
These spaces and experiences come to mind while walking through Basic Essentials, a two-part traveling exchange exhibition produced in partnership by Charlotte Street Foundation and Royal Nonesuch Gallery in Oakland, California curated by Zoë Taleporos, a former Co-director at Royal Nonesuch Gallery. This exhibition is an introspection of the way we attach our public and private selves to everyday objects, and moreover how these objects provide us with a sense of belonging or isolation. I had the opportunity to work on and visit each installment of the show. This review will be speaking specifically to the show’s current location in Oakland where it will be up through August 26th at Royal Nonesuch Gallery. In regards to Basic Essentials traveling cross-country, this show is also about the merging of artist communities between the Bay area and Kansas City.
Mending the Chip in the BIGCup
Rather than justifying our needs and actions to care for ourselves, I feel that in this regard Brandon Forrest Frederick’s work is both an affirmation and a tender kind of fanaticism. Where Frederick is elevating scraps of trash to be held in a parade of double rainbows lined with streamers and graced with a halo of lightning bolts, he is dissecting the white noise of everyday life to further draw attention to the way that we aestheticize objects beyond their use value.
Maybe, no, this is not my beautiful vase, but why not? Where is my beautiful vase? What have I done? I can’t look for it, I give up. Why am I giving up? I do have a vase.
Leaning up against a wall of mostly its own is Frederick’s Still Life. Here, we see a milk jug painted blue carefully holding a dwindling branch of leaves, set in a back-lit and gilded frame perched on top of a pedestal. In most of Frederick’s work is a gentle gesture to reconsider the sunsets at the end of the driveway—Still Life acts as a point of departure in Frederick’s journey to care-fully uplift bits of waste from its futile end to call awareness to how we identify and measure ourselves in our consumerist society. It’s the first time where we as viewers are separated from the anonymous hands we use to see or infer in his work. The hands that stack and rearrange wrappers and snake skins, the hands that reach for the sky exist, but still feel omnipresent.
Across the gallery is a similar image, Still Life (purple) by Will Toney. Having both a sprinkle of ritual-like reverence and a bit of organized chaos to the placement of props, this photograph is swarming with plants, swisher wrappers, styrofoam cups, the heels of three Air Jordans, and is lit with electric-3D-inspiring reds and blues. Toney is quoting the traditional still lives we have all seen on the walls of encyclopedic museums. The difference, however, between Toney’s work and a painting of a European fruit bowl is the way that he is presenting the viewer with the traces and icons of African American culture and is making them hypervisible.2 Some items could be artifacts, some could have been picked up from the sidewalk or pulled out of the back of a car, some plants could be plastic and some could have just been cut from a garden plot. The scene Toney offers us is like a time-warp of the past, present, and future. He has rejected what can and cannot be seen as beautiful or worthy of being preserved. What Frederick and Toney share is this: when we are all tired, they ask us to look behind the shells of what we find important and share in a moment of grace and goof.
Honey, I think I’ve been hypnotized.
To the left and above Frederick’s Still Life in a high corner of the room are two white shelves with two pairs of yellow and red Gerber daisies. The amount of distance between each shelf and the ceiling is shorter so that the flowers are just barely smushed up against the shelves—this is Mark Benson’s Open Fields. Due to the ceiling, the flowers are just out of reach of the sky, these flowers are also out of reach of their caretakers. As I stood under the flowers I could hear in my head Bing Crosby singing “Oh give me land lots of land under starry skies above, dooooooooooooon’t fence me in…” and I chuckled imagining the routine of trying to give light and water these flowers in someone’s home, or eventually trashing them if they die. We need plants, in general, to provide us with cleaner air and aesthetically we crave green space in places that don’t always allow for them to flourish; we pine for more time to take care of ourselves and our home than we are actually in them. As much as we’re advertised products that we may fit into our homes, the truth is that we may never be able to actualize or internalize their supposed potential. What is possible of the objects that Benson re-presents to us, whether they may be as simple as a plant or as complex as a Roomba, is the creation of lines of confinement.
