I know what art is, but I don’t know what I like. This is because I’m educated in such matters. The purpose of art is expression. Expression is a process of sending ideas. Art is any recorded experience that draws us back to it, holds us there, grows inside us, becomes part of us. It can model behaviors, shape beliefs, create a shared experience. Art makes possible politics and advertising. It is here that many make the mistake of thinking that art is about what they like. It’s not. No matter how loudly an audience applauds, it’s only clapping; seals do the same. What we like is less important than what we take out. Some art will be liked by some but all art will be taken of. Art gets on you.
At a party in a photographer’s loft was an open trunk. Inside it was nothing. I and a small crowd of artists stood around the trunk and drank beer the way a small crowd of regular people might stand around the bed of a pickup truck and drink beer. Nobody questioned the trunk or its purpose. Yet I was drawn to the smallness of it, pulled in by some promise of safety and darkness. I noticed it had air holes. Without much thought, I stepped inside and squatted just to see if I could fit. Somebody slammed it shut, somebody else latched me in; a crowd gathered and excitedly discussed what to do with me. It quickly became apparent, at least to me, that the air holes were incapable of moving much air, and also that there wasn’t much air, because the air I was breathing seemed empty of oxygen, steamy and thick, depleted too quick. Somebody outside discovered the air holes were just the right size for the insertion of lit firecrackers. Several exploded inside the trunk and I was quickly choking in smoke. I formed my lips around one of the holes and tried to suck oxygen. Also I screamed and pounded. Both were ineffective and wasted energy. I was dragged to a steep staircase, allowed to slide down six steps, where I’d be caught and pushed up again for another ride down, each one a little longer and faster.
When I was finally allowed to emerge from the trunk, I saw something that took me decades to decipher. In the eyes of my captors was an expression I hadn’t expected. In their eyes was triumph, a cocky disrepentance, an amoral certainty of a drunken majority. Across thin air, without a word spoken, the eyes had it that when someone is stupid enough to step inside an empty trunk they deserve whatever they receive without explanation. Responsibility for the rightness of the act, once it was divided among the group, was small enough to discard. My screams inside the trunk were unheard by those outside the trunk, who could barely hear their own screams over Little Richard’s. I popped out expecting… something far different. I never figured out what. Some kind of explanation? An apology? A reason? An acknowledgement of what they’d put me through? But they remained locked on the outside of the trunk. It took me years to understand. It was a great gift.
What I didn’t realize then is that I’m a claustrophiliac. I like small spaces. I’m drawn to them. Most of us are. We only think we like big spaces, but we don’t: we hate them. Big spaces are commanding; they intimidate. Small spaces are comforting; they intimate. We gather in kitchens. We retreat to bathrooms, hide in closets and prefer parties in small houses. We need to be jammed up against each other, and furthermore we like it very much, even though we say we don’t, we lie. We rely on closeness, need it to survive, just as surely as we need solitarity, which is also enhanced by small spaces. Small rooms have big jobs: the jail cell, confessional, phone booth, peep show, chapel, interrogation room, the coffin we’re buried in, all these places are always tiny, either for the purpose of making us feel more safe or less safe, depending who’s inside and who’s outside and what’s going on at the time.
No living artist better illustrates the flickering nature of what is and isn’t than Brian Oglesbee, whose pictures jump off the wall, do a dance, suck you in, slam the lid. The firecracker is when you realize these are not paintings, but unmanipulated large format chemically processed photographs of actual events that are shockingly complex the closer you look. Check Oglesbee’s Water Series featured here. These works are a definite buy. BUY! BUY! And as you do, wonder why the trunk was part of this review.