It’s night or close to it, starlit surroundings maybe highlighted by street-lamps, and, where’s the venue, even? Probably a good walk, and then — where’s the entrance? Inside, the perimeter? Fuck a white-walls conversation; what here is even necessarily part of the exhibition or not? Foreign from the start.
Acutely topical and genuinely experimental, equal parts high-art and anarchic, dissociated from all things familiar, and yet spine-tinglingly ‘real life’ — the recent experiential projects of Black Cube Nomadic Museum (in particular, its ongoing Drive-In series) are currently, in my opinion, the shining star of Denver’s contemporary art scene.
It’s in the name: Nomadic. Yeah, sure, each exhibit is freshly site-specific, but maybe even moreso nomadic in that they’re trying to give you art that’s each blade of grass under your feet, not each page of Postmodernism-for-Dummies or Abstraction-Itself’s-Still-Important-vol-4. Something purposeful yet ephemeral, like an off-path trail. Weirdly poetic in the unsettling resonance of its moments against one another. An almost narrative tapestry of fleeting impressions. Pointillistic feelings like the wind on your skin. That kinda thing.
So I’d definitely call Black Cube curator Cortney Stell’s practice Impressionistic, at least when it comes to Drive-In. Curation is an art form, and honestly one I often find more interesting than those it envelops, having spent the majority of my professional life building museum exhibits. But impressionistic, though? Oh, yeah. Like a collection of flickery, car-shaped gestures that coalesce with white space still between them. If you haven’t noticed, this is the way I try to use writing. Situating statements in irregular contexts, as places to lay back and gaze up with a ruler. Drawing constellations in the sky of an always different environment.
As teenagers, the majority of our time was spent claiming new ‘secret-spots’ to do literally that (we had rolling papers, not rulers). Roofs and ruins and quarries and creek beds irrelevant for what they were other than that they were spatially, but mainly psychologically, separate from the alienatingly conservative, cop-infested Texas landscape surrounding us.
An overwhelming majority of the mainstream art conversation, with its handful of big-worded, self-important, pathos-heavy sleights-of-hand — it’s a bible-belt full of thought police. Rare instances in the high-art-world like Drive-In, in which I’m given something complex to untangle and actually decide for myself what it means, no training-wheels, no forced identity-political conceptual plexiglas over it, these are the secret-spots of my art-nerd adulthood.
Julian Schnabel’s work only worked for me after I heard him say he walks every exhibition backwards. There are few things more annoying than a guided exhibition tour, and, generally speaking, fuck a wall didactic below its name/date/title line. If you’re on your interpretive back staring at the entropically speckled universe of a thoughtful exhibition, you get to choose your own dots to connect. Pictures relevant to your own story. I don’t care about greek history in stars or statues — feel me?
But, I know, this is pretty abstract. Let me bring it down to Earth by drawing a couple examples:
Constellation of an Art-Geek Standing at an Edge:
It’s a mid-stage housing development construction site and there are massive, trailered stadium spotlights flooding the gravelly clearing all around. A few hairy-rope partitions are the only wayfinding in sight. All around: crunching tires, running engines, music. All-American, like a fair, everyone’s got beers and it’s all bathed in a beautiful summer dusk.
There are a dozen or so vehicles parked irregularly here and there over a space probably a few hundred feet in all directions. In a far corner, the music turns out to be some 80’s ballad and there’s a kid in a karate outfit waxing a BMW. And behind that, there’s a whole bounce house shoved into and inflated inside of an anime-looking Japanese van, squeezing cartoonishly out of every opening. Fun corner. But behind that, it gets interesting, where there’s several regular-ass vehicles parked, turned off, nothing really going on… Chills at the weirdness of an incarnation of the familiar theoretical question, in the wild, of where the art actually starts and stops.
On the other side of the construction site, a classic car sits covered almost entirely with one of those all-weather covers, almost a burlesque vibe. And again, in very close proximity, a bright blue Ferrari parked just outside of the entrance. Hilarious seeing the one car too nice to drive into the area still hanging out for people to fawn over. This seems to be a consistent practice for Ferrari-drivers, to park on the sidewalk outside Drive-In openings. And again, this striking moment of pause where real art and real life are actually almost holding hands.
People’s aesthetic relationships with their cars. The mobile ‘your-room’. Personal chariots. What it means to identify a self with an inanimate container. How cool it is to be able to identify the aesthetics of individual time periods by the aesthetic traits of those containers. How cool it is to be able to move so fucking fast. How ‘cool’ is one of the most deadly tools of capitalism and the supreme role in the capitalist desire-machine cars play. Their role in the American Dream. How threatening the awareness of the consequences of carbon emissions is to American omnipotence. If the car dies, does America die? A newish Scion is pumping its own carbon-monoxide into its cabin through a hose stuffed through its one cracked window.
Constellation of Remembrance of the Statistical Likelihood of High-Speed Crash:
So, yeah, Death.
Old cars turned on in the night with their doors open, no driver in sight, like glowing molted shells — they’re covered in the overwhelming presence of the grim reaper, man. The smell of emissions, the purr of an idling engine. Vacant though recently full of life.
One of the most likely ways to go out is an accident, we’ve all heard this, and yet I’m still admittedly terrible at wearing a seat belt while on the highway in my personal pair of headphones-with-wheels. Sometimes I’ll realize it, look at my current mph, and start to daydream about riding my old motorcycle, sheltered by the luck that all of my on-the-road crises have turned out fine. Drive-In’s own curator was in a severe accident at a young age, a life-changing experience, one that is no doubt woven — if in no other way, either serendipitously or by zeitgeist — into the fabric of the exhibition series.
By focusing attention on the reality of the motor vehicle, you begin to exorcise its spirits. Disassembling and reassembling a rusty old motorcycle that was a gift from the artist’s father, now terminally ill, watched over by Dennis Hopper’s Easy Riding ghost. Some sort of electrical control switching all the power of one of those every-car’s that people had in the nineties that’s now almost classic, on and off, radio singing and headlights blazing, then snuffing out in rhythm like a heartbeat. An empty white dress carried out of the sunroof of a modern every-car by a bundle of white balloons, tethered high above. One of those cars that will be soon too old for anyone to have been alive for its assembly, staring at itself up close in a giant, sectioned mirror. Almost animate. Can you imagine wrecking that car? The loss of something that precious, slash, your life. It could happen at any instant, just sayin.
Maybe that’s my North Star for the exhibition series, countless other constellations oriented around its periphery. Pointing to our final destination. I didn’t mention too many specifics of the countless interesting pieces at these shows, because I wanted to focus on the broader associations at play. Keep in mind that real-life constellations were also invented for navigational orientation purposes, similar to interpreting art with creativity and imagination, without the didactic crutch of an institutional agenda telling you what to think. Like a true nomad.
And good news! You can do it again! Or get to for the first time, because this is an ongoing exhibition series. Rumored sites for the next Drive-In include a rural drive-in theater and a remote campsite location. Secret-spots. Either one will be a drive, but so worth it, because you’ll probably never experience art in that way again. Stars shine a lot brighter outside the city.
* all photos credited to either Wes Magyar, Sarah Ford, Cortney Stell, or Will Meier on behalf of Black Cube *