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Free Show (by Eileen Myles)

[ Image: Nick Flynn taking work at the Free Show ]

Free Show

Free show – 25 visual artists, poets, writers and persons were invited in the summer of 1999 to contribute a piece to curator poet and artist Sal Randolph, for the purposes of exhibition in a show. People will be invited to attend in the fall of 1999 and are free to take what they like from the exhibition. The curator admits the show might vanish right away, though some of the participants have given multiples of their work, or more than one piece.

To understand why an artist would organize a “free show” in the last months of the 20th century I wound up sitting in her studio one afternoon—goofing around, picking stuff up and perusing. How about your name. Why Sal?

“Well” . . . she cocked her head and thought . . . “The name Tod was kicking around in our family, but my cousin got it. I was known as Sarah, Sally. So I dropped the diminutive “ee.”

I get it—Sal. Seizing on the same one-syllable strength as her cousin. Not Ajax, not Comet, but Tide. I pictured “Sal” written in thread on the pocket of her shirt. And then I could begin.

Sal Randolph’s last installation was a “Free Store” which was held at Schoolhouse, a gallery in Provincetown, Mass. on the tip of Cape Cod. It’s odd to think of Provincetown, such geographical extreme, a tiny place, a sandbar, really, as the beginning of America as we know it; but it was: the Pilgrims landed here. Tons of them died that first winter and then they hightailed it to Plymouth, but this was the place where “it,” America, maybe even global capitalism, began.

Of course there were free shows all over the place about thirty years ago, in the sixties, but you know that was the past, and it means something different now. Free does. Food came flopping down from the skies at Woodstock, oranges and Drakes cakes, and people were naming their babies “Free.” There were “the diggers” who styled themselves after British anarchists and this group was involved in meeting the needs of a moment by moment “free” society. If one was not involved in the processes of capitalism the very timing of one’s existence would slow down, alter, and then of course there were drugs.

I was getting my hair cut on St. Mark’s Place and a Polish barber told me, as we looked out his big store window at tourists and students and punks, that the streets were once flooded with barefoot young people and their eyes were like this: he made a twirling motion with his fingertip. “Wow,” I said looking out onto that different street. “Yup, it was something,” he smiled, snip snip snip.

It’s funny, I think of the institutions that moment spawned. Free schools of all sorts. The nonprofit art world was an invention of the sixties—the NEA, so we are standing in the wake of that world, and I don’t think the proprietor of the Free Show feels nostalgic, or is interested in summoning it back. Uh uh.

And, after all, who are these artists. People who learned useless skills in an abundant economy, that was distributed differently than it is now, and now are competitively or gently trying to stuff themselves into the shrinking number of spots on bookshelves, screening rooms and walls. Potentially a lot of art is waste, wasted labor, wasted intellection, and of course mountains and mountains of stuff gets made—so give it away. Always, the artist seeks new ways to distribute.I was handed a map of the East Village in 1910. This is twenty-five years ago, and the history professor I worked for wanted me to go to the institutions that had survived and see if I could get in their files and find out who used each one of them, who was in their community. We wanted evidence of how and where people met. The idealism of the Boys Club of America might interlock with the caring approach of the Lutheran Middle Collegiate Church. The postmodern approach to truth is based in neighboring beliefs, rather than absolutes. Who sat next to who. Who met in the food line. And where did their old clothes go? It certainly seems that American democracy is best observed in the ways we dispose. The only way I could enter the Protestant churches of my neighborhood when I was growing up was to go to their rummage sales.

Julian Schnabel found the plates for his famous paintings at the Goodwill on 21st and 8th Ave. in New York. An art neighborhood, Chelsea, has since crept up around the site of that purchase. The huge flea market on 27th Street, nearby, is an amazing (and expensive) array of bicycles, furniture and clothes.

I remember Jim Shaw’s “Thrift Store” paintings turning the heads of the art world in 1993. Not “bad” paintings that he had made himself, but a show of paintings he “found” over the years. He put them on the wall in Metro Pictures and the gesture was stunning. In the nineties, maybe in reaction to the art boom of the eighties, artists began to put more junk in their shows, plop a couch or two between the ironic paintings, inhabit the gallery space with a living room sensibility—spray painted cassette racks, one artist leaned an electric guitar against the wall. Among other things, this new “ease” reflected the freedom of the artist. Her reconstituted relationship to “things.”

