New York-based artists Loney Abrams and Johnny Stanish are known for their work together as Hotel Art, a curatorial platform focused on temporary exhibitions in non-art spaces like banks, Dunkin’ Donuts, and Dodger Stadium. For their current joint exhibition So much dirt but not enough soil at Queens’ Knockdown Center, running July 9 to August 7, the duo continues to explore their affinity for makeshift spaces by setting up shop in a 113-year-old stone building, originally built as part of a glass factory. Distributed across three rooms –one being set outdoors under a fully eroded roof –their work here both enacts a form of homegrown reverse-engineering upon mass-produced consumer goods, while also investigating them as intertextual sites marked by traces of larger systems of valuation and distribution.
The anxiety of consumption is a major theme of the show, where its affective register is framed by the limited field of consumer agency within the top-down political economy of nutrition delimited by corporate and state collaboration. In ‘Let’s Move!’ we see torn Subway wrappers alongside a spliced image of company spokesperson Michelle Obama eating one of their sandwiches; the severed images are embedded in shredded and pulped section of her 2012 book, American Grown: The Story of the White House Kitchen Garden and Gardens Across America. Faced with this tricky, historically entrenched cross-pollination of business power, federal subsidy, and ethically-coded consumption habits, the piece seems to respond to its titular imperative with a query: “move where?”
Elsewhere, and on a more molecular level, significations behind charged language like ‘all-natural’ and ‘artificial ingredients’—so vague in themselves as to be almost meaningless—get tossed, peeled back, and played with in a kind of playground soup. In ‘GRDN Doc’s® Organocide® All Natural Plant Feritlizer: Prescription Formulas 1, 2, and 3’, Abrams and Stanish improvise with commodities like green tea, fish bones, Bud Light Lime, and plastic gargoyles’ intended uses—and shopping aisle taxonomies—to see what they might be able to grow by not following the rules. Their exercise in Home Depot-style hacking consist of self-stylized modification of generic goods, working in a field of synthetic mutation that we can thematically connect to the exhibition’s use of Seasonal Affective Disorder (SAD) lamps in ‘print my DNA when you get there’ and ‘I am what I eat eats’. The drive in the works to recombine and cross-fertilize seems marked by pursuit of increased productivity, undergirded by the expectation that one should be physiologically in top shape at all times, even when our bodies refuse.
The gravitational pull of such a value system is further underscored by the work-oriented language of the exhibition’s title –So much dirt but not enough soil -which looks for dirt things can grow in, unsatisfied with the use-value of what’s sitting there already. Resource allotment comes into play in ‘wargame terrain board’, a terrestrial model of populated space defined by its strategic mode of looking, familiar from toy train sets and the architecture of military strategy. There, water bottles, mountains, and desert are divide up; on one section volcanic, pasty goo threatens to submerge the text “print my DNA / when you get there / my first body / will be soil”, suggesting a somewhat bored and ambivalent milieu of post-humanism.
Abrams and Stanish’s haptic inquiry into the internal and social lives of objects is on one level relatively generalized—their works consist mainly of ubiquitous consumer goods marketed without tons of demographic specificity—and on another evocative of a specific, affectively-charged narrative of selfhood working itself out in relation to consumption. Their combinations of supposedly one-size-fits-all products suggests an in-process, agentic mode of narrative cartography in the face of prescribed consumer choices. Vague signifiers of girlhood such as hair extensions, chewed nicorette gum, and Forever 21 jeans get messy in ‘cafe con leche con pants’, while ‘so much dirt’ depicts a meandering arboreal structure—slow but precisely knit, suggesting the mapping of extended duration—out of Smirnoff Ice and cigarette ash. Meanwhile, the focal point of ‘landfowl, waterfowl, gamefowl’ is an amulet-esque figure of birdseed, jello, flour, and corn syrup shaped in a kitchen mold. Simultaneously suggesting a kind of lure and easily dissolvable whole, its sense of precarity is heightened by its cornhusk doll-as-tail and the lengthy stretch of worn ribbon by which it is tied to overhanging wood beams.
We can locate a rural theme of domesticity in the language, ingredients, and iconography in that work, which also comes through in ‘au natural’, where stock idyllic imagery (barn sitting serenely amidst fields of crops) and synthetic additive (the smell of body odor and food preservative) intertwine in slightly discomfiting, intimate-feeling blends. Objects in So much dirt but not enough soil only ever emerge as constellations of already existing objects, and there’s rarely much internal compatibility: rather, there’s a productive tension of multitudes of mutually exclusive operating systems—brands, the FDA, towns, people—trying to produce their own styles of meaning through the same objects. Like the works in the outdoor space wrought out of imperfectly shaped soap canvases, perilously exposed to summer rains and heat, narrativization here can’t get rid of its own untidy contingency.**
See here for more exhibition photos.