Galleries

An American Doing Things

by Stephen Truax on April 29, 2014

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Installation view, Brad Downey at Haus am Lützowplatz, Berlin. (Image courtesy of Haus am Lützowplatz and the artist; all other photographs by the author for Hyperallergic)

BERLIN — Through a quaint garden off the back porch of the main gallery of Haus am Lützowplatz is a small basement gallery filled with video works, handwritten texts, props from performances, sculpture, and other memorabilia by the Louisville-born, Berlin-based artist Brad Downey. Nearly fifty works are crammed in here, many of which are videos installed salon-style on various monitors. The presentation is interconnected throughout the space by a series of vitrines and display cases, attached together by a welded steel apparatus that zig-zags at right angles throughout the gallery, surrounding the viewer, like the Atari video game Snake.

Simplistic 1-2-3 reads, such as in “The Beginning” (2014), which consists of a photograph of a girl’s pelvis wearing panties, the same shot without the panties, and then the actual panties, provides viewers a kind of key to the rest of the vitrine presentation. A photograph of Downey walking in the Red Square, Moscow, with a copper plate attached to the bottom of his right sneaker, lies in a vitrine next to the same copper plate, and the printed and framed intaglio etching of that copper plate hangs nearby, in “From here to there” (2013).

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Brad Downey, “The Beginning” (2014)

The diaristic hand-written texts in the artist’s signature printed capital letters are emphatic and simple. One such text is a story about how Downey installed his own paintings in various New York subway stations while wearing a DOT vest he had stolen. Unbeknownst to Downey, a DOT employee (the same municipal department Downey was impersonating in order to not get tagged by the cops) saved the paintings from being scrapped, twice, installed them in his own office, and used them for utilitarian purposes, such as hanging a clipboard on one. The employee somehow found Downey’s email address and sent Downey photo documentation of the works installed in his office at the DOT. It is printed and presented here as “Email from DOT” (2001–14). (The employee intends to keep them.) In a similar story, Downey painted a self-portrait on a piece of wood at the tender age of 16, and left it in his father’s garage. His father found it, and cut it into a backing for a wheeled dolly. Again, a photograph of the now-utilitarian use of his painting, Father and Son, (1996–2014), is included along with a hand-written account of the event.

All of the works are autobiographical, related directly to Downey himself, and often include images of the artist mid-performance. The most prominently projected video, “Fuck Face” (2013), positions the camera presumably in a toilet, looking up at the artist, who, framed closely, and projected larger than life, appears to be very drunk, and immanently going to vomit. He chokes, burps, gags, yawns, dry heaves, and is wearing nothing but black underwear. Sometimes the camera is picked up and zooms around the room: we get a flash of wide-plank hardwood floors, and a nearby Ja! brand water bottle, both endemic to Berlin.

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Brad Downey, “Auto Created” (2008)

Although many works take place in or address various cities (Moscow, Basel, Liberec, New York, Atlanta, Chicago) many of them center on Berlin and depict the city in unmistakable focus. With its characteristic architecture, abundant greenery, bicycles, cobblestone streets, and European cars, Berlin helps to locate the artist and his works in an specific time and place. His performances often engage with various apparatuses found throughout the city. For “Auto Created” (2008), he turned one of the rotating-advertisement columns, so common here, into a kind of May Pole, by attaching rolls of tape and colored cellophane wrap to surrounding, static objects, and stuck the tape to the rotating pole, allowing its rotation to effectively cover itself entirely in blue and red tape.

Another performance video — “Blower” (2013), Basel, Switzerland — positions a leaf blower duct taped to a rolling chair duct taped to a city trash can in a park. It spins around dangerously wobbling from side to side, as totally-freaked-out passers-by react to it. Mid-video, the artist walks into the view of the camera and turns the sculpture on.

He documents himself wearing a white t-shirt and blue jeans. It’s the same outfit you see him in “Auto Created,” running around attaching rolls of tape to things. And again in the Moscow photograph. And in the photograph of him hanging from a ladder, which is hanging from a crane, about 20 ft off the ground. He has a little stubble, bed head, and a mischievous grin. One gets the sense that he selected this outfit to be neutral, uninflected, but it carries with it various cultural and social signifiers.

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Brad Downey, installation view, “Fuck Face” (2013)

The artist is physically present in most of the performances and documentation. For those few works lacking an image of the artist in person, then the presence of his hand, in the writing,  indices of his body, injured in the process of making work, an x-ray of his injured shoulder, a xerox of his hand with a bruised and bloated finger, or the autobiographical nature of the stories themselves, all act as stand-ins for Downey himself.

While the works generally look to activist politics, they do not make a cumulative statement regarding his position (outside of being anti-authoritarian), as the exhibition’s title, Sculpture, Leftovers, and Documentation, might suggest. Rather, they build an understanding of Downey’s personal aesthetic and physical, emotional, and performative sensibilities.

They are united by Downey “doing things.” This seems to point to what Lane Relyea refers to as the artist no longer self-identifying as “an artist” per se but only with the active verb: not “a painter,” but “making paintings.” Downey’s exhibition benefits from all of the etymological and ontological slippage this circumvention of having a concrete position in the work provides.

Often the works suggest a negation of public society (a walk in a Basel park becomes threatening or dangerous), a refusal of civic duty (intentionally breaking rules set out by governments and municipal departments), portraying the artist as a kind of prankster, and often stray close to street art.

Downey is presented here as a quintessential example of an American artist, indeed, wearing blue jeans and a white t-shirt, living abroad, and responding to the environment as a playfully itinerant, if disruptive, young man. We are presented with Downey as a kind of art brand, through which he can perform virtually any action in public or private space, and subsequently present that action’s documentation as new work.

Brad Downey’s Sculpture, Leftovers, and Documentation continues at Haus am Lützowplatz (Lützowplatz 9, 10785 Berlin) through May 4.

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  • Jose E. Rodriguez

    I like this work a lot. There’s something very visceral or immediate about it that makes me relate to it easily, although I can’t exactly explain why.
    Thanks for the article.

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