Fifty years ago, decades before David Letterman started tossing stuff off buildings, artists Gene Bernofsky and Clark Richert looked out their loft window in Lawrence, Kan., down to the sidewalk below and conceived of a new way to make art. This new medium would harness the distance between their studio and the street, an unsuspecting public and the force of gravity.
As their first "droppings" (rocks they had painted) hit the sidewalk, the pair observed the reactions of passersby. The process later metamorphosed into "drop-ins," such as a pendulum in the form of a boot on a rope, and a hearty breakfast of over-easy eggs, bacon, toast, coffee and orange juice, placed on the sidewalk in front of a local hotel.
Bernofsky and Richert were inspired by artists around that time, such as the visionaries out of Black Mountain College, who were asking fundamental questions about perception and what art was and could be. A few years after their first drop pieces, Bernofsky, Richert and a collective of other artists purchased a goat farm outside of Trinidad, Colo., and Drop City was born. Psyched to experiment with the geodesic dome, R. Buckminster Fuller's utopian invention, the droppers cobbled together one of the original art communes of the '60s with used car parts, stolen goods and garbage.
During June, Lump Gallery celebrates this obscure micromovement with an installation called The Front vs. Team Lump: Drop City. The show brings together two contemporary art collectives, Raleigh's hometown Team Lump and the New Orleans-based The Front. The show is an unabashed homage to the Drop City experiment, celebrating the full trajectory of the commune's history, from its euphoric inception to its bitter dissolution.
The front part of the gallery has been taken over by The Front and is dominated by an installation that comes off as an unraveled geodesic dome. Large modular triangular panels coalesce in a crystalline molecular architecture that crawls along the walls and overhead, forming an archway, and continues in the form of freestanding clusters and modules that inhabit the space. Member artists of The Front have made their marks upon the structure's individual panels, so the effect is of a singular, holistic sculptural form overlaid with a patchwork of disparate visual statements (this echoes a strategy used several years ago by Team Lump, in a collaborative sculptural work that was on view at SECCA in Winston-Salem).
Panels on The Front's installation vary wildly. They include a crudely painted faux-wood grain pattern, contour line drawings of people who appear to be crammed into the panel's triangular space, surreal black-and-white photographic prints that feature woodland creatures with scary hollow eyes, artists in bunny suits interacting with plush toys (in one instance apparently simulating a sex act), blue and pink embroidered yarn circles and cutout beefcake shots of men in tight underwear pasted onto a field of sloppily painted black. The overall effect is group-think, multiple facets of a collective mind.
The panels range from the carefully rendered (notable are a few William Burroughs-style cut-up text pieces) to the hastily executed (a few indecipherably scribbled doodles that may actually be diagrams). Squished within the confines of one triangular panel is the scrawled phrase, "You said you wouldn't." Despite the off-hand execution of the panel, there is nothing casual about this phrase. It's an indictment. The words bear the earmarks of intimate exchange—or perhaps the kind of back-and-forth that might take place in a commune as it unravels, tensions bubbling over at the encounter group.
The Front plays the hippie-commune card to the hilt, most overtly in a wall piece composed of cutout photographic portraits of all the members of the collective, which form the outline of a geodesic dome. The other work by The Front is a video projection of the artists' faces, floating upward in diamond shapes, accompanied by a cacophony of their voices reading excerpts from the group's emails. The Front's artist statement describes the overlay of voices, reminiscent of a Robert Altman film, as being suggestive of democracy or consensus, but the unintelligible verbal morass speaks more compellingly of a breakdown in communication.
In the gallery's back room is a single lumpen construction, the offering by Team Lump. The piece is almost rude in its assembly, at first giving the impression that it was put together at breakneck speed with whatever materials happened to be lying around. Whether or not this is true, there is more to the work than its initial aesthetic brush-off. The piece is decidedly architectural in format, with a clearly delineated sense of interior and exterior space. The outer shell is built up of cardboard, random strips of wood, styrofoam, cork panels and pounded-out aluminum food service bins, one of which, upon inspection, bears the Sharpie'd inscription "Veggie 12." Inserted into the structure at various points are small TV screens that continuously loop video of things falling to the ground and smashing: a glass bottle, a china vase, a piggy bank. The endlessly exploding jangle of coins, the repeated bonk and crash of the bottle and the glorious, rhythmic shatter of the vase are a visceral counterpoint to The Front's vocal cacophony.
A green glow emanates from a window inset into the structure at a severely skewed angle, a nod to Pee-wee's Playhouse (which in turn was probably inspired by The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari). There's no overt payoff from looking into the structure's interior: just a few odds and ends, including a badly cracked "Hot Lips" mug hanging from a cord.
Yet the work exudes a feeling of integrity and concision. The layers of hammered aluminum become a kind of pathetic armor, a dysfunctional defense that belies a truth about the work, which is its vulnerability. The gallery's AC unit, which practically abuts the piece, churns loudly and further underscores the work's functionlessness, which can also be read as vulnerability or helplessness. The materials here have not been repurposed so much as voided of purpose.
One notable difference between the work presented by The Front and Team Lump circulates around the idea of individual identities within a collective. The Front accentuates the diversity of its membership, while Team Lump's individuals are subordinate to the whole.
Finally, the two sides have produced competing zines. The Front's is called The Good Art Guide, and while it has some real treasures, it falters a bit when it self-consciously explains in an introductory statement that it is meant to be absurd. By contrast, at no point does the Team Lump publication attempt to describe or clarify or try to make its readers comfortable with its claims. Because of this, if I had to call a winner between The Front and Team Lump, I'd have to give it to the kids from Raleigh.