Margaret Keller at Gallery 210
Surveillance Series, Margaret Keller’s solo exhibition at Gallery 210 in St. Louis asks us, through botanical and quizzical forms, to come to grips with an Orwellian reality. Her work spans media from fresco to spacious vellum, but her narrative is singular, proposing privacy as a hook on which to hang such questions as: How important are personal liberties? What are we willing to give away?
Keller’s production falls into two categories, neatly divided between two and three-dimensional compositions. The vellum works are large horizontal scrolls with expansive line-drawings depicting the apparatus as it ripens ominously on the vine. These forms are seemingly benign, deceptively pleasant. It is only upon realizing the signified, subtly within the composition, that the true nature of the message is revealed. Her objects recontextualize and serialize surveillance to underline the insidiousness of its proliferation. Sentinels allows us, for a moment, to watch the watcher. The set includes silk screen prints elucidated with vivid pigments, and winding ephemeral forms. Upon first glance, the viewer is struck by the curious organic objects contained within a circle, which may represent the view of a camera, or a microscope. The sentinel is the watcher that scrutinizes us, mindlessly, through a lens. These are kaleidoscopic representations of organic forms, of our bodies, judged by an unaccountable surveillor and subsequently obscured and decontextualized. Metadata and data, rendered meaningless through its abundance in spreadsheets across government and corporate servers is ultimately resistant to actual knowing.The result is chilling, what Foucault would point to as the effect of being surveilled.