In my mind there are two key takeaways from a recent show of Jesse Morgan Barnett’s installed at the house of art collector, curator and critic Charles Dee Mitchell. One is that the show itself, titled JJIGAE, after a kind of Korean soup, is a solid outing by a young local artist who has been a visible presence on the scene for a handful of years now (though I nearly missed this show, and the general public will miss it, because it isn’t really open to general public). Much of the work is site-specific, conceived on the fly, and wouldn’t have been realized unless Barnett was faced with the possibilities and limitations of that particular domestic space.
In a regular gallery it would have been a completely different show, and likely a less surprising one. Here I see Barnett’s growth around versatility (he works with sculpture, text, painting, video, and photography), intimacy, and narrative, due in part (I believe) to working in this space.
The second idea I’m grappling with is how Barnett dealt with a problem all artists have to face, which is the one about context. Artists don’t always get to choose how or where their art is installed, of course, but they often have an idea of where it might debut, and proceed accordingly. By creating JJIGAE for the Mitchell house, Barnett contextualizes this body of work socially, politically, and situationally. It turns out he’s very clever.
Dee Mitchell is a board member of Glasstire, and a private person. Glasstire didn’t even list JJIGAE in its events section. I wasn’t sure I could or should write about the Barnett show at all, and didn’t even realize it was going on until Barnett himself reminded me. I barely know him.
But this weird situation itself compels me: Barnett’s show is the only case I can think of where a non-galleried artist has asked a very private philanthropist to give him a kind of residency in his house. The idea struck Barnett earlier this year when he was visiting his grandmother and aunt in a rural part of South Korea, a place he’s been to every summer for years. Both the discomfort and acceptance he felt in the gap between the culture of his ancestral home of Korea and his current life here (he was born in Korea but grew up in Kansas) was sharpened on this trip, and he wanted to respond to it.
As a co-founder of the ongoing Dallas Biennial series, Barnett understands how to resource unexpected spaces for showing work, though that usually means storefronts, lobbies, warehouses, etc. Here he wanted a house, and because he had once toured Dee Mitchell’s house as an MFA student (I don’t know if it was to see Mitchell’s art collection or the house itself, which is by architect Ron Wommack), that one came to mind. It is a good show space. He was still in Korea when he emailed a proposal to Mitchell, who he hardly knows, and Mitchell initially said no. Obviously in time Mitchell relented, but he wouldn’t remove his collection to accommodate Barnett. Barnett would have to work around it throughout the house. Burnett didn’t sleep there, but over weeks he built his show.
The corollary here is smart: being a guest in someone’s home means, even if that person’s house is less than an hour from your own, entering another culture. The routines, expectations, sounds, smells, humor—all of it is at least somewhat foreign, and the guest is expending tremendous energy staying conscious and respectful of this new world.
Barnett in Korea is a traveler. The cultural differences between Dallas and rural Korea are vast, as are the differences between Seoul and other Korean cities and the rural parts of Korea. In Barnett’s grandmother’s village, dogs are raised in tight cages and cooked up for dinner; pet cats are kept on short cables lashed to front porches. Both rural and cosmopolitan Korean approaches to aging and death, ritual and absurdity, technology, design, entertainment—all of these are a world away, as it were, from middle-class Texas.
Barnett attempts to take some ownership of the discomfort and nostalgia while understanding the futility of the gesture, and in turn he’s looking to discover a charmed or unexpected truth about the culture he’s known since childhood but never fully claimed. The exhibition is something like a distilled vacation slideshow, but here the narrative unfolds in odd spaces throughout the whole house.
Barnett is, after all, working to coordinate a deep familiarity (and therefore comfort) with some of the daily details of Korean life (the takeout soup, which Barnett replaces regularly; the slippers by the front door; the star-rating system dominating the kitchen) with a serious discomfort or confusion around some of the customs. He also allows you to use your intuition and desire to find patterns and meaning as you move through the spaces. For example: The video playing on the screen downstairs (this is Mitchell’s primary TV) is focused on the ancient feet of Barnett’s sleeping grandmother; they’re folded at the foot of her bed. Upstairs in the bedroom, a smooth white acrylic dome, just barely evoking the traditional Korean burial mound, rises up from surface of a bed.
The animal issue seems to be an unhappy one for Barnett, or maybe I’m projecting. But in the hallway gallery, Barnett has tethered a stuffed cat to a short galvanized cable and it’s positioned as though looking wistfully out a window (and then Mitchell’s real cat strolls by). It’s silly, but not funny. In the bedroom, a spare, four-foot painting on canvas is propped on a couch. It’s a portrait of a dog with his face washed out and little eyebrows added back in, which is both sad and funny, especially if one knows something about Korean personal grooming trends.
There are about a dozen pieces in all, just quietly doing their thing, and despite a pervasive melancholy, JJIGAE is spiked with a bit of the comic relief that comes with confusion or misinterpretation. One wall of the bedroom is emblazoned with the wildly distorted English interpretation found on a youtube lyric video for a famous Korean karaoke singer: “…CAN’TA SPANK THE PAIN INSIDE CUZ LUB TAKES TOM…” (which is still 100% more actual translating than I could attempt from English to Korean).
Fundamentally, Barnett is very aware that he can’t possibly reconcile how he thinks he should feel about his extended family’s old home and how he really does feel when he goes there, because he feels disturbed and amused and alienated and sentimental all at once. On some level anyone who tries to go “home” again—if by home one means an actual place that can’t compete with a memory forged years ago, or a wisdom that comes with experience—can relate.
But I have to return to the stealth of Barnett’s choice of location for the show. There’s so much going on with it. The hosting by Mitchell, however hands-off he is, is still a kind of sanctioning of the work and the artist by an important insider, which is in some ways even more validating than a commercial show in a local gallery. It’s cooler, so to speak. Also, the exclusivity of the house and getting to tour it adds to the show’s mystique. (A student group and their art professor were filing in as I was leaving.) It’s the opposite of over-exposed in this age of willful overexposure and social media, and it’s possibly therefore a better career move: the slow build as opposed to the risk of a trending burn out.
Plus, Barnett must have understood the various conflict of interests he was risking, due to Mitchell’s culture and media ties, and he must have found it worth the risk. And last but not least, since it takes extra effort to see the show, if it had been a clunker, all the art students and artists and critics, et. al., who had signed up for their appointment to tour it would have walked away unimpressed and Barnett would have come off like a waste of everyone’s (including Mitchell’s) time. This is true of any failed body of work, but Barnett’s not established enough to bounce back easily. But it is a good show, so Barnett just seems that much smarter.
JJIGAE, Jesse Morgan Barnett at the Charles Dee Mitchell residence, Dallas, Oct. 18-Nov. 15, 2014
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