Written by: Conor O’Brien, thelivinggallery.blog[at]gmail[dot]com
The penultimate show at Ortega y Gasset Projects borrows its name and theme from Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick, from a chapter titled “The Lee Shore.” In this chapter the whaling ship Ishmael has boarded crosses from its port into the open ocean. Here, as whenever a boundary is transgressed, there is a moment of lucidity, brief and intense, felt more than understood, which Ishmael attempts to define, as he does his speech dissolves and then ends in a string of exclamations. Ishmael, as the voice of Melville, establishes two magnetic poles of experience, one attractive one repellant: the attractive pole flows with the current, the waves, the wind, leeward, toward land; the repellant pole lies beyond these elements on an unreachable anti-shore, an unmappable point in space, which exists only in the act of casting off and pushing against the current. He deems this state “landlessness.” Ortega y Gasset Projects and the rest of the galleries previously residing in the warehouse at 17-17 Troutman Street have been asked by their landlord to vacate the building. Following “Landlessness,” Ortega y Gasset Projects will have one final exhibit and by the end of June, it and the remaining 17-17 Troutman galleries will themselves be landless.
Trout confine their existence to the freshwater lakes from which they spawned. They never taste anything but the same embryonic atmosphere that incubated them in the egg; they do not mature, they fatten into adult-infancy; they are not born and they never die, they ripen and rot. Salmon decide early in their lives to flee their place of birth. These fish have a genetic sensitivity to another magnetic pole; from birth they can hear it, in spontaneous, incoherent impressions beyond the fog. To these fish, the embryonic comfort of home smells of putrefaction; all familiarity soon festers and stinks. So, severing their umbilical loyalties, they swim toward the ocean. And in that transition between the river and the sea, as the last, lingering gusts of freshwater fade, the saltwater that first stings its unaccustomed gills ignites a dormant set of genes, an alternate species emerges in this fresh environment, as the fish’s former being dissolves in its wake.
It is this way of life that Ishmael exalts: the transition, when the magnetism of whatever invisible promised land overwhelms, and the freedom of the desert, the ocean, becomes preferable to the solid security of land. For Ishmael, the land is “pitiful” and “slavish” next to the ocean. It is a mistake to think that all forms of slavery are miserable; in its most common form, slavery is pleasant and comfortable. It needs to be so, to appeal to those who would resign themselves to it. If resistance means discomfort or even suffering, it is because the act of living is fundamentally a restless discomfort, an unnatural transition from the soil to the air, a constant tormenting transition; and everything that promises to soothe or distract from this restlessness conspires against the act of living. For Ishmael, the “highest truth,” and therefore the highest life, is found only in landlessness, in setting oneself toward an ineffable pole, against all the attractive, gravitational currents that would have one resign to the grave.
The artwork in “Landlessness” deal with this idea of displacement, willful or imposed, expounded upon in this section of Moby-Dick. Each artist in her or his way attempts to get at this “highest truth” which Ishmael claims resides in a state of landlessness. There are no coincidences, and it would seem that the sudden forced evacuation of all art galleries at the 17-17 Troutman warehouse is another attempt at exploring Melville’s theme. Soon, these galleries will find themselves searching for new homes, some in Bushwick or other parts of Brooklyn, some in other cities, some may perish in the “howling infinite,” and others may re-emerge entirely transformed and reinvigorated.
In Matt Town’s “SOAP,” the artist’s first solo show at Microscope Gallery, the central piece is a 16mm film of the artist riding the streets of his Bushwick neighborhood in a handmade soapbox car. In light of the evacuation of 17-17 Troutman, this image of the wandering artist seems appropriate. The film and the soapbox car are symbols alien and familiar. The car, a minimal white box exposing only the top half of the artist’s white helmet, eliminates any recognizable humanity through abstraction; the vehicle becomes something with sci-fi signification, an unidentifiable object. Yet, the soapbox car is also a symbol of nostalgia, childhood, Depression-era America, “simpler times,” the fantasy of innocence, etc; just as the 16mm celluloid quality recalls film’s age of innocence. Inside the soapbox, photos of the artist’s home and family are posted on the walls. The artist carries these emblems of home as he wanders, just as the salmon, which uses its olfactory sense to navigate back to its freshwater home at the end of its life, carries the scent of its birthplace in its memory even as it wanders out to sea.
The artist wades through the street, a white whale: only his eyes betray a human face, otherwise obscured by a mask of impenetrable indifference. Bystanders approach and inspect the vehicle: there is a impression of otherworldliness, of displacement, of intrusion. Against the dark grey of its environment, the drifting white cube reads as negative space. It has wandered, unaware, innocent, into an environment where it is starkly out of place, so much so that it appears a negation of its surroundings, an emptiness in the fabric it occupies. It is its innocence that perhaps is most ominous; innocence in its extreme is the annihilation of experience. Driving his giant soap bar, he harkens a return to naive blankness. Matt Town’s image of the wandering artist is literally landless: a blank hole in the landscape.
Ortega y Gasset Projects
Location: 17-17 Troutman St.
Hours: Sat-Sun, 12-6
Location: 4 Charles Place
Hours: Thurs-Mon, 1-6