Midnight Freedom, the title of the latest show at the Fresh-Up Club, had me thinking of a teenage boy’s ideal moment: a keg party in the woods, guys wearing baseball caps, sex with prom-dates in the bushes. But the show, featuring local artists Peat Duggins, Steve Olson, and Aaron Valdez, sketched an entirely different type of freedom: the abandonment of a singular, essential meaning.
The large size of Peat Duggins’ paintings (roughly 6’x5’) and their flat bluish-red backgrounds command the visual weight in the gallery. Each of the four paintings depicts a different set of identical, pared-down aircraft/ordinance sailing through the air: blimps, fighter planes, bombs and commercial airliners. The old-fashioned, cartoonish machines and their graphic arrangement on the canvas work hard to erase the sinister connotation of government force typically associated with such imagery. In Flight Plans: II, 2003, a formation of fighter planes forms an elegant arabesque, thanks to the artist’s choice of head-on perspective. Flight Plans: I, 2002 depicts a fleet of commercial airliners connected by a grid receding towards the horizon, which captures and formalizes their flat, left-to-right movement across the canvas. In this painting, the video game-like presentation again works to remove the post-9/11 connotation of the airliners. This disassociation between the objects and their presentation creates a curious lack of ethical or moralistic undertone in the paintings. What is left over is an ambiguous, existential image of a subject normally understood and spoken of passionately.
On the opposite wall are five of Steve Olson’s medium-sized color prints (all untitled, 2001) accompanied by texts. The texts are typewritten anecdotes on plain white paper, framed in plexiglas and placed between the photographs. The order on the wall from left to right is not quite every-other, which destabilizes any clear association of a single photo to a single text. The photos are of tiny commercial airplanes flying against a vast background of sky. Taken from the ground, they evoke the romantic image of photographer as “dreamer” (the nostalgic graininess of the prints accentuates this). The images also suggest the non-place or somewhere-elseness of passing aircraft. The texts sound somewhat autobiographical, and relate mundane stories told from the perspective of someone in their late teens or early twenties who’s read Catcher in the Rye recently. Placing the texts and the photographs together seemed redundant to me, because a wide space between the two narratives of viewer/photographer and imaginary airplane dweller already exists (and poetically so) in the photographs alone. By seeing the airplanes — so far away and blatantly ‘other’ — human relations are seen but not felt, and the viewer/photographer is alone but not isolated.
Having been primed by Olson and Duggins’ work, I was ready to see some more work about loss of meaning, and Aaron Valdez’s work was very much in this spirit. Whether or not I would have liked his video Dissolve in another context is difficult to say. It consists of old black and white film footage spliced and overlapped together, jumbling various 1950’s-era film footage in an apparently random order to a soundtrack of ambient techno. Walking into that hot, dark room, I decided to sit awhile and watch. As my pores began to open and sweat, I began to feel a mild existential crisis coming on. I drank the last gulp of my then-warm beer and said to myself, “How can you deal with such relentless existence, with no guarantee for essential meaning? What is the value of freedom when it is only available at the expense of belief?”
“Who knows,” I replied to myself, “maybe the loss of essential meaning is merely a license to really believe in a kind of aesthetics — I mean, the pictures looked good.” Indeed, they did.
Images courtesy the artists and Fresh Up Club.
Jeff Jackson lives in Austin.