Walking into Grand Ole Opera, created by the artists Brent Stewart and Willie Stewart (no relation), feels like entering the scattered debris of adolescent nightmares. Currently on view at Pioneer Works in Red Hook, the installation takes up almost the entire ground floor of the former iron factory, consisting of two large trailer-homes, a functional bar, a truck, and a stage that will periodically host concerts. How all these different pieces connect is not immediately clear. The viewer is left with empty spaces and a series of clues, like stumbling into an abandoned movie set.
The spaces Stewart and Stewart created for Grand Ole Opera are not meant to portray a form of realism. Instead, they are highly specific and strange. The first part of the installation you encounter is a partially-built room — freshly vacuumed carpet, vanity mirror, turntable — not unlike the type of space you would see in a typical suburban home. What sets it off-kilter is that it is cast in a menacing and unnatural red light. Something has happened here, it seems, but what exactly is not clear. Then you turn around and notice the taxidermy deer sitting on the ground not far away, watching the room as well.
The longer you roam around the space, the more connections begin to form. But if you’re observant (or sober) enough to find it, there is something akin to a mood board hidden toward the back corner of the installation. Behind the working bar — designed by Jason Grunwald along with Greg Minnig of the biker-chic fashion label Deth Killers of Bushwick — the wall is plastered with a lifetime’s supply of leftover junk: old license plates, tattered newspaper clippings, covers from Outlaw Biker magazine, and a poster for deceased WWE wrestler Jake “The Snake” Roberts. Teen vampire classic The Lost Boys (1987) plays on one of the television screens overhead, while a Dixieland pinball machine and an out-of-commission Yamaha XT dirt bike are parked nearby. Although the installation takes its name from the Grand Ole Opry, Nashville’s weekly country music concert series at the Ryman Auditorium, what Stewart and Stewart have created here is more reminiscent of the decorated walls of Tootsie’s Orchid Lounge, the bar behind the Ryman, where musicians would escape between sets to grab a quick drink (or ten). In opposition to the squeaky-clean image of the Ryman — where the beautiful stained glass windows make you feel like you’re in a church — the walls of Tootsie’s are littered with the broken memories of thousands of drunken nights. A secret history of the city and its residents can be found on the bar’s walls.
Something similar can be found on the wall behind the bar of Grand Ole Opera. Look closely and you can spot certain inconsistencies. The most telling is the presence of Mike Kelley, whose face appears twice on the wall. Like Kelley, Stewart and Stewart present childhood as a time of confusion and conflict, a site of repressed traumas related to the family. Like in Kelley’s later work, most notably “Educational Complex” (1995) and “Mobile Homestead” (2013), this trauma is directly linked to what is missing from recognizable spaces.
As a child, you attach yourself to certain objects and hold on to certain moments as a means of escape. In Grand Ole Opera, as in so much of Kelley’s work, these innocent objects are charged with a meaning much darker than their surfaces portend. Walking through the larger of the two trailer homes at Pioneer Works, you come across VHS tapes that are enlarged, as if bursting with concealed secrets, and tables displaying Ouija boards, the childhood pastime that promises communication with a realm beyond our own. Stewart and Stewart have crafted a space that is both familiar and abnormal. Small televisions display strange images, and spinning rocks — not unlike the pebbles that fill some of the sinks and tubs in the trailer — adorn a few of the surfaces. If you look out of the windows, the large eyes of a cat stare back at you. The clearest indicator of who may once have occupied this trailer is a family portrait that is hung in the bathroom, which appears to have been burned from the middle. All the markings of a home have been removed, rearranged, or destroyed.
The artists, who both grew up in the South — Willie amid a biker culture where the male authority figures were all behind bars; Brent in a rigid Christian home — appear to be excavating their youths in an attempt to extract private truths through personal signifiers. The results work better in some places than others. For an installation that asks for a certain amount of immersion, it sometimes feels evasive as an experience. At its best, Grand Ole Opera is a visceral, shared journey. At its worst, it can veer toward navel-gazing.
There is a lot more to explore in Grand Ole Opera, including a video of two long-haired men fighting, an ominous pickup truck in the middle of the gallery floor, and the concert series. The night I visited the installation I did not see a performance, but you can imagine — considering the acts they have booked to play — this would add another layer of dread to the experience.
To me, the most striking part of the installation is a video that screens in the second, smaller trailer home. When I went to watch the video, the trailer was occupied by other visitors and a woman who was scrunched in the small bathtub, mumbling to herself. (Was this part of the installation? It’s hard to say.) I had to stand outside and watch the video through a small window like a Peeping Tom. The video shows a young person with the face of a werewolf putting Ozzy Osbourne’s Blizzard of Ozz record on a turntable. In 1986, a lawsuit was filed against Osbourne by the parents of a teenager who they claimed had killed himself while listening to the song “Suicide Solution.” This video, filmed in the first set visitors come across as they explore the installation, shows a fantastical reenactment. But it also speaks to the way many of us look for answers in the cultural debris that surrounds us — not always to move forward, but sometimes to simply disappear.
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