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I Know Why the Bird Cage Sings


Daniel Reich Gallery
537 West 23rd Street, 212-924-4949
October 22 - November 8, 2008
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Daniel Reich Gallery is very pleased to present a selection of objects selected by artist Christian Holstad for his curatorial debut, “I Know Why the Bird Cage Sings.”

In addition to representing the predispositions of an individual, Holstad“s singular selections are like ingredients from the material of culture: an array of things creating a particular recipe oddly reminiscent of the shape and condition of our society. While the artifacts in this show are collected from around the world, the impression is distinctly American and the diverse blend of curiosities has a populist democratic aspect. Holstad’s selection is, if not strangely moving, at least darkly ambiguous.

If Van Gogh’s famous shoes possessed a feeling of authenticity, a pair of worn Mexican leather boots shown here have a similar aspect. As an item of clothing droops conforming over time to a particular body: to be worn too much is to be loved too much. A “worn to death” item of apparel has been, over the years, much too much a refuge from which one is unable and unwilling to wean oneself.

So a pair of worn Mexican leather boots suggest a southwestern journey and tenderness like so many of the items included here – pleasures worn and novel which offer a momentary sense of surprise, comfort and pleasure. Many of the items assembled for this show are made with care and investment. Countering the personal love inherent in overuse are the very impersonal institutions and rules that structure our society. This exhibition includes a pair of whittled prison dice with which to while away hours of incarceration. These prison dice bear the inscription “Fuck Off” in black ballpoint pen. This injunction has the private quality of “keep out” or “go away” amplifying the way in which these dice have been intrinsic to a person spending time in confinement.

After all, what other institution is as American as jail? It is no accident that in a slip of the tongue, one of our presidential candidates began his address: “My fellow Prisoners…” We have devoted an entire film genre to jail. Perhaps it is our enjoyment of anarchic freedom that convinces us that while we are personally entitled to break laws, when others are found guilty, we froth at the mouth and promptly call for their extraction and incarceration with zeal whether in a penal or mental system (on display here is also a music video by The Cramps shot at Napa Valley Mental Institution).

Hence, in terms of the centrality of the confinement to Americana, also on display is a crude wooden pistol painted black. A pistol ought to be iconic, yet the failure of its articulation is painfully clear so that it is only effective from a distance. One might hold it in one’s pocket without fully revealing it in order to intimidate a bank teller into giving one lots of money. It is consummate that in America, a pistol is kept with the bright gingham back cover of the classic “Betty Crocker” cookbook. In terms of tenderness, the back cover of this book has been accidentally singed by haphazard placement on a burner, leaving a brown circular carbon stain.

Also on view, is a 1970s greeting card noting undying love. Printed in bold writing on the exterior is the phrase “I worship the ground”... and inside “that awaits you.” This paean to the obsessive unhealthy spirit of human love is a verbal expression of the earthbound affection felt for the boots and its relation to possessive malignance.

Juxtaposed with the earthbound boots is an exotic pair of nineteenth century lapel pins with bright yellow and green feathers. Like many other items in the show, they are of organic material and there is a joy to the delightful bird feathers. While they are the decorative and sartorial opposite of the comfortable shoes, they are also pleasing albeit as objects that possess visual warmth. The message of the feathers is perhaps expounded upon by a set of light bulbs holding flowers. They are curiosities with the quality of snow globes in that one looks through a translucent surface to discover a fanciful creation inside.

In terms of the fanciful and the esoteric, we may look at a hand carved Japanese tray bearing the imprint of a red bat – a skeletal hairless flying creature that has its place in mythology, but also in the direct experience of caves in the wilderness. The construction of the tray is in accordance with Mingei philosophy which espoused the aesthetic beauty of ordinary objects created by ordinary people. The carving of this tray has a delicate brutality allowing it’s descent from a piece of wood to be quite apparent and its bat inscription is cryptic and to the unknowledgeable viewer has the feeling of occultism.

In terms of the relation of some of the assembled objects to the common and to the lowbrow, the role of the ugly in our culture is also apparent. Many times those of us who are less adept attempt to make a thing and without the delicacy of a practiced hand, our effort results in a rather perplexing ugliness. This experience reminds us of how the godly task of creating nature from carbon is outside our realm of expertise—a perplexing and interesting experience. But there is something about the ugly, especially when whittled and rife with failure, that is an aesthetic in itself. For instance, this show includes a late 19th century dog collar probably from Europe. In this era, European dog collars were spiked to inflict injury upon wolves instinctively savaging the throat of the dog. When this object is set alongside the worn Mexican boots, one could interpret the sharp ring of rusted spikes as representative of puritanical American society, which rests so heavily on the fantasy of the penal system and “an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth.”

The ugliest, most bestial object in this show is an unpleasant mask suggesting the head of a bearded sleeping giant. He is like an Appalachian fiction or a manifestation of our large continent. The lines of his eyelashes have the delicacy of a baby doll, but his nose and forehead are crude and while this monstrosity is apparently intended to be worn over ones head, when dissociated from a body, it appears to be the end product of a decapitation.

Expounding upon ugliness, a section of the “log lady” from Twin Peaks, the television series, occurs like an oracle speaking from an aspirational big screen TV – of the sort that might accompany enormous Midwestern chairs. The log lady sits in a homely perhaps wholesome environment cradling an oracular log as though rooting herself in her rocking chair while uttering prophetic words. It seems simply necessary to hold onto something for the sake of stability and her frontal comportment echoes the style of an infomercial and is all too reminiscent of the evening news.

*title from song lyrics by Coil
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