1.12 / Review

Still at large STOP Last seen at Mira Mesa Chilis STOP

By Randall Miller April 7, 2010

“Why would you go to a tanning salon if you lived in a place that is warm and sunny enough to grow palm trees?” This was the question that popped into my head while viewing Rich Bott’s Mission Tan (2010), a photorealistic charcoal and ink-jet drawing depicting the eponymous store’s exterior, its location an apparently temperate climate. Surely the answer could not be a matter of need. More likely, the reason is a combination of opportunistic salesmanship, commodity fetishism, and choice. A hundred of these little choices add up to a lifestyle of banal insularity, one exacerbated by the available structures— physical, cultural, and social—that mediate middle-class existence. Bott diagrams this absurdity in his marvelous solo show “Still at large STOP Last seen at Mira Mesa Chilis STOP” presented at 2nd Floor Projects. His video installation, ten drawings, and fifteen telegrams reflect upon the layers of contrived surfaces that overtly regiment the reality of our cultural consumption.

On vintage telegram blanks, the artist has typewritten a series of oddly personal proclamations, mundane narratives, and menu lists. Collectively titled Telegraphic Shake Down (2010), the individual messages in the series are at once disparate in subject, yet internally coherent; it is unclear whether they are unrelated sentiments disguised as cogent paragraphs or if they comprise single, yet circuitous lines of thought.

Some read like status updates from Facebook or Twitter; formats in which personal news is often broadcast like public gossip and casual spite passes without embarrassment to the messenger. For example, one telegram begins "OH MY GOD I AM HEATHERS BRIDES MAID STOP KEVIN IS GONNA BE SO JEALOUS STOP GALLERIA MALL SUNDAY STOP." Its disjointed verbiage combined with the antiquated means of conveyance highlights the unblinking audacity of our public pronunciations, as well as the extent to which the hyperkineticism of mash-up culture can disperse the thought process.

Another telegram reads like the Frankenstein offspring of a T.G.I. Friday's menu and a medicine cabinet: "COCONUT LOBSTER DOTS STOP COUGH SYRUP SHOOTERS STOP SOUTHWEST CEDAR PLANK TILAPIA WITH HOT DOG DIPPIN SAUCE STOP." Oddly enough, these bizarre culinary concoctions seem plausible. In my mind, they could be menu items found in high-end fusion restaurants or casual dining franchises, both of which—despite the polarity of the clienteles to which these two types of restaurants market themselves—synthesize disparate ingredients to create outrageous food combinations. The incongruous description

Telegraphic Shake Down 1-15 (detail), 2010; hand-typed text on vintage telegram blanks; framed, 5.5 x 8 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist and 2nd floor projects, San Francisco.

Trouble is My Business, 2010; charcoal and ink on archival cotton rag paper; 62 x 44 inches.  Courtesy of the Artist and 2nd floor projects, San Francisco.

again points back to the impact of the mash-up and the hybrid, particularly as they contribute to a kind of overdetermined mall culture, in which distinctions between high and low have given way to a generic experiential center. In such a culture, sundry products and services are sold together in one-stop shopping areas, and "the new" is cobbled together out of bits of old things, thereby neutralizing the strength of words, symbols, and meanings.

As one half of the video-art duo Animal Charm, in collaboration with artist Jim Fetterley, Bott also deconstructed the social codes embedded within mass culture. Animal Charm's videos spliced fragmented footage mined from corporate videos, advertisements, and after-school specials to reveal their latent social coding. The video Bott produced independently for this show, titled Hard Feelings (2010), similarly employs fragmentation, although not the convulsive editing made during his Animal Charm days. Instead, he intersperses images of generic corporate architecture—the likes of which are found in office parks on the outskirts of major cities—with shots of an ATM, a couple playing outdoor basketball, and the poignant image of billowing plastic draped around the interior of what looks like a newly constructed parking garage. Handsome and unremarkable, the buildings in the video betray few features that would ground them to a particular geographic location. Cloistered away from the distinctions and distractions of a downtown urban environment, these buildings become the insular hives of the people who work in them.

This anonymous quality of place is echoed in Bott's large-scale charcoal and ink drawings. Trouble is My Business (2010), like Mission Tan, features a generic strip-mall exterior that could be almost anywhere in the United States. The titles of these pieces suggest hints of aggression and desperation simmering just below the surface of these commercial centers. Mostly devoid of human presence, the drawings point to a condition of modern alienation reminiscent of De Chirico's metaphysical piazza paintings, as well as the tenuous, perpetually anxious position of the American middle class, as exposed by the recent economic shock.

The charcoal finish of these drawings suggests a deft hand. However, closer examination reveals that the images are ink-jet prints worked over. The underlying structure exposes the artist's schematic planning hiding beneath a seemingly extemporaneous surface. The execution metaphorically suggests the ways in which organic lifestyle choices are engineered by available resources.

Bott's incisive deconstruction of surface and appearance begins to describe a cultural spectrum that has slid to a bland middle ground. It's a place where experience is interchangeable, meaning is scrambled and diluted, and prefab architecture and corporate hegemony flatten geographical distinctions. We are, of course, implicated in this condition through our consumptive practices. After all, those tanning beds don't fill themselves.


Rich Bott: "Still at large STOP Last seen at Mira Mesa Chilis STOP" is on view at 2nd Floor Projects in San Francisco through April 18, 2010.

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