The Namaak Collective: Atlas, Launch Gallery, Los Angeles
July 27 - August 24, 2013
by Shana Nys Dambrot
The general notion of the artist collective as a phenomenon in art history is popular and elastic. Inspired by motivations along the gamut from convenient materials- or space-sharing to matters of more urgent theoretical, formal, conceptual, or political flavor, collectives might deal with issues of gender, race, economics, technologies, or geography -- basically any human interest which it is possible to share with others. Sometimes, confluences of style draw people together; sometimes the point is to demonstrate how a central idea transcends boundaries and finds expression across an eclectic aesthetic array. Sometimes, a collective can even seek to blow past the circumstances of its own inception. The Namaak Collective is all of those, none of those, and more.
This past summer, a pair of well-regarded LA-based artists, Marischa Slusarski and Britt Ehringer, who both mainly paint but occasionally experiment with photography and sculpture, presented an exhibition at Launch Gallery, unpacking the work of the largely unknown (in America at least) Namaak Collective, which was “founded in 2009 by the late Jorg Hendrix of Amsterdam,” and has since grown to include the work of something like a dozen artists who work singly and sometimes in sub-groups. Namaak “is not defined by one medium, perspective or nationality -- but attempts instead, as a group, to address the new cultural habits that have evolved since the digital revolution. The stark cultural differences between the artists combined with their ease in today's info-sphere drift make for a heady and an invigorating experience.” The key words in that statement are “cultural habits” and “info-sphere drift” because it turns out that chief among the habits under suspicion are a) our tendency to accept as true all what we see in photographs and read online, and b) the salient role of language in constructing our perceptions. Also, the alarming malleability of truth and reality in the first place. All perfectly wonderful, even conventional, subjects for art to tackle.
The exhibition itself was a lively, affecting experience, with an aesthetic throughline that was more sensed that seen but nevertheless ineffable, and more than accomplished its stated goal of more closely examining the means by which we communicate our ideas .Vibeke Torkelson’s loteria of unlikely genre photographs, homeless-teen crew Fred’s meticulously cheeky sculptural poetics, Kgosi’s astonishing celebrity punching-bag, Pad Sander’s art-historical confection of ghoulishness, conjoined twins Curtis and Cole’s creepy cartooning -- really every work in the show -- each offer a particular combination of dark humor and advanced technique within their chosen mediums. There’s a lot of sex, death, nature, science, strange behavior, pop-culture critique, and identity politics. There’s abstraction, realism, religion, portraiture, and landscape. And again, this cannot be stressed enough, every single piece in the show was a major work, each carving out its own territory of expression; and yet still the whole gathered into something approaching a coherent, and yes collective, voice.
That said -- and there’s a bit of a spoiler here -- all of the credit for the success of the collective’s undertakings belongs solely to Slusarski and Ehringer. Not because they were the intrepid curators -- but because they are the only artists in Namaak. This is where things get tricky and that bit about the importance of language comes in. Upon learning that the other artists (all of whom have well-developed back-stories, artist statements, and Facebook profiles; and some of whom were, um, present at the opening reception) do not exist as autonomous human beings, it’s tempting to go straight into a binary argument about “real” and “fake” and “truth” and “lies” and The Crying Game. But as fascinating as that rabbit hole is, and as compelling as the moment of discovery might be (which it’s worth mentioning is possible to guess at but far from inevitable to confirm) it’s not really a helpful place to go. Instead, satisfaction lies along the path of reevaluating the meanings of the very words and concepts at play in the truthiness of the info-sphere.
The work is, of course, real. It exists in the dimensional world. Each individual piece is executed with a distinct and fully formed point of view, and the fact is that Ehringer and Slusarski were convincingly able to inhabit their characters to the point of imagining what their work “would” look like, and to engineer their life stories in furtherance of those ideas while seeking after the same qualities of originality and self-expression as the “real” artist would. The craftsmanship is impressive and far too advanced to ever be a joke, it’s too far to travel for just a punch line. And questions of authorship and the degree to which the specifics of an artist’s identity do/should inform its meaning already abound. In these and other aspects, the work functions exactly as we would expect “good art” to function, and in the end rather than a trick, the project begs the question of whether "realness" is even a standard worth measuring. After all, Marcus Aurelius knew way back in ancient Rome that “Everything we hear is an opinion, not a fact. Everything we see is a perspective, not the truth.” Does not art explicitly always already involve a negotiation between illusion and reality? To say nothing of the Internet!
The Namaak Collective’s deconstruction of assumptions not just about how art works but about the mind and the world operate is perennial in art history -- and laid out in their manifesto. Far from diminishing the project’s impact, knowing the secret renders it all the more of a triumph. And as enjoyable and unsettling and dynamic as the work itself on first pass, on second pass armed with this insight, the experience does not dissipate but instead intensifies and deepens. It puts the central pair’s full range of skills on display, and the aliases are understood to have given them cover to explore imagery, ideas, mediums, and styles outside their own comfort zones and constituent bases -- it was freeing, and the exuberant results bear the fruit of that freedom. It's like a form of Dada sincerity wherein the absurdity is the essence of the gesture -- but as the whole thing hangs on the success of the objects, it’s also deadly serious. If you were fooled, let them take that as a compliment. Sometimes the truth comes costumed, if not exactly as a lie, then as another version of the truth.
Shana Nys Dambrot is an art critic, curator, and author based in Downtown LA. She is the Arts Editor for the LA Weekly, and a contributor to Whitehot Magazine, KCET’s Artbound, Flaunt, Fabrik, Art and Cake, Artillery, Palm Springs Life, Riot Material, West Hollywood Lifestyle, Jenkem, and Porter & Sail. She studied Art History at Vassar College, writes essays for books and exhibition catalogs, curates and juries a few exhibitions each year, is a dedicated Instagram photographer and author of experimental short fiction, and speaks at galleries, schools, and cultural institutions nationally. She sits on the Boards of Art Share-LA and the Venice Institute of Contemporary Art, the Advisory Council of Building Bridges Art Exchange, and the Brain Trust of Some Serious Business.
Photo of Shana Nys Dambrot by Osceola Refetoff
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