Leaning in the opposite corner of the room is a looping video on a white monitor by Mik Gaspay. Roses, Botellón_(Orbit) displays two roses stretching up and slightly curving out from a white vase. The two roses orbit hypnotically in a smooth swivel spiral to reach for light. The source of light and location these suspended pots exist in is unknown, separating us from the windowsill or table they could be living on. Tell me little blossom, what do you wish for? Projected on the wall behind this monitor is another continual video Football, Football Player (Timekeeper), in which a statuette of a QB has no number or team on his jersey, whose hero is he? The white chubby-cheeked football player teeters back and forth, running in place forever on top of a white painted football. There is a circular dream logic to the way that these otherwise inanimates move. Flowers, vases, figurines—they are often in the periphery of our attention where here they are independent and want to be understood. Gaspay’s and Benson’s work reminds me of an episode of The Twilight Zone called “The After Hours.” The closing narration questions our autonomy as humans.
Marsha White, in her normal and natural state, a wooden lady with a painted face who, one month out of the year, takes on the characteristics of someone as normal and as flesh and blood as you and I. But it makes you wonder, doesn’t it, just how normal are we? Just who are the people we nod our hellos to as we pass on the street?
In the episode Marsha White gets seemingly trapped in a mysterious unmarked level of a department store, as she attempts to break free, the mannequins begin to speak to her and remind her of her place among them.
Where’s the hole? Did you plug the gap?
To the left of the gallery entrance is Magic Crystal 8 Ball by Laura Rokas. Two long-fingered severed hands decorated with rings and red stiletto nails are planted around a magic 8 ball that has advised to “ask again l8er.” This ceramic work tricks your eye at first because it was molded out of cardboard, a video mounted on the wall directly across from piece are the same hands in their original cardboard state. As femme pop songs play in the background the hands perform tasks like painting or cutting fruit. What really drew me into Rokas’ work is the feedback loop being questioned, that being the generalization of what it means to be feminine. At the Kansas City installment of Basic Essentials, a quilt called R.O.K.A.S. (Rage Out, Kut and Scratch) was shown. Brightly colored iron-on patches were sprawled all over it. When I saw these patches I thought about this piece as a wide-reaching self-portrait for modern adolescence. All my high school heroines from Rookie Mag or individual artists like Peggy Noland and Tuesday Bassin. Capitalism chewed on their content and over the last couple of years spat it back up onto the shelves of Zara and Urban Outfitters.3 I and people like me appreciated them for fiercely doing and sharing what they loved. Each patch on R.O.K.A.S. (Rage Out, Kut and Scratch), just like a girl scout’s, is representational of an ache to share the stripes of working through something. Like breaking up with a shit-head who gaslit you or made you feel inferior, the first time that you smoked a cigarette and flipped over two luckies in the back of a pack, or the time you realized your sun sign is the same as your best friend’s moon sign. We adhered these patches onto our jean jackets and our hearts because we felt that we were identified with for the first time in however long and that we would be seen and heard. Now, they are, can be, and will continue to be easily mass reproduced and co-opted, so while we feel special we know that it’s not destiny making it for us, rather it’s for our demographic. Cultural relevance isn’t all bad, but where is the line between that and kitsch exhaustion?
Bisecting the gallery in half is a set of VHS tapes and two small tube T.V.s. resting on a bench with chairs and headphones for visitors to watch.4 On the screens are two looping videos connected by their subject, a young individual named Melissa. On the right screen, you see her being interviewed by the maker Kendell Harbin as a part of her nomadic ad hoc VHS library, media, and research center the Roaming Center for Magnetic Alternatives (also the RCMA). On the left screen, a viewer sees the home movies they are talking about in tandem. Interviewing queer folks, like Melissa, as they roll through childhood home movies recorded onto tape and discuss growing up as a queer individual in the Midwest has been one aspect of this project. Through other activities like hosting readings, offering workshops, converting tapes to digital files, The RCMA seeks to explore the correlation between queer history and a medium on the edge of obsolescence. The tapes stacked between the T.V.s and the videos playing on the screen are a nod to the brief 30-year timeline in which people around Kendell’s and my own age were growing up. VHS is a distinct timepiece, the first VHS tape was released in 1976 and production halted in 2006 with A History Of Violence. This technology has since been scrapped by mainstream manufacturers and the film industry, because of this a major portion of a living generation’s physical relation to their own lineage has been discarded. As the home movies fold into one another I think of all of the audio physically recorded and lost—think of someone literally throwing away your voice. I think of hearing a lagging breath stretched out by the pulling of tape or the melting and warping of it in an incinerator or trash compressor.5 I think of the earnestness of memory, by developing this rolling archive Harbin is saving this information for future generations and is too providing historical relevance to the stories shared. As a result, she is making space for this information to further impact and ease someone else’s mind, and know that they are not alone.
