The soapbox derby is fine-tuned American nostalgia (or was it tradition?), a rugged pursuit combining patrilineal bonding with the values of shopworn ingenuity and competition. In Matt Town’s SOAP exhibition at Microscope Gallery, centered around a 16mm film, this imaginary cedes ground to the formal possibilities of the vehicle itself, while additional elements of political engagement are introduced to the pastime’s traditional implications. The result is decidedly mixed, with the strength of some of the pictures appearing in the film compromised by a heavy-handed and scattered political conceit tying the project to issues affecting the neighborhood of Bushwick, where the soapbox run was filmed.
The soapbox car, which also appears in the gallery, is a rectangular box built of plywood on a welded metal frame and painted an immaculate white, with a hole cut in the top to accommodate the driver’s head. The film begins with spliced footage that abstracts this construction process, showers of sparks and a pooling cascade of white paint, and then turns to various scenes depicting the one-car “derby” throughout Bushwick. These include flashes of visual brilliance, most notably a slowed-down shot that sees the car pass a large dog writhing on the sidewalk, and two other moments where sidewalk denizens give the artist an unplanned push. The camera also turns its eye to a few of the neighborhood’s century-old residential façades, and captures Puerto Rican flags fluttering in the wind. In the press release accompanying the exhibition, Town claims to:
… acknowledge the tensions created not only by the real estate developers moving into the area but by his own presence in a close-knit Hispanic immigrant community and places the conversation in the broader context of class and race in the present day US …
It’s an incongruously progressive (and strangely worded) claim for a rather conservative project, one that hews to twee sensibilities in format (16mm silent film with old-timey title plate) and execution (a suburban Americana, Shop Class as Soulcraft paean to the derby car that is never properly reconciled with the context of industrial, and highly immigrant Bushwick).
Though the artist is behind the “wheel,” his head protruding from the car’s surface clad in a white helmet and white goggles, he is ultimately at the mercy of inertia. Both literally and figuratively, SOAP proceeds by prevailing forces, its best intentions notwithstanding. Town would do well to consider the long debate and complex issues underpinning the role of artists in gentrification in New York, rather than confusing a potentially interesting work with bolted-on pieties.
But SOAP is compelling enough to merit a visit, which is more than can be said for the fly-by installation at AIRPLANE gallery nearby. There, Leeza Meksin has delivered The Airplane Installations, a suite of site-specific works oriented around the gallery’s name. The result is a mess of mesh and fabric, tubing, weights, and zip ties, an inscrutable proposition that the artist calls “architectural drag” (emphasis hers). Such an exercise may make sense in a space that is not a residential basement with six-foot ceilings; the present rough-hewn setting is decidedly not evocative of the “clean lines and white walls of the gallery” she says she is responding to in the show’s literature.
The “Rear Winglet” (2014) portion of the installation (various parts are given aeronautical labels: landing gear, fin box rudder, etc.) expands out the back of the basement gallery, providing a low canopy over the capacious backyard. A pair of tall speakers covered in printed spandex cozies — “Pedals for Meret Oppenheim” (2014) — are nestled in a corner of the basement, playing two channels of lowish-frequency hum, which is the appropriate response to this unremarkable exhibition from the otherwise reliable AIRPLANE.
Matt Town’s SOAP continues at Microscope Gallery (4 Charles Place, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through June 9.
Leeza Meksin’s The Airplane Installations continues at AIRPLANE (70 Jefferson Street, Bushwick, Brooklyn) through July 6.