Weekly Wire
Memphis Flyer Chatter Boxed

By Cory Dugan

APRIL 13, 1998:  As a rule, an “artist’s statement” is something I usually try to ignore. As a subgenus, it generally exists somewhere on the literary scale alongside the personal ad, the fortune cookie, and the fine print on a car lease – less creative than the former, more generic than the middle, bigger type and less information than the latter.

Brian Bishop’s exhibit at the tiny Cossitt Gallery in the downtown library is an artist’s statement elevated to a level somewhere between intelligent art and insidious torture. Bishop is indeed an intelligent painter, and a painter of intelligent images – a rare beast on the fast track to extinction, sticking his head out of the oily sludge that is abstraction and the kitschy dreck that is landscape and the sophomoric compost that passes for expressionist narrative. Painting has been, by and large, a quaint anachronism for at least a generation now. Like most of its more percipient practitioners, Bishop is well aware of this fact; this exhibit is mostly about that fact.

Titled “Bigger and Badder Than You” (an enigmatic boast or a boastful enigma), the exhibit comprises three encaustic paintings, each an example of the artist’s estimable abilities as a representational painter. Bigger and Badder Than You (Robert) is the sort of composition that Bishop accomplishes so masterfully, the “accidental” snapshot glimpse; in this case, the image is a stop sign, shoved to the left edge of the picture plane and then almost cropped out of the frame. The other two works are less interesting. Bigger and Badder Than You (Joan) is a cliched cloudscape, a faux close-up of a master landscape, distressed to approximate age. Bigger and Badder Than You (Gerhard) is a portrait of a woman in profile looking at a picture in a book – of a woman in profile looking at a book. In the upper left corner of the picture is a clock, cropped to its lower right quadrant.

Brian Bishop, Bigger and Badder Than You (Robert)
If these three paintings were the extent of Bishop’s exhibit, they would provide an intriguing and somewhat circular narrative with no concrete plot structure. But Bishop’s paintings are not the story of this exhibit, certainly not its conclusion. They are, after all, only props in a melodramatic one-man play.

Flanking each painting is a pair of small audio speakers and a small tape-loop player. As one enters the compact gallery, posted instructions tell the viewer how to operate the players and advise him/her to turn all of them on within 15 seconds of one another. This imposed rush around the little room effectively disrupts the usual psychology of the situation – the exhibit is immediately on the absent artist’s terms instead of the present viewer’s. Instead of casually viewing the paintings in an orderly fashion, the audience is thrown into the middle of the room – and is then accosted by intrusive lecturing voices.

Each painting has its own lecture; the voices are all the same – presumably Bishop’s, clipped and obviously read from prepared texts, not quite monotonous but hardly inspirational. Bigger... (Robert) talks about the interstate and the homogenization of the landscape. Bigger... (Joan) discusses the commodification of the landscape, quoting post-modern painter Gerhard Richter and philosopher Jean Baudrillard; it mentions Albert Bierstadt and landscape architecture and I think I drifted off somewhere around the jungle ride at Disneyland. Thus I’m not sure what Bigger... (Gerhard) talked about – something about where “this installation” was taking Bishop along the road to eternal bliss and fulfillment. (A return visit found the player missing.)

Standing in the midst of this polyphonic monologue brought to mind a series of 1980s sculptures by Jonathan Borofsky called Chattering Men. Modeled after poseurs at art openings and formed from cut-out sheet metal, barely three-dimensional, their jaws were hinged and moved continuously as a hidden tape constantly intoned the nonsense syllables: chatterchatterchatter.

Bishop’s chatter isn’t mindless; at a cocktail party or an art lecture, it might be interesting, even enlightening. As presented in the context of this exhibit, however, it flirts with pedantry and barely skirts self-indulgence. (Art self-indulgent? Horrors!)

In the middle of the Bigger... (Joan) loop, there is a break in the monologue and a brief snatch of unscripted conversation intrudes: A female voice, apparently a colleague, asks – a tad ambivalently, it seems – if the tapes will be part of the exhibit. This seemingly accidental snippet of real life almost rescues the rest of the exhibit. If it isn’t accidental, it is a truly inspired moment.

Branching out beyond the limits of painting is an understandable impulse, especially in a painter as obviously concept-oriented as Bishop. This initial, technically troubled attempt is an ambitious (and sometimes fascinating) failure. Certainly it signals further and more fruitful experimentation.

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