DETROIT — Graduation is typically regarded as a rite of passage that signifies a separation from the structured guidance of role models, especially parents and teachers. So it is paradoxical — or perhaps deeply millennial — that for his thesis project, College for Creative Studies undergrad Seamus Gallagher undertook to curate a show in which he cast himself and two fellow artists, Angie Davis and Austin Brady, as ‘children’ and required them to seek mentors to take on the role of ‘parents.’
“A large part of my Detroit experience [is] seeing the city at ground level,” Gallagher wrote in the introduction to a book being compiled on the methodology, process, and results of the project, which has unfolded over more than six months. He added:
When I’d go out, I would seek out any opportunity to speak with new people at events to get feedback on my current works. This was done in the hopes that those conversations would develop into more work. I realized that facilitating these relationships was tantamount to my development as an artist. I look up to those individuals and I have made it a point to meet with them on a weekly or monthly basis to show them new things I have learned. I soon realized the importance and selfish purpose of such meetings was to achieve the kind of praise a child seeks from a parent.
Gallagher combined this realization with a work-in-progress that involved executing projects from a book titled Handy Dad: 25 Awesome Projects for Dads and Kids.
“I bought it my sophomore year, and I knew there was something about it that was going to be a part of my thesis,” Gallagher told me. “And I’m thinking about what role I’m playing within that — am I the parent? Am I the father? After spending a lot of time with it, I decided I was going to make all the projects in the book, and that was the show.” But the idea went through several permutations, moving from executing projects, to asking what a book would look like if it were made to reflect Gallagher’s experience as he prepared to leave CCS and embark upon his “adult” art career. What would those projects look like? The resulting collaborative works make up Parent Project, which opened over the weekend at Holding House.
Brady, Davis, and Gallagher each engaged a wonder-team of six parental stand-ins, asking them for a set of instructions to outline the creation of a collaborative work. In Gallagher’s case, these included people who were officially his teachers at CCS — like small press guru Ryan Standfest and interdisciplinary performance artist Leslie Rogers — but also people he viewed as mentors, such as Graem Whyte, with whom he apprenticed for a time at the residency and art space, Popps Packing.
“These instructions enact a mimetic play with traditional ‘How-To’ manuals, which allow children to go through the process of making in a systematic way, adhering to tradition, or picking up a vernacular of handiwork,” Gallagher wrote, by way of introducing the book associated with the exhibition, which he characterizes as “a guide for emerging artists, to shepherd them through the process of making.” He added: “This prosthetic and hereditary knowledge, what we gain from those before us in their absence, is the foundation of how we understand the spaces we occupy.”
The resulting show, presented at Holding House over the weekend of June 9, and next headed for a second installation of selected works at a new gallery space in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood, is extremely interdisciplinary and wide-ranging. Some of the proffered instructions are hilariously simple, like ‘parent’ Jayson Bimber’s instructions to Austin Brady to “Make an art.” Others are more esoteric, as with Julie George’s demand to Brady that he “Make a home,” or Alyssa Bogdan’s instructions to Brady, which consist of the following list:
1996 prize in a cereal box
keep it down now
throw rocks at my window if u want me
satan is a boring trilogy
‘Parent’ Ryan Lawless gave Gallagher a very specific set of instructions: the artist was to remove a branch from the tree nearest his bedroom from his childhood home, two to three inches in diameter and 30 inches long, then whittle the entire branch into one-inch shavings with a sharp knife in a single sitting, filming the entire process. Finally, Gallagher needed to collect the shavings for display alongside the film. This edict playfully combined the DIY trappings of the “Handy Dad” aesthetic, the idea of drawing from personal history, and the “wax-on, wax-off” notion of mentorship by a process of tedious physical repetition. Gallagher clearly struggles with the task of whittling in the 2 hours, 21-min video, and the shavings are displayed in a large decorative glass vase that also features several long drips of the artist’s blood, produced during the making process.
The instructions provided by Leslie Rogers to Gallagher begin, simply, with the command to “become my parent,” and are followed by a lengthy diatribe about the interference of helicopter parents in the lives of their college-aged children — an oblique processing of an encounter this year between Rogers and a particularly toxic hover-mother in another of her teaching positions.
“In this cesspool of mom poison, I’m not credible because I am not a helicopter mom, or a doormat mom, or a punching bag mom, or a mom at all, but more importantly, I don’t play any of these roles,” Rogers wrote. “Instead, I would like you to.” The culminating work from this prompt is a series of hilarious Sears Portrait Studio-style mom-and-daughter photographs, with Gallagher vamping as a solicitous, pantsuit-wearing mom, and Rogers as an exasperated, heavily made-up goth kid.
This is only one of several really funny pieces in Parent Project, another being Angie Davis’s videotaped execution of CCS’s departing Chair of Fine Arts Timothy van Laar’s instruction: “Read a poem to your cat — ‘Fog’ by Carl Sandberg.” Davis’s cat, which is visibly commemorated in a couple of portraits that hang behind it in the video, appears largely unmoved by the poem. I arrived at the gallery just in time to be accosted by a team of card-carrying and inept ‘graffiti abatement professionals’ — played by Gallagher, his fellow student Jon Phillips, and ‘parent’ Ryan Standfest — as they prepared to abate the mural on the outside of Holding House. The phrase ‘master abator’ was bandied about quite a bit.
The really fascinating part of Parent Project is not, ultimately, any individual work, although I confess I can’t stop thinking about Angie Davis’s portrait of a young Rick Moranis holding a chocolate-chip cookie with an awestruck disposition, somehow arrived at in response to Sean Maxwell’s instructions that Davis read the first two chapters and the last two chapters of the most frequently checked out books in her hometown’s library, and then write the middle two chapters to connect them. What stands out amid this collection of projects is the notion of a step-by-step instruction manual for young artists.
Writers-on-writing is a genre with a long history and a great deal of interest among practitioners of the form, and many of the greatest examples therein contain concrete instructions, advice, or activities to get readers writing. But the idea that a working process for art might be codified in some way is anathema to most artists, and much credit is due to all participants in this project — especially those who undertook to investigate their own practices and identify some of their chief components. Just like the unbeloved task of creating an artist statement, many artists recoil at the request that they reflect upon or conceptually dismantle their work. Their reasons for this are understandable, perhaps, but the willingness on the part of the players in Parent Project, and Gallagher’s audacity in asking, are laudable.
Parent Project closes at Holding House (3546 Michigan Avenue, Detroit, Michigan) on June 12. Selected works will subsequently be on display in Detroit’s Southwest neighborhood at 3301 St. Hedwig Street (Detroit, Michigan), followed by the release of the official Parent Project book in August.