Part of the act of art is hiding the expense involved in putting up a show. Either the gallery or the individual must absorb the considerable outlay for even just printing, framing. “I bet she made a bundle,” people might sniff walking away from a successful show, yet it’s always a shot in the dark, especially considering the maxed out credit cards of many who either before or after had to go and proofread into the night, or teach about art, or do contracting –– jobs, whatever the culture will buy from them –– the invisible sacrifice always exists, like a halo around the beautiful show. As does the extended community buzzing, also hoping to enter the orbit, attain the élan of the unique individual capable of conspicuous graceful waste, or even be the quick study who managed to sells sea shells by the seashore—Jim Shaw’s worthless paintings transforming the value of “found” once and for all—or just for a while. Because more and more, art really isn’t what’s sold. Valuable paintings and sculptures continue to arrive in the key galleries in New York and LA and because of the names and the agreed upon status of their makers, the skill of the dealers, money does eventually get exchanged, but a lot of art these days is just advertising—for what? A kind of experience, for vision.

Painters began to make films and the world the camera grazes on continues the values and beliefs and aesthetic of what has already come to be disparagingly known as “wall art.” Everyone, more and more everyday, is obsessed with “vision.” That’s what the painter-turned-filmmaker wants to hear people say. You’ve got to give him that—Schnabel’s got a vision. Every artist, every writer, every movie star wants to enter reality deeper and bring everyone with them—have a teevee show, a magazine, or open a store. Everyone wants to start a club somehow, have a world, say come on in. You’re home. Inside my head.

“These are your friends?” I inquire about the list for the show. The inventory is beginning to pile up in Sal’s studio. A bra, a pile of multi-colored condoms, dominos, a plastic angel pissing. “They are people I wanted to play with,” she says, shrugging. “It’s not curated visually.”

Do you know who the wreckers were? Because I think Sal Randolph’s free show could only happen here. There were islands in the 17th century along the still only partially inhabited East Coast which had no trees, and so they built their houses with the wood of boats that crashed. There were people who walked the shores of beaches of the entire coast, looking for barrels of goods, even the remnants of sails to make their clothes. I think The Free Show is about nature.

I kept asking Sal for a poem, because she told me a lot of the meaning of the show resides in her history as a poet, the linguistic principal of assemblage, and even poetry’s existence as a gift economy. “Yes, yes,” she said and led me over to her computer where she’s distributing her poems now.

“Let me show you something.” Our talk returns to the same level of saturation again and again. She flips on her iMac and the beeps and growling voices begin to churn. The poem plays like a continuous song. I like it. There’s a camera jacked into the computer. “I shot that,” she says, pointing to a wall of bright yellow pipe cleaners. “I go swish swish,” she says waving her camera, “and then it winds up there.”

The screen is a semi-abstract gauze and pattern of something blue, pink and white. “That’s that,” she says pointing to a photograph of some landscape on the wall. This is great, I tell her. Isn’t it like the light shows of the 60s, the drugs and the music got sort of organized by the computer,slightly capitalized? I think it is, she admits. We sit there enthralled. We’re a community of two at the Fillmore East on a bright Saturday afternoon in Provincetown.

We can go forward in history, and we can also go back. Kurt Schwitters (1887-1948), a German multi-media artist, took the second syllable (Merz) of the German word for business (Kommerz) and attached it to everything he did: the Merz-poem, Merz-painting (Merz-bild) and even a series of huge installations inside his home: the Merzbau. Yet he said that his entire history came out of a series of landscape paintings he made in his twenties. All art, he believed, is based on measurement, adjustment.

I think he was making money. Walter Benjamin says that money was the first reproduced art. The first multiple. As I flip through Sal Randolph’s slides—the little bags of green stones, language on tags, an excess of pink pillows, a table of flattened images, a procession of thoughts and things and photographs—an obsessive “make as many as you want” economy—it all comes down to dough, or nothing at all.

Sal’s project converges at the root of money and postmodern art and avant garde friendship. Another word for coins is “specie.” It just means “of a kind.” All of our assembled stuff will hang on a wall for a pristine moment this upcoming fall. Then the wreckers, the viewers, the community will start taking it down. In a tide of consumption The Free Show will vanish. Like a name bobbing somewhere in a family. The people who came to the show will distribute the art. They’ll take it home, they’ll put it on a shelf, they’ll throw it away, they’ll save it. The pieces will wind up everywhere. It’s all about us.

Eileen Myles
from The Importance of Being Iceland.