Making Art About (and in) the Space above Us 

A February First Friday with 3D Printers, Museums on the Moon, and Vast Skyscapes



Johnny McKee with his paintings
  • Johnny McKee with his paintings


I started out the evening at the Harrison Center for the Arts, at Johnny McKee’s show, A Silent Night. There’s something very elemental about many of the paintings here.  There's the way he uses planks of rough cut wood as canvases, for example, and incorporates that roughness into his work.  There's also something elemental in his subject matter that includes starscapes. The stars have been a preoccupation of his for quite some time now, along with the clouds in the sky.


He says about these painterly fields of stars, “It’s less about the stars and more about the white noise that’s created with the patterns of the dots.”

You wonder about those stars: are thing as fucked up up there as they seem to be headed, right here, right now?

Skies and stars.  And, perhaps, the void. One of McKee's paintings, in grayscale, bordered in black, is called “Eventide.”  You can see here the thick layers of paint manipulated by the brush.  Perhaps you can see the influence of Mark Rothko in this and in other paintings here.

McKee also has a number of paintings that he calls “writing pieces,” my favorite among them - probably my favorite of all his paintings come to think of it — is one called “Shifting Assumptions.” 
click to enlarge Shifting Assumptions by Johnny McKee
  • Shifting Assumptions by Johnny McKee

You see lime green figures in this painting, outlined in black, bunched together, painted in thick, pasty acrylic. They’re overlapping one another; it’s hard to tell if they’re characters of a mysterious language, a melange of Swahili and Sanskrit, or if they’re detached digits and sexual organs.

“'Shifting Assumptions'  just kept evolving because I write and then I work back into the negative space," said McKee.  "And in that one the negative space, it just kept changing colors, it kept changing shapes to where it is now.”

Joanna Taft, Executive Director of the Harrison Center, was on hand in the gallery also, on Friday. She drew my attention to a particular 14-foot table.

I had to look up to see it.

Indeed,  I hadn’t noticed the table before. That's because it was, quite literally, hanging over my head, up against the rafters in the ceiling,  hanging by wires. It was an impressive table certainly, decked out with lit candles in glass. I wondered what other surprises were lurking up there. Hmm. ..Was there Indian food ?

No, it was just a table, a hanging table, suspended by cable, that could be raised and lowered, the crowning jewel of a recent gallery restoration. This was a table with many uses, as Taft explained.

“We’ve renovated our gallery in the last year and a half, as we’ve had money,” said Taft. “When we ripped out the ceiling, we lots and lots of framing lumber that was going to come out and we didn’t want to throw it away. So we decided that we should build a table. But then we realized that we didn’t have room to store a table. So we looked up. We realized that with this new four feet of height in our gallery that we should take advantage of that height to store things."

For a year and a half they attempted to figure out how to design a table that could be stored in the ceiling, that would come down at the touch of a button.  It would be used for storage, for eating, for First Fridays, among its many uses.

They were also interested in hiring a local artist to construct it.

"So we commissioned Matthew Osborne, who created this table out of that lumber, and we worked with Aerial Arts that designed a rigging system that would lower it so smoothly that we could set it with goblets of wine: and fine china meals, and we could fill it with a feast that we could lower down and our artists could eat a meal together," Taft explained.  "We’re about building community and bringing artists together, and strengthening them in many ways: we love to eat with our artists.”

Next stop: Samuel Vázquez’s Unyielding at Gallery 924. Maybe I wasn’t in the mood to see his collaged, largely abstract compositions that have evolved from his interest and practice of style writing.

click to enlarge #1 by Samuel E.Vázquez
  • #1 by Samuel E.Vázquez

Sometimes, however, the work in a gallery takes its time for me to wrap my brain around it. Such was the case with his large scale  mixed media work "#1."

It looked, at first glance, like he had thrown everything possible that might stick onto this three-panel piece.  But I grew to appreciate the overall sense of unity in the composition, in terms of color and throwaway materials used.  It reminded me of a papered-over section of wall in an urban landscape where flyers are constantly being replaced with other flyers and exposed to the weather. In his youth, growing up in New York City, Vázquez must have walked by many such walls. And in putting up such art, he is trying, it seems, to break down walls as well.  

My next stop was the Stutz.  At the Raymond James Stutz Art Gallery, most everything was in shades of red.  That was this group show's title, "Red."   And it's an apropos color this February First Friday.  Not only is red the color of valentine hearts and blood, but the color of Donald Trump’s “Make America Great Again” hat.

One wonders if Trump supporters might go so far as to don red undies.

I don't think, however, any would be tempted by  Patrick Driscoll's offering, "Election Night 2016," a pair of underwear slathered with red acrylic paint. A vulgar response to Trump, perhaps, but Trump is vulgar.  Even his supporters admit that.

click to enlarge Election Night 2016 by Patrick Driscoll
  • Election Night 2016 by Patrick Driscoll

A standout from this group exhibit is the stunningly surreal/photorealistic "The Meat Eaters" by Michael Sculbaum. Much is tinted red in this oil on canvas painting, and the red isn’t the tint of rose-colored glasses. It’s the tint of the Coca Cola can and the ketchup bottle on the kitchen table in the foreground of this composition. There’s the seated husband and a baby in a high chair both chewing meat of uncertain provenance and the wife is cutting some kind of creature that seems like tilapia crossed with a rabbit that probably smelled as horrible as it looks when she pulled it out of the oven.