Diving Makes the Water Deeper
Lately, I’ve been really interested in how we internalize “less is more” simultaneously with our need to compensate for a lack of something. Is it really down to our individual will(s) to decide whether or not we really need or desire something? For some yes, for others, I wonder how much our society has conditioned us to believe that yes, less is more, but to really get it you need to buy the bulk pack of Charmin ultra strong.
There is and will continue to be in the art world a draw to supersize your practice, from citywide biennials, retrospectives, billboards, Meow Wolf sized installations and monuments. Working bigger allows individuals an opportunity to witness and be a part of a greater dialogue, and to potentially become fully immersed in an artwork or exhibition. Over time I have become more suspicious of how we easily confuse scale and movement with progress—still, greater space does allow for an individual artist to play in a discerning way by holding a magnifying glass to questions they have for their work. In the second installment at Royal Nonesuch Gallery, Taleporos sifted down the 26 works shown in KC to 8; the result of this exchange process was like a harmonica breath. Being able to see the evolution in Basic Essentials allowed me to gain a new appreciation for smaller gallery spaces in general by joining a Powers of Ten like caravan.6 The show at La Esquina was like seeing the earth from space, you can see how the oceans fold over and into each other and how countries reach out. The exhibition at Royal Nonesuch gallery is more like a picnic, distilling the conversations down to a close distance for coexistence.
On my way home from Oakland wandering through the airport kiosks looking for my terminal I thought about all of the road stops I have made just to wander up and down the aisles of a convenience store and thinking of collecting all of the souvenirs I could see—from an “I Miss Obama” bumper sticker, to a clip-on dashboard incense holder, or the ten-year-old alligator paw keychain I liberated somewhere in Iowa. Looking back, what captures my attention is the duality of the extreme compression of utility and eccentricity. In between these two things is a catalyst for mundane and passing miracles between people and things.
In the wake of the recent article published on Hyperallergic “Acknowledging the Intellectual Labor of Curators in a Museum” I would also like to recognize and emphasize the intellectual, emotional, and physical labor that went into executing Basic Essentials. By the staff at Charlotte Street Foundation, the Royal Nonesuch Gallery team, and by the curator Zoë Taleporos.
- “You Auto Know” 7-Eleven’s First Television Commercial. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1LZ3xW_Ja2Y.
- Thompson, Krista. “The Sound of Light: Reflections on Art History in the Visual Culture of Hip-Hop.” The Art Bulletin 91, no. 4 (2009): 499. “Bling calls attention to the moment when the commodity displays its opulence in the visual field. when it reflects a shimmering light from its luminous surface… then, comes a state between hypervisibility and blinding invisibility between visual surplus and disappearance. It signals a state of the sublime. the physiological-even painful-limits of vision.”
- Ana Colon, “Two Artists Opened A Pop-Up Shop Filled With Fast-Fashion Rip-Offs” https://www.refinery29.com/2016/10/128088/wacky-wacko-pop-up-shop-zara-fast-fashion-knockoffs — See also: https://www.instagram.com/p/BLtffaegg8E/
- VHS tapes provided for this installation courtesy of The Basement in San Francisco.
- Once during conversation, Kendell Harbin shared with me that she had learned from peers who are librarians that at a majority of the library’s in the states, usually the first titles to be thrown away when they are not checked out enough are the stories of queer folks.
- Powers of Ten is a short film that was made in 1968 exploring the relative size of things in the universe. The film begins at a picnic by the lake in Chicago, within 9 minutes they transport you to the outer limits of the universe by adding an additional zero to the distance traveled upward and outward. https://vimeo.com/220494102.