GRAND RAPIDS, Michigan — In a smaller city like Grand Rapids, where the cost of living is far lower than American art centers like New York, Chicago, and Los Angeles, there can be more curatorial opportunities — if one plays their cards right. The Not Yet exhibition curated by Paul Amenta of SiTE:LAB is proof that an ambitious curator with a devoted team of art-hungry fellows, including co-founder Tom Clinton, can bring together a strong show in a city that otherwise wouldn’t experience work of this caliber.
The 18 installations in The Not Yet take over 54 Jefferson, the former home of the Grand Rapids Public Museum, which shuttered its doors in 1994 but left its guts intact. SiTE:LAB builds on and around the taxidermy animal dioramas and three-dimensional installations on human anatomy, including the reproductive and circulatory systems. Amenta creates a series of 18 projects almost the size of an artist-run fair like Chicago’s MDW. This year SiTE:LAB takes on topics such as the not-so-distant future where new intelligence roams, our mediated present as told through the story of a young Detroit girl, the ongoing work of the Occupy Wall Street movement, and the beginning of life on Earth.
Mark Dean Veca’s “Year of the Snake” (2013) is a replica of the bar from Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining that stands in the middle of the main hallway. It is surrounded by seating areas built into either wall; their interiors are lined with custom-made snakeskin-patterned wallpaper, and leopard-print or giant black cushions. Take a break from walking and listen to either the original song “Midnight, the Stars, and You” from the film’s soundtrack on the left side of the hallway. On the right side, a mutated version of that song awaits, implying Jack’s eventual turn to crazytown and the feeling one may have after spending time in each of the SiTE:LAB installations.
Like everything at ArtPrize, it’s important to take in the art or visual imagery but not linger too long. I twice found myself walking in a daze-like state through Stephen Hendee’s “The Last People” (2013), which occupies a meandering exhibition that recounts the days before Grand Rapid was settled, woolly mammoth were hunted for food, and Native Americans still occupied the land. Hendee places large-scale, ambiguous geometric shapes lit from within into the history museum’s dioramas, and replaces the explanatory placards with scrawling from an unknown futuristic species. The forms meld with the original dioramas to create futuristic landscapes that are about as far from a Romantic landscape painting as possible. Photographs of this installation further decontextualize it from the space, suggesting a truly otherworldly appearance.
In Detroit-based artist Graem Whyte’s “Subduction” (2013), the artist arranges two giant rusting steel slabs in a pattern mirroring tectonic plates that created the Pacific Islands. Julie Schenkbelberg’s “The Unfounded Future of the Untold” (2013) creates a dystopic array of industrial detritus, bedsheets, lamps, and more that echoes the work of artist Abigail DeVille minus the shredded garbage bags. Carlos Bunga’s “Ecosystem” (2013) is, at first, nearly unnoticeable almost to a fault. The artist installs his work in one of the multi-room galleries that still houses original dioramas from the 1970s illustrating taxidermic local wildlife. He tapes cardboard to the walls, allowing it to jut out at angles, further amplifying the stage-like effect of this particular part of the museum. He drips swathes of paint around raw walls. His installation is at times too subtle, and the dioramas are weathered enough to look like appropriated taxidermy art on their own. These dioramas mark the heart of 54 Jefferson, and this artist’s tip-toeing around them appears as a too-careful move that fails to make a pointed use of the space or create a new sensory experience.
Across the main hallway, Mattthias Neumann’s “The People’s Library at the Public Museum” (2013) partially replicates the library that existed at Zuccotti Park in Manhattan from September to November 2011. There is so much fantastic material here that I had to resist sitting down and just reading books until SiTE:LAB closed instead of cruising through the rest of exhibition. Instead, I got a quick dose of Noam Chomsky, picking up his OCCUPY pamphlet which was produced as a part of the Occupied Media Press Pamphlet Series. Here, Chomsky outlines the Occupy vision of democracy that threatens our corporate-controlled market of useless wars, environmental destruction, catering to the rich, and ignoring the poor. As I turned the pages, I wondered if an event like ArtPrize was adding to this movement, or detracting from it.
The fact that SiTE:LAB continues to thrive amongst the jungle of visual stuff in Grand Rapids further emphasizes the importance of astutely curated exhibitions at ArtPrize, which doesn’t seem to be leaving this city anytime soon.
SiTE:LAB’s “The Not Yet” exhibition continues at the former Grand Rapids Public Museum (54 Jefferson, Grand Rapids) through October 6.
Editor’s note: ArtPrize paid for the author’s lodgings in Grand Rapids, and the Site:Lab reimbursed the author’s bus trip from Chicago.