Art

Florida, Bob Ross, and a Collaborative, Conceptual Art Journey

Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe's paired seascape paintings, on display at Trinosophes (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)
Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe’s paired seascape paintings, on display at Trinosophes (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

DETROIT — Painter and art instructor Bob Ross, host of the legendary public access show The Joy of Painting, was known to say, “There is no such thing as a mistake, only happy accidents.” Proponents of synchronicity and/or fatalism would say there is no such thing as coincidence, only signs of a higher order to the universe. These two philosophies have found a playful intersection in a collaboration between artists Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe, on display in the multiuse art cafe Trinosophes.

Self-Titled 2: (954)785-8492.5 is, as the title would suggest, Crissman and Poe’s second project together. The two initially met under circumstances detailed thusly by Poe, in materials from their 2013 series Self-Titled: Collaborative Projects by Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe:

Long before I met Henry, I was given this t-shirt, which was stolen from him by a girl when he was a freshman at CCS. When I was riding my bicycle [to Detroit] from Vermont … I ran into the girl in the Adirondacks as she pedaled to Maine. Arriving in Detroit, she gave me all of her clothes as she departed for [Canada]. I’d always assumed that I’d run into her jealous boyfriend one day, but instead found myself over at Henry’s house a month ago, working on an art project, and having him tell me about how he once had the same shirt.

Not ones to let such an auspicious happenstance pass them by, Crissman and Poe formed their first collaborative effort. The second body of work was likewise sparked by a chance occurrence — when Poe and Crissman spontaneously called each other at the same time, resulting in a phone connection without a ringtone on either end.

Crissman and Poe painting by on the Florida seashore (video on display at Trinosophes)
Crissman and Poe painting by on the Florida seashore (video on display at Trinosophes)

Seizing upon this as a cue, the artists initiated a process that they describe as needing to reach complete consensus on all subsequent decisions pertaining to the work. They settled on adding their phone numbers together and dividing the sum by two, which resulted in a combined phone number (designated in the title of the current show) that they discovered was associated with Pompano Beach, Florida. They next decided they wanted to explore the potential social connections available in the circle created by their “phone number neighbors” — the Floridians belonging to the phone numbers one number up or down from their combination number. They figured they’d be more successful if they made the cold calls from a local number, so they hit the road to Florida, combining artistic exploration with an end-of-winter getaway and recording their exploits in the process. Along the way, they passed the Bob Ross Museum and Workshop, located in Ross’s hometown of New Smyma Beach, Florida (a few hours from Pompano Beach). The pair decided to enroll in the Bob Ross Workshop, become Certified Bob Ross Seascape Painters, and apply their newly minted certifications to a series of side-by-side en plein air seascape paintings on the Florida shore. Throughout their whirlwind stay, Crissman and Poe made continued attempts to contact their phone number neighbors. Despite successfully engaging in some phone conversations, they couldn’t convince any of them to come down to the seashore for an in-person encounter.

Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe’s paired seascape paintings, on display at Trinosophes
Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe’s paired seascape paintings, on display at Trinosophes
The temporary record of Crissman and Poe's permanent record of their journey (click to enlarge)
The temporary record of Crissman and Poe’s permanent record of their journey (click to enlarge)

Back in Detroit, the artists have placed on display at Trinosophes their paired landscape paintings, videos of their day at the beach, and an info sheet that features a naughty, office party–style photocopy showcasing the matching ass tattoos that divide their combination number literally between them. Trinosophes also plans to release the complete podcast series — which formally ended on March 15 with a roundtable featuring (full disclosure) myself, the artists, Rebecca Mazzei and Joel Peterson of Trinosophes, and their cat, Pepper — as a box set by the conclusion of the show.

This final conversation was quite elucidating, as it put much of the work between Crissman and Poe, as well as the duo and Mazzei, into new perspective. Crissman is, in his solo work, primarily a ceramicist, while Poe’s career is a highly open-ended exploration of social collaboration and chance across various media (attempting to collect all images taken of a specific rainbow, for example). Speaking in broad strokes, conceptual art is ideas-driven, while craft-based art puts an emphasis on the making process. Working together, Crissman and Poe seem to have developed a hybrid form of craft-concept art — art where the making of the object is the point, but the object is, in this case, the idea. The pair documented the making of this most recent idea exhaustively, teasing it out over 36 hours of podcasts that include not only their far-ranging and sometimes quite contentious conversations, but also long interludes of driving in virtual silence and the buzz of the machine administering their matching ass tattoos.

Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe at the opening of 'Self-Titled 2' at Trinosophes (click to enlarge)
Henry Crissman and Hamilton Poe at the opening of ‘Self-Titled 2’ at Trinosophes (click to enlarge)

Much is (rightly) made these days of toxic masculinity and prescriptive male posturing as a system of social control. Though the objects on display in Self-Titled 2 are aesthetically interesting, and the ideas in play are exceedingly experimental, perhaps the most engaging aspect of Crissman and Poe’s project is the multimedia demonstration of a loving, noncompetitive male friendship and a willingness to embrace chance. Crissman and Poe are open — to each other, to twists of fate, to learning new things, to reaching out to strangers — all without the trace of irony that most people can’t help but affect, to make sure you know they’re in on the joke. Because it’s not a joke to them; it’s an adventure in art making. Crissman and Poe are exuberant in their commitment, and that attitude is refreshing, enabling viewers to join the adventure. One imagines Bob Ross, that champion of actualized self-expression for everyone, would very much approve.

Self-Titled 2: (954)785-8492.5 continues at Trinosophes (1464 Gratiot Avenue, Detroit) through March 28.

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