An Ordinary Elevation Pours Out Absence: Skylar Haskard and Devin T. Mays at F

by Anna De Filippi March 23, 2024

an ordinary elevation

pours out absence

—Excerpt from Stephàne Mallarmé, “A Throw of the Dice Will Never Abolish Chance / Un coup de dés jamais n’abolira le hazard,” 1897

Photo of 9 cinderblocks propping up a white garage door

Devin T. Mays, “In concert #1: Hold” (detail), 2024

A horseshoe, an example of early human techne, at once domesticates and protects the horse, ensuring its continued use. The superstition of hanging a horseshoe over a door — the title of the latest exhibition at F in Houston — comes from a parable. The Devil visits a Saint’s blacksmith shop in need of a horseshoe for his horse. Instead of nailing the shoe to the horse, the Saint nails it to the Devil’s own foot. They make a pact — the Saint will remove the shoe if the Devil agrees never to enter a house where a horseshoe hangs. The title of this exhibition carries the question of thresholds. But one can also extract from the title a tension in meaning, between the techne of an object’s use-value and its poetic uselessness. In their artworks for this exhibition, Skylar Haskard and Devin T. Mays use everyday objects to intervene, or convene, in unique yet dialoguing ways, both in the phenomenology of the site and its itinerant, invisible permutations — a roll of the dice that doesn’t abolish chance.

In the front room of the gallery is Haskard’s Jungle Buzzard (2024), a disassembled, splotchily-painted mannequin on all-fours that rests atop a folding table, its torso cut through by a wheelbarrow. A net, held together by repurposed carport tubing and pipe cleaners, shields the assemblage. An array of Dollar Store detritus floats on the net’s grid — toothbrushes, mini shovels, thumbs-up signs, fake flowers, and plastic straws. There is a unifying aesthetic to the netting, cohesive rather than purely random, as if each object chosen has a specific referent in a language unknown to the viewer. Underneath, a Taylor Swift popcorn bucket, boxes of off-label cereal and oversized tennis balls visually and literally anchor the assemblage — one cereal box trails farther behind, like the whole thing is attempting to pull it, Sisyphean, even in its own precarity. Balanced across the faceless mannequin’s shoulder is a long stick: on one end, the familiar hobo’s “bindle bag” for essential belongings, and on the other end, a cartoon-ish mouth with its teeth bared, like a model from a dentist’s office, only jammed here with a pearl-like ball of Styrofoam that holds the stick in place, an orality at once voracious and mute.  

Photo of cinderblocks holding up a garage door

Devin T. Mays, “In concert #1: Hold” (detail), 2024

If there is a body here, it is a fragmented one, dispersed, yet not without an algorithmic logic — the press release aptly cites Donna Haraway’s cyborg. Various symbols dot the mannequin’s body like tattoos, that further float the immediate presence of the “body” to an enigmatic elsewhere. Speaking to Haskard, this was my first question — what kind of body is this? Haskard shared that he intentionally chose parts of the mannequin that could read as both masculine and feminine — and that this is the most “body” he has ever included in an artwork. But more so than the contemporary body and its various objects of enjoyment, what is referenced here is a very particular kind of body, or life-lived, of the Americana figure of the traveling hobo, that Haskard specifies, is looking for work, building temporary structures along the way. 

Installation of while poles, pipe cleaners, netting, and a green table with objects piled on top

Skylar Haskard, “Jungle Buzzard,” 2024

detail of a joint of a sculpture

Skylar Haskard, “Jungle Buzzard” (detail), 2024

The “tattoos” on the mannequin are in fact lifted from a shorthand language between these travelers — this train yard has a nasty yard bull, this barn is safe to sleep in, and so on. Haskard is interested in objects designed for ergonomic ease in labor — the wheelbarrow, the shovel, the stick — here reframed through art to, I think, question the types of bodies that are also produced by these objects. There is the theme of precarious, roaming labor — but also, the artwork is literally precarious, barely hanging together through Haskard’s careful handling of gravity and the materials.

