In 1845, panic swept the Northeastern United States as 23 percent of its residents were infected with Combustivism, a disorder causing hallucinations, delusions and violent outrages. The situation became so dire that martial law was declared in several states. Meanwhile, unsubstantiated rumors circulated about the cause of the disorder. One theory purported that the inhalation of the dried remnants of cardinal feces was to blame, provoking the widespread slaughter of the species whose ubiquity gave the state of Massachusetts ("Red Sky" in Algonquin) its name. Various reactionary measures were taken over the course of the next half-decade, including the burning of a Philadelphia neighborhood and numerous Brooklyn rose fields, until finally a chemist named George Halley correctly determined that the removal of nitrous oxide during coal production would end the outbreak.
The above account, paraphrased from the press release written by Todd Colby
for Marianne Vitale
's solo show What I Need To Do Is Lighten the Fuck up ABout a Lot of Shit
(at Zach Feuer
through February 25), is about as factual as Sarah Palin's assertion that Paul Revere rode to warn the British. But while someone with a rudimentary knowledge of U.S. history could detect Palin's gaffe, the ornate combustivism fiction appears coherent lest you happen to know, for instance, that Massachusetts' name refers
to the state's blue hills, not cardinals. The thoroughly and entertainingly absurd press release speaks to the ease with which American history can be written with truthiness, the literary quality of all historical accounts, and our collective need to lighten the fuck up.
By contrast, the three works in the exhibition are delightfully tactile proof that, unlike texts, objects' material conditions reveal their histories. Each work subjects reclaimed lumber, a material with its own unknown history, to a specific, very physical, process. "Burned Bridge" (2012) is part of a series in which Vitale constructs scaled-down models of actual bridges and sets them aflame. The result is a sculpture that contains chaos and decay within its crisp frame of charred trusses. A pungent scent left by the fire fills the gallery, evoking the smell of burning rose fields conjured by the press release. The scent gives the sculpture a powerful life force in spite of its destruction.
"Outhouse" (2012) similarly evokes an ambiguous past. The eight-foot-tall structure looms above the viewer and has only the semblance of a closed door, casting into question its interior. The only entry points, so to speak, are a smattering of bullet holes that indicate an unusual process (shooting the work) and suggest a number of peculiar possible narratives.
Finally, an untitled wall-hung piece in the form of a large rectangular canvas is made from vertical slats of lumber pierced with nails. It has the feel of a cabin-chic Brooklyn bar gone awry and the eerie harshness of an Anselm Kiefer painting. Through such objects and processes, and Colby's story, the past bleeds into the present; Vitale deftly explores this grey zone between memory, history and reality in her cerebral, playful and sensorial exhibition.
(Images courtesy the artist, Zach Feuer Gallery)