- A latent sense of dread pervades Bruce & Joan's "Beware of Low Flying Custard Pies."
Entering Wish You Were Here is a bit like arriving at a bizarre dinner party. Your host is Bas Jan Ader, joined by a handful of eccentric young admirers. They are worldly, intelligent, humorous, and at times a bit sinister. They speak of amazing places -- places only they have seen, but which they illuminate through their artwork. It all makes for an intriguing feast -- if a slightly morbid one, inasmuch as your host is actually dead, lost at sea, and many of the other artists were born around the year of his disappearance. Don't let that deter you from enjoying this show, now on view at the Cleveland Institute of Art's Reinberger Galleries.
Bas Jan Ader is, by far, the exhibition's most extreme artist and its thematic centerpiece. Born in Holland in 1942, he settled in Los Angeles in 1963, after spending 11 months sailing from Morocco. A performance artist and photographer, he also created films and installations that constantly pushed the boundaries between art and life. His final project, "In Search of the Miraculous," was a 1975 performance piece that never reached fruition, a chronicle of the events leading up to and including a one-man oceanic voyage.
The project began with a series of photographs: self-portraits that feature 33-year-old Ader walking through L.A. to the seaside, and end with an image of him looking out across the water. A chorus of nine vocalists heralded his voyage with sea chanteys. The second phase of Ader's work, which involved his actual crossing of the Atlantic (yes, the Atlantic) in a 13-foot sailboat, was intended to document the event via notes and film, which would then become the material for a corresponding museum exhibition. Ader never made it: His boat was recovered, but his body was never found.
Wish You Were Here recounts the first phase of Ader's project via slide images of the chantey singers. The slides depict the progression of the singers' performance, which can be heard inside the gallery. Nearby are various remnants from the project: sheet music from one of the chanteys, as well as the series of photos.
Passionate to a fault, Ader could be considered both a genius and a madman. Certainly, he was a perpetuator of the 19th-century notion of the romantic artist. Regardless of interpretation, one cannot escape being awed by the reality of his vision and its unfortunate outcome.
The show's eight other artists, selected for their contemporary explorations of the theme of adventure, render their works in considerably less extreme fashion. In media ranging from drawings to video to performance documentation, they create entertaining alternatives to the "reality" presented on popular television and invite the viewer to explore their fantasy worlds. The diversity of media within the exhibition resonates with Ader's own fascination for multiple modes of representation.
One deceptively sinister piece is "Beware of Low Flying Custard Pies," an eye-catching installation made by British artists Bruce & Joan. It consists of a kitschy hand-painted sign, which stands next to an enormous electric-yellow canvas that explodes from the wall onto the floor. The canvas seemingly represents either hundreds of individual splattered pies, or perhaps a single gigantic one. The black sign depicts a deserted island seen through binocular lenses. Complete with a palm tree and shack, it at first resembles a dreamy ad for a Hawaiian vacation. Further inspection, however, reveals that there are no windows or doors on the shack, and that sharks are circling the island. With that, the cheerful yellow becomes menacing, and the work's comic appeal takes on ominous overtones: The viewer is the victim in this fantasy world, and more villainous pies may be on the way.
Amy Cutler's artwork is reminiscent of childhood fairy tales. Yet in her images, too, something is awry; nothing adds up to a recognizable story. "Futile Fleet," made of gouache on paper, portrays a circle of women in matronly, retro-printed dresses and brown Mary Janes, all moving outward in opposite directions, their auburn braids intertwined. Above them, a cradle is bounced high in the air, and a swaddled lamb falls out, a startled look on its face. The women resemble an odd maypole; their hair has become a trampoline for the cradle and lamb. Though Cutler's meaning is unclear, the odd narrative is intriguing, and the characters are delightful. Like a childhood fable, the piece evokes whimsical, illusory worlds -- albeit with no identifiable moral or outcome.
British artist Alex Baker's poignant video installation, "Lake Erie Recreation," consists of a view of Lake Erie filmed from the shoreline, depicting waves lapping onto the sand under an overcast sky. Occasional specks -- seagulls flying by -- provide the only signs of life. These elements, along with a striking lack of sound, conspire to create an overarching sense of melancholy. Rather than a calming rush of waves, there is only the hum of the projector casting the video onto the screen, a stark reminder of the actual space between the audience and the subject of Baker's contemporary landscape.
In the exhibition catalog, co-curator Cathleen Chaffee cites the philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre's ultimatum, "You have to choose: Live or tell." The artists featured in Wish You Were Here have done both: They've discovered their own quirky realities and destinations, and created their own unique postcards with which to share them. It's well worth the trip.