 It's hard not to focus in on certain features of this work: the muscular, meaty arm of the man bringing the meat to his mouth in a tightened fist, the knuckles of the wife cutting into the creature; and the disconcerting nude figures in the background, in the light of the glowing television.

Perhaps this family descends from the striving folks in those Thomas Hart Benton murals.  But the sense of optimism that once flourished in America in the last century, the optimism of  Muhammad Ali meets Norman Vincent Peale meets Neil Armstrong,  has crashed and burned.  We feel it, we know it, maybe we can even smell it in this painting.
click to enlarge The Meat Eaters by Michael Schulbaum
  • The Meat Eaters by Michael Schulbaum

At Circle City Industrial Complex I paid a visit to Carla Knopp’s tiny gallery Olgaforce 3D; this painter of imaginary landscapes, of pre-Cambrian seascapes, of otherworldly suburban developments in dense atmospheres. She also does 3D modelling on a computer program and prints out her creations three-dimensionally. The items that she conjured up — goblets, bottles with screw tops, and even her cat brushes all seem like creatures that might emanate from the pre-Cambrian seascapes of her painterly imagination.


click to enlarge 3-D printed Creature container by Carla Knopp
  • 3-D printed Creature container by Carla Knopp
click to enlarge Pre-Cambrian Seascape by Carla Knopp
  • Pre-Cambrian Seascape by Carla Knopp


My last stop of the night: Garfield Park, the home of Listen Hear and also Tube Factory artspace, two spaces run by the nonprofit Big Car Collective.  In the upstairs gallery at the Tube was an exhibition entitled "The Hairy Man," a sort of natural history exhibition about the (should one say fake news?) history of Bigfoot, or Sasquatch.

I was much more interested in what was going on downstairs at the Tube, in the garage space that was being utilized for the first time as a gallery for iMOCA's  "Museum of the Real and Odd," curated by Indy artist and philanthropist Jeremy Efroymson, which focused on artist's renderings of UFO sightings and such as well as other natural and supernatural phenomena.  The highlight for me was an installation entitled "The Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon."   LA-based Julio Orta is the artist, who is also the proud owner of a certificate claiming that he owns 20 acres of property on the Moon.

There are two videos playing simultaneously at the center of this installation. One gives a detailed schematic of the architecture of the Museum of Contemporary Art on the Moon, or MOCAM while the other that shows two spokespeople talking about the museum in the most effusive terms possible to the backdrop of a moon spinning in space at a sickening pace. The male spokesman could be the spokesperson of a Silicon Valley startup except for the fact that he uses the word “fucking” as an adjective with a car salesman’s smile on his face. An interesting sidenote is that the actor who portrays this spokesman is also a film restoration expert who restored the 1902 film A Trip to the Moon, (in French: Le Voyage dans La Lune). There is in fact, a segment of this film in the video.

The female spokesperson, of Ukrainian background, speaks her monologue in in what might as well be Esperanto considering her command of the English language.

There’s an odd, surreal, and let’s just say fucked-up humor to this installation, but there’s deadly seriousness behind it too. After all, things don’t seem to be going too well on the home planet right now as Orta told me when I cornered him later at Listen Hear.

click to enlarge Julio Orta
  • Julio Orta

“It’s getting worse and worse, you know, different sectors political, equality, how people are treating each other,” Orta told me. “And also we also have a possibility of this place being destroyed so we have all of the eggs in one [basket]. If this place is destroyed by an asteroid, we should be able to have another place. Before, in the 60s and the 70s it was so expensive to fly to the moon but now with new technology like self-driving cars. It makes it easier makes it cheaper. It’s like 70 million dollars. That’s the same amount as opening a US aircraft carrier. European Space agency planning to build a european space village in seven years. We have to be ready.

click to enlarge mocam2.jpg


(Not everybody’s as pessimistic as Orta: a certain art dealer I came across at Tube Factory was saying that the types of people who buy art at places like Art Basel and the Hamptons, “the circles I travel in,’ as he called it, are bullish about Trump and what they think he’ll do for the economy.)

For the moment at least. But there are also segments of the super-rich who are buying luxury apartments constructed in decommissioned nuclear warhead silos. Maybe moonshots are a more modestly priced apocalypse-avoidance strategy.   You might be wondering, if you're an artist yourself, will they be offering residencies up there in a decade?

“The cheapest way to do it is to send up a 3D printing machine on a rocket instead of sending materials,” Orta told me. “It would be so stupid to send up all the materials up there when we could send up a 3D printing machine.”

I should put Orta in touch with Carla Knopp! Maybe she'll put up an exhibit in MOCAM, after she designs, and prints, the museum's buildings.

click to enlarge Carla Knopp with her Printer at Olgaforce 3D
  • Carla Knopp with her Printer at Olgaforce 3D











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