Haskard’s interest in the hobo and the temporary dwelling reflects a destituent urge in his own practice, what it means to leave things in the realm of art or not — which is perhaps also a nod to his teacher John Baldessari’s legacy, the reflexivity of his mid-1960s didactic text paintings or The Cremation Project (1970). In the latter artwork, Baldessari burned his paintings from 1953–1966, making them into small cookies that were then placed in an urn to form a new installation. There is destruction, yet also an incessant return to art as a necessary form of life.

As we speak, Haskard tells me about Edgar Allan Poe’s accounts of New York City’s 19th century shanty towns. I happen to know something about this, as my Irish great-grandmother lived in one. What is interesting is that these temporary dwellings nonetheless left a mark on the city — New’s York’s Red Hook neighborhood’s erratic street angles follow the shanty town’s lines. I carried this idea from my conversation with Haskard — of how the temporary, site-specific dwelling leaves its mark or can disappear — into F’s backyard, which in turn seemed just as pertinent in approaching Mays’ work. 

Photo of a balloon installation in a yard

Devin T. Mays,” In concert #1: Hold,” 2024

Stepping out back, a few chairs are lined in a row like at a music recital, and indeed sound is what first captures me in Mays’ In concert #1: Hold (2024). The steady drone of an electric air organ reverberates from behind the garage door, propped up by a line of cinder blocks, letting out a sigh of air. The tail of a bright orange extension cord curls around the side, revealing the sound’s means of transmission. The foreground of the garage gradually gives way to the rest of the lot behind it, dotted with a colorful set of blown-up balloons, amidst wildflowers, brambles, and trees still bare from the winter. Mays joins me as I walk out into the yard and the electric air organ softens, and he shows me a third element to the work that we step under, another threshold: he rehung the laundry line, carving a new angle through the yard that ends over the back edge of the garage roof. The end of the clothesline is weighted by a brick, set in place, yet not fixed.

Speaking with Mays, this poetic composition is clearly inseparable from a more performative, living element to the work, etched across temporalities. Gesture and movement continually fold into the artwork, rather than remaining facts of the past. “It was important that I used my own breath,” Mays tells me about the balloons — and how it wasn’t easy to climb on top of the garage. He plans to return to the yard throughout the exhibition to tend to the balloons. While we are back there, one or two pop, adding another aural element to the work — contingency puncturing the electric organ, whose single enduring note, I find out, is made by a single key pressed, also held down by a brick. 

Photo of a balloon installation in a yard

Devin T. Mays, “In concert #1: Hold,” 2024

F is surrounded by tightly-crammed condos that tower above the older bungalow with its spacious yard — and the balloons draw attention to the land’s speculative value (I thought of Gordon Matta-Clark’s Fake Estates), while also playfully resisting its commodification in its poesis. Next door, Mays points out to me, helium balloons released from a real-estate open house are caught high in a tree. While Mays’ work is a site-specific score, it is also impermanent, reproducible, here but elsewhere. Materials do not remain “elevated” in the artwork — and it’s a question to what degree this even takes place — as he will often, in his making works for exhibitions, return found materials to where they originated after the exhibition closes. If we can speak of poetry as a kind of breaking-up of the crystallization of meaning in language over time, there is still a new reduction of meaning in a poem. The Duchampian readymade (though perhaps not the Unhappy one) settles into its new status as art, even as it reveals the tension between artwork and commodity. By contrast, Mays’ In Concert #1: Hold holds the post-conceptual line between the instantaneity of the defamiliarizing act and its potential repetitions — in tension. 

A Horseshoe Over a Door opens out onto the disquieting vibrations of objects and their meanings, both as they are arranged in space, and through their free associations. Listening closely, there’s an experience of meaning that appears at the same time it retreats, between the said and the unsaid, presence and absence, art and non-art. A tension, not so much between binaries — but more like a continual folding. There can be melancholy in anticipating the future formlessness of a form. Both artworks in this exhibition, I think, resist this impulse to guard what is lost, emphasizing an ever-expanding life over inertia. With a bit of luck. 


Skylar Haskard and Devin T. Mays: A Horseshoe Over a Door is on view at F through March 31, 2024. The gallery will host a closing reception for the show on March 30, from 2-4 p.m., with a performance by Jawwaad Taylor at 3 p.m.

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