Objects of Our Lower-Middle Class: A Review of The Debt Collective
- Chris Samuels and Ian Swanson: The Debt Collective
at Cass Cafe Gallery
January 17 –March 7, 2009.
If we are being asked to look at art we tend to think of it as purely visual. Chris Samuels and Ian Swanson present The Debt Collective is a collaborative installation piece that pushes us as an audience to participate in a social interpretation of a conventional lower-middle class. The work is represented in an array of art objects throughout Cass Cafe. Samuels and Swanson are two local artists that tend to have a do-it-yourself aesthetic, often playing with ideas of deconstruction and abstraction.
Installation art―something that snuck its way into the art world during the Conceptual movement of the late sixties―exists in time and space. It asks for participation from the audience to experience a modification that consists often of sculptural objects, but can also include performance, sound, and other types of new media. For those who frequent Cass Cafe, subtle changes such as bead board paneling along the back wall could be mistaken for design renovations. However, this is the art and you cannot center it on the wall above your leather sofa.
Samuels and Swanson work untraditionally and have collaborated on an installation that modifies the café. They participate together as The Debt Collective in order to speak about an experience of a lower-middle class existence. This rank is familiar to many, especially amongst those who were raised in certain parts of metro Detroit. The bead board wood paneling may have been the walls of your childhood while you scratched in crossword puzzles on a tweed-woven recliner chair. Or perhaps you stepped out onto the screened-in porch with a glass of lemonade and felt the Astroturf sticking between your toes. The materials chosen by the artists reference a specific foundation of our existence. The option of faux grass and paneled wood is an aesthetic endeavor that many have chosen for their households; it comments on a lack of funds, and like Samuels states, “this ‘make do’ mentality.”
A simplified way of life is brought to you in small elements that exist as art objects in space.
Upstairs you will find hung posters covered in a material called “Great Stuff” which is often used for quick home maintenance projects such as leaky pipes and insulation. This loft area is supposed to reference an intimate and personal space that we might have had at any point in our lives but usually occurs during adolescence. Our concept of self is fragile during this time as we grasp for any bit of defined identity. Somehow we held tightly to images; perhaps it is this way because we are a visual culture. Posters are plastered to bedroom walls as placeholders of distinguishing who we are. Swanson says, “I had Nirvana posters,” and Samuels says, “I had posters of cars. I wanted to be known as the guy who likes cars.”
This fixation is usually temporary, and while looking back it is seemingly empty, but at one time we were devoted to staking a small claim towards our identification. The front of the café hosts a few uncanny elements that have worked their way into this critique of social actuality. Looking up you will find a maze of suspended gutters, and mounted on the wall are two mangled lawn chairs and painted deer busts that act in a duality of symmetry. These objects, abstracted out of context, nod at the low-brow way of life as they settle amongst a hyper contemporary environment. The lawn chairs become iconic mounted next to the deer heads, commenting in a subtle manner on what we might find as a ritual of relaxation; the art of porch sitting slowly dies in the fast-pace modern world.
An element that once contained life functioning as an art object can be a bit unsettling. Whenever this happens in art, it is difficult to sort through the ambiguity that may be attached to them. By placing the deer busts within the context of the exhibition, the metaphor in which they stand for surfaces rapidly. The dueling ornaments gaze out into the space as their likeness shines down judgment to all that exist within the installation. This conquering of nature, the faux materials as décor, and the meaningless images that define our identity are all factors of our lower-middle class, our common man, and our social ranking. The black and white busts are opposites representing the good and the bad, the push and pull, the high and low that are prevalent in our world. The white deer may be known in Celtic tradition as a strong guidance that appears when one is breaking a taboo. For us to stand before them in participation forces us to become aware of what we want to avoid.
The concepts that Samuels and Swanson introduce in their installation ask for an engaging audience in order to reach a conclusion. Since the art objects exist in time and space with us, we are very much a part of the art. It is in our nature to make comfort out of any chaotic environment. Here the materials are abstracted, but were once objects of contentment as the existed in our lower-middle class culture. Now they exist in our constructs of high-art while still remaining true to their nature.