Upon entering The Reading Room gallery for Jesse Morgan Barnett’s latest show, Season, you encounter a collection of new cardboard and white Styrofoam boxes, a package of dry ice, various shipping labels and an unopened bottle of champagne, all haphazardly lined up along the left wall, creating the sense that the installation is still in progress. Fastened to the brick wall above the collection of shipping materials is a blank, white, fish-mounting plaque, ostensibly awaiting a fish.
Season is dedicated to the act of fishing and its trappings—boats, weather conditions, the transport of fish, the eating of fish, and the various metaphors therein. Barnett, who confesses a strong aversion to fish, made the work in an attempt to build a relationship with fish and fishing without any direct encounter, as a way of preparing—seasoning himself, if you will—for some real, albeit tentative, future exchange. In keeping with his interest in technology’s mediating power in our lives, the work acts as a hedge between the idea of fishing and its actuality. Preparation and anticipation, both physical and mental, are the operating tactics of the show.
As if to frame these ideas of unfulfilled build-up and tension, just near the row of supplies, projected low on the wall of the front desk, a looped video shows fishing rods slung over the side of a boat, straining under the weight of unseen fish that are never reeled in, though the viewer anticipates it throughout. The video plays a soundtrack of churning stomach acid, noises that are analogous to boating sounds—whipping wind, metal on metal, and water lapping—creating a parallel between the unsated hunger for fish as food and the unsated desire for fish as the reward of sport.
In the center of the gallery, the hacked-off bow of a sailboat lies atop a white table like the carcass of an enormous fish that’s been laid there for cleaning; the bulbous foam and plastics of the boat’s anatomy hint at the fatty insulating layers of whales or other sea animals, so much so that one expects the thing to smell or ooze. Nearby, a small freezer sits open and empty, its ice-crystal-skinned innards white and pristine. Like the stacked, blank white plaques and empty Styrofoam boxes, the freezer awaits some product to fill it, some result of an endeavor. But, like all of the objects here, the freezer is intentionally trapped in the clean place prior to use—between cold, intellectual functionality and warm, messy experience, that is, in the structures of metaphor where objects and ideas can act as open vessels waiting to be filled.
The tight, thoughtful dichotomies that Barnett sets up throughout the show allow open and poetic allusions to gracefully stockpile in the mind, just like the pristine boxes and vessels are stacked throughout the space. The purity and clarity of this show counterweights the visceral realities of fishing—the effort of catching a fish, the cleaning of it and the contact with its actual viscera—like a body stepping into a buoyed boat and causing it to tip.
Season is a subtle, deft show that, more than anything, underscores the idea that research and inquiry, while they can themselves be beautiful, cannot serve as the proxy for actual experience.
Jesse Morgan Barnett: Season will be on view at The Reading Room through June 22.
(All images courtesy of the artist.)