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Owning things comes with complications. A certain amount of stuff is required to sustain life, but there’s a point when too much is too much; even necessary things spurn attachment as they break down, go out of style, or decompose. Mark A. Rodriguez’s recent exhibition at Park View embodied the passions and problems of obsolescence, provoking barbed questions about what it means to hold onto things, including art.
Two works containing a few-thousand cassette tapes each addressed these themes most clearly. 1st Gen (2010-2016) and 2nd Gen (2010-ongoing) are sculptures whose primary building blocks are exhaustive collections of Grateful Dead concert recordings. 1st Gen also includes a cleanly designed mahogany shelving unit that holds the tapes, neatly ordering the spine of each tape’s cardstock insert, and shed- ding light on the archival preferences, penmanship, and stylistic tics of the individual collector who catalogued it.
Occupying a middle ground between homespun minimalism, home décor, and luxurious audiophile altarpiece, the piece occupied an entire wall of Park View’s modest apartment setting. The most visually dominant works, meanwhile, were a series of cartoonish, larger-than-life wooden cutouts of flowers painted with menacingly gleeful facial expressions (2015 and 2016) inspired by street-level advertising Rodriguez encountered outside a local garden store. The flowers loomed everywhere, yet 1st Gen was the exhibition’s center of gravity.
On the surface, the piece is a study in the variety of fandom that reveals the fastidious side of a fan base best known for its Dionysian tendencies. As a Deadhead (full disclosure), however, I found myself drawn beyond this sociological facade into thornier territory with concerns about property—intellectual and otherwise.
The Grateful Dead allowed its fans to record concerts with the proviso that the tapes were not to be commercially distributed. By incorporating them in artworks that bear his name rather than the Dead’s—Rodriguez affixed a carved plaque with his signature and the image of a rose to the lower right side of 1st Gen’s shelving unit—and by exhibiting it in a gallery where it might be sold, he was calling upon art’s ability to act as a super-efficient conductor of authorship. As in any act of post-Duchampian appropriation, the tapes become, at least temporarily, his own intellectual property. And like the slippery copyright issues that are re-shaping the music business today, their use by Rodriguez provokes questions about how and when artists can ethically absorb each other’s work.
The extremity of Rodriguez’s commitment to the project, however, suggested that he is interested in something that goes beyond putting his stamp on the Dead’s legacy. What he has appropriated, finally, are the tapes as containers of music rather than the music itself. Given the warmth of its physical presence, 1st Gen becomes a paean to the importance of real things that can be touched. But considering the time he spent traveling and meeting with tape collectors, as well as the care taken in the construction of the shelving, the work’s impact is as a performative and durational—or even devotional—gesture rather than a purely sculptural statement.
This paradox was only emphasized by the subtle presence of 2nd Gen, a work in progress for which Rodriguez is attempting to obtain a recording of every documented show the Dead played during their 30-year career. It includes the many duplicates he amassed while sourcing tapes for 1st Gen—those for which he had no duplicates he spent years dubbing himself—and was installed in several dozen cardboard boxes stacked underneath a table lodged against the gallery’s rear wall. Rodriguez demoted the gallery from fine art space to storage facility. As a result, I felt like I was being asked to exchange the experience of aesthetic pleasure for a sadder meditation on the way possessions pile up as mute witnesses to the passage of time.
Until I consulted the checklist, it hadn’t occurred to me that the table sheltering 2nd Gen, about as featureless an object as one could imagine, was an artwork too. On top of Table (2015-2016)—and the related but more diminutive Night Stand (2016), located elsewhere in the gallery— Rodriguez placed several examples of his functional Common Lamp (2015) sculptures, in which brass and copper elements echo the colors and textures of the pennies filling the aluminum pans serving as bases. As inflation takes its course, pennies are increasingly on the verge of uselessness, so that the lamps provide storage for objects whose utility is on the wane.
Seen together these works bring to mind Dieter Roth and his tables and desks, which started out as sites for art making and ended up as art objects. Depending on one’s perspective, this either dilutes value—because anything the artist touches has the potential to become art—or allows it to become a free-flowing force with the potential to imbue common things with something akin to religious energy. In either case, what ends up being shown as art in spaces designated for the purpose are relic- or corpse-like objects that point outward from themselves, toward life and the inevitable processes of decay that delimit it. The quietly radical conclusion here is that art, like life, can never really be contained. What fills our galleries and museums are mere by-products of otherwise ephemeral processes.