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Memory Lane

Inman Gallery takes a group of artists to a past of their own making

So you remember the first place you lived as a child? It's a safe bet that the way you remember the space has little to do with objective reality. The house you thought was cavernous and wonderful, your parents may have considered cramped and shoddy. A shimmering, malleable window into the past or a dark claustrophobic tunnel to things best forgotten, memory is an abundant reservoir for artists.

For "A Moment's Notice," on view at Inman Gallery, curator Franklin Sirmans has brought together an eclectic selection of work in which aspects of memory create a continuous thread. A former editor for Flash Art magazine, Sirmans also co-curated the well-received traveling exhibition "One Planet Under a Groove," the first major show to examine the influence of hip-hop culture on contemporary art. At Inman, the African-American curator has managed to pull together an effortlessly multicultural mix of work by artists of different races, without resorting to a self-conscious theme of diversity. This satisfying exhibition is a small step toward making sure that race-themed shows are not the only time you see work by artists of color. After all, memory is, if not objective, universal.

Memory of a private, domestic sort is evoked by Adia Millett's Defining Absence (2001), a one-inch-scale clapboard dollhouse. We become giant voyeurs peering into a miniature space whose inhabitants have seemingly been eradicated by a neutron bomb. In the living room, two shotguns lie inexplicably on the coffee table. A carton of Winstons can be seen on top of the kitchen cabinet. The rooms are clunky and engagingly awkward, with disturbing undertones. While not obsessively furnished, their little details make their vignettes ring true, like a mop left standing in a bucket in the middle of the kitchen floor.

Mosh pit or riot? It's hard to tell the difference in Janine Gordon's I'm a Human Bomb.
Inman Gallery
Mosh pit or riot? It's hard to tell the difference in Janine Gordon's I'm a Human Bomb.

Moving around the house, you peek into a bedroom with sparkly turquoise pillows and walls covered with steroid-infused images of body builders. Who lives here -- a gay, chain-smoking, iron-pumping hunter? Or just a flamboyant fitness nut manqué with an NRA membership? The other bedroom seems to be under construction, with a chair, a drill, some lumber and a can of paint lit by an overhead fixture. Is it home remodeling or is the room being systematically rid of evidence of its former occupant? As you crouch absurdly, making your Peeping Tom rounds, your mind crafts myriad scenarios to explain the home, its objects and occupants.

Personal memory is linked to urban geography in the work of Ellen Ross. Over a lush surface of red beeswax she silk-screens swatches of street grids and handwritten snippets. The slender gray lines of script carry the same visual weight as the street plans, so the pattern and saturated color dominate, with the narrative almost too secondary. One succinct diarylike piece of text reads, "5.15.94 fallen cherry blossoms, ivy league ceremony w/ convention. Familial hatred with five undercooked lobsters -- lifestyle." The fragments function as Post-It notes for a walking tour of someone's personal life.

Memory is embodied in objects and linked with sound in Satch Hoyt's Icepick (2002). A clarinet case lined with crushed red velvet houses a giant frosted crystal version of an Afro pick with the Black Power fist. Headphones reveal an audio of the artist combing the pick through his hair and strumming its crystalline tines. The audio is a conceptual wink to Robert Morris's Box with the Sound of Its Own Making, resulting in a Pick with the Sound of Its Own Picking. The piece creates a witty African-American cultural amalgam, blending jazz with a salute to various "Ice" rappers (-T and Cube, with Vanilla excluded) and wrapping it all up in a kind of commemorative edition of the iconic '70s grooming tool.

Nostalgia master Dario Robleto presents one of his more succinct works: When Your Heartstrings Break, I Can Mend Them Back (The Supreme Solution) (1998/2002) is a tiny black and gold capsule of memory displayed in a red velvet-lined silver box. The pill is composed of "melted vinyl from every Diana Ross and The Supremes Top 40 record released." Robleto seeks to create a physical manifestation of nostalgia. Swallow it and cure your heartsickness -- or just end it all in an overdose of romantic haze.

An Insignificant Moment (2001) is a video triptych comprising just that. Filming three women in Houston's Third Ward, Edgar Arceneaux made a quietly agenda-less video that finds a poignant beauty in the banality of daily life. Presented on three tiny televisions -- kudos to Arceneaux for avoiding the bigger-is-better wall-sized video projection shtick -- the DVDs are synced together, the focus shifting from one screen to the next as the women silently take children to school, work on the computer, shop at a neighborhood grocery, walk home, eat at a Chinese buffet and drive a car. While it sounds less than riveting, the video is amazingly compelling -- but not as a voyeuristic view into other people's daily lives. It is engaging because Arceneaux has captured and made almost tangible that feeling of quiet you have when you're alone, going about your daily routine, lost in thought.

A grid of nine large photographs of flailing and angry-looking young men covers one wall of the gallery. At first glance they look like photojournalistic images vying for the front page of a newspaper. Is this a protest turned ugly, are they fleeing tear gas? Janine Gordon has completely obscured the context of I'm a Human Bomb (2001). Looking a little closer, you realize the bodies frozen at the moment of impact are actually dancing -- the images come from a mosh pit. Still, presented in gritty black and white, the dancers seem ominous. What the participants may remember as having a blast outside on a summer day becomes another kind of memory entirely for the viewer.

 
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