"Art in Progress" - volume 2 #1 - september, 1992

"Trends & Issues"

From the Street to the Gallery

by Dan Schiavone

Radical, new, original. These buzz words continually hover around avant garde art. Yet without clear distinctions between popular and haute culture today's avant guard often strays into traditional institutions; most recently as an Artscape exhibition titled 'HUMOR AS A SUBVERSIVE ACT: An Exhibition Propagandizing Baltimore Art," on display from July 17 through August 9 at the Maryland Institute College of Art. This show put some of Baltimore's premier avant guard artists on the map. Walking through the carnival like atmosphere one got a feeling that Baltimore wasn't such a bad place for art after all. Local filmmaker/artist/writer Peter Walsh curated the show around an essay he had written for Influence (a Baltimore arts quarterly). In the tradition of Ken Kesey's Merry Pranksters this show brought together the most notorious names on the Baltimore art scene. These were no fly by night pranksters. The exhibit spanned over twenty years of serious silliness, irreverence, and outright lawlessness. This stuff was out there, ripe and ready to pluck from the edges and plant into the mainstream. Yet, it's just this accomplishment which makes some of out more outside, outsider artists, cringe.

"I discovered there was nothing worthwhile in art so I made the transition to mad scientist," says tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE.

Irreverent and even obnoxious, habitually wearing a jump suit made out of zippers, tENTATIVELY a cONVENIENCE, (the man with a brain tattooed on his scalp,) has been one of Baltimore's premier outsiders for over a decade. Known for his confrontational and often belligerent performances, films, and videos, tENT likens a gallery exhibit to an art embalming. tENT is currently on tour with his musical ensemble (a cross between the Lounge Lizards and Frank Zappa) but he is best known for his videos and films. One video titled, "Birth of an Idea" features a close up shot of a woman's vagina repeatedly "giving birth" to a light bulb. tENT seeks to provoke, shock, anger, and tickle his audience. In short, he gets a reaction.

You would think tENT tailor made for a show devoted to outsiders. But he didn't participate because of his fundamental disdain towards art galleries. His campy/gross me out/prankster aesthetic embodies an inherent rebellion against traditional art venues. In true form tENT had submitted one of his most sedititious videos titled Tease, in which a penis slowly creeps up to a vagina, toys with entry, then suddenly withdraws. He withdrew the video after several attempts to insulate it from the main exhibit. One solution involved building an authentic peep show booth, but the technical difficulties and tENT's insistence on authenticity made it impossible to construct. Yet tENT's absence from the "HUMOR..." may have made a stronger statement than his presence would have. By remaining true to his own outre aesthetic tENT points out the inherent contradiction in having guerilla artists exhibit in a city government sanctioned, quintessentially status quo exhibition.

Pranks prey on the unaware. One of the more humorous Baltimore pranksters is mayoral candidate Vermin Supreme. He's a mysterious character who roams the streets every fourth year, handing out pamphlets and shouting: "Let me run your life because I know what's best for you." Like many outsiders Vermin has let his performance completely subsume his life. Taking on a persona as if he were a comic book super hero, he even wears a cape, and a unique helmet. A up-ended boot on his head symbolizes his attempt to kick the imposters out of office and take his rightful seat as Mayor of the East Coast. After all, he is the self-described "Friendly Fascist You Can Trust."

Vermin provokes amusement because there's an unsuspecting audience looking askance at his odd appearance and nonsensical ranting. A dedicated prankster, Vermin was too occupied running for Mayor of the United States to attend the exhibit, even though he thought being in the show was "a hoot". Artists (and I use the term without consent) like Vermin are too busy making, doing, and being to participate in a formal codification of their work. It's not what interests them.

Controversy may not interest every artist but some artists attract it nonetheless. "HUMOR..." contained partially censored documentation of David Franks' 1973 happening Destroying Narcissus: A Body of Language. In Destroying Narcissus... Franks slid into the Headquarters of the National Social Security Administration to copulate with a copy machine. Franks performance carried the relationship between man and machine to the extreme (anticipating famous cyborgs like the Terminator). The photographs and Xerox documentation were weak candidates for censorship, yet he was asked to remove full frontal nudes and xeroxed penises from the exhibit. Several compromises were discussed including building a separate room for the piece. The nudes were removed but even when offered free printing for the book he had been working on based on Destroying Narcissus... Franks held firm on exhibiting the xeroxes. Unlike tENT, Franks made a small compromise. But agitation isn't essential to his aesthetic, therefore the deletions had little effect on the piece.

Fortunately, turning controversy around has become an art form in itself. To protest censoring of Destroying Narcissus... sidewalk stencils and posters were illicitly spread around Baltimore. The stencils featured a fifties styled house wife with a raised finger saying "wome beware." Additionally, a group of ladies showed up at the show's opening clad in slips decorated, (in anatomically correct spots,) with wiry, faux pubic hair and molded, glittery nipples. These actions simultaneously protested censorship, and confirmed the rebellious spirit of the exhibition.

"HUMOR AS A SUBVERSIVE ACT" sought to empower the participants, by giving them the credibility of historical context. Bringing a group of outsiders into the gallery context is problematic. Placing outsider art within athe cultural establishment may, de facto, dilute its effectiveness or compromise its aesthetic. Yet, any thoughtful attempt to expand the audience for this often politically charged work, has to be applauded.

Inevitably, any attempt to bring outsiders inside, will engender controversy. And for those who thrive on conflict this is a good thing. As Peter Walsh said in the essay which spawned this show, "The only real positive statement of satiric and humoros art is ... the passionate belief in the ability of dissonance, disorder, and chaos to shake the very foundation of a culturre and society".


to the tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE movie-making "Press: Criticism, Interviews, Reviews" home-page

to the "tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE - Sprocket Scientist" home-page

to the "FLICKER" home-page for the alternative cinematic experience

to find out more about why the S.P.C.S.M.E.F. (Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Sea Monkeys by Experimental Filmmakers) is so important

for A Mere Outline for One Aspect of a Book on Mystery Catalysts, Guerrilla Playfare, booed usic, Mad Scientist Didactions, Acts of As-Beenism, So-Called Whatevers, Psychopathfinding, Uncerts, Air Dressing, Practicing Promotextuality, Imp Activism, etc..

for info on tENTATIVELY, a cONVENIENCE's tape/CD publishing label: WIdémoUTH

to see an underdeveloped site re the N.A.A.M.C.P. (National Association for the Advancement of Multi-Colored Peoples)