Cabin Time: Beyond Images and into The Woods
This is the last week to see Cabin Time at Calvin’s (106) Gallery before the show closes. When spending time among the collection of small drawings, mixed media works, polaroids, and what appears to be a handmade dog sled, a few things become apparent. One, this work was made by a group of skilled young image makers. And two, the story of how all this was made may be more important than the actual artwork. Cabin Time reflects a wide shift in artistic practice. It’s evidence of a dissatisfaction with simply encoding static images and objects with narratives and metaphors. It answers this dissatisfaction by looking outward, replacing meaningful objects with meaningful actions.
The first time I saw a good deal of Holstad’s work in one place was a few years ago when he had a show at The Sparrows coffee shop. The show consisted of a series of precisely patterned drawings and collages, layering geometric abstractions or fractured text over thrift store landscape paintings and antique prints. Around the same time, Holstad participated in Michigan: Land of Riches, a show curated by Paul Amenta where local artists and students were invited to make site specific works in the quirky and dilapidated former home of the Grand Rapids Public Musuem. Holstad executed a collage for the catalogue, and a site specific installation where he created a mock campsite in a room-sized diorama of a wooded scene. All of Holstad’s work seems to circle around a common narrative: man encounters nature, man has transcendent experience with nature. He’s a hipster Caspar David Friedrich , repurposing faded technicolor images of bearded lo-tech hikers from the 1970’s into something that’s both contemporary and nostalgic.
I like Holstad’s work a lot. Full disclosure, I own some, and some of it bears a resemblance to my own work as an artist. But there had always been something about it that felt unresolved. I came away from the Sparrows show feeling unsure if the work was primarily about the content–an experience with nature; or about the process–an experience with manipulating and repurposing images. Put another way, are the images really fantasies of a romantic, bohemian experience with wilderness? Or are they about the alterations to the images themselves, relying on outdoorsy ephemera as a convenient reference to the sublime? Which experience is Holstad more interested in, and which experience does he want us to think about? The work bugged me a little, I wanted more clues that it was about the act of making and repurposing itself, rather than just a really well-designed Go Hiking! brochure.
The trouble with cool images is that there are just too many of them. They ooze out of countless Tumblrs and art blogs and Pinterest boards. The exponential glut of cool images–art, marketing, and some blur of the two–makes clear the need for images that are linked to real experiences. This is where my desire for a nod to the experience of making images itself came from. It’s fine to make an image that describes someone else’s transcendent experience with nature, but it’s another thing all together to orchestrate the experience itself.
This is where Cabin Time comes in. It’s about both the content and the process. I didn’t think he could, but with Cabin Time, Holstad has it both ways. He has his cake and eats it too, on a mountain-top, no less. Taken as a whole, the project is not about an encounter with nature, the way a Friedrich painting is, the project is an encounter with nature. Art no longer needs to be about an experience. Art is the experience, no translation, no middle man.
In this sense, the primary audience of the work are the artists themselves. Which creates a strange and compelling dynamic. If the project is not really for me, because I wasn’t there, my experience of it is removed by one step. But even as a secondary viewer, I’m infinitely more interested in thinking about the artists as characters in a sublime narrative than I am in thinking about a surrogate figure placed in an image by an artist.
There’s a lot of anxiety about what it means to be an artist now. As Mike Wolf wonders, is it even a relevant label to apply to oneself? Images, and the narratives and metaphors they carry, have become far too abundant. There’s no guarantee an image says anything meaningful about the person who made it, not to mention why or how they made it. Cabin Time is refreshing because it’s an example of artists moving beyond simply retelling the story of humanity and nature, instead moving to a position of living that narrative in real time and space, making great images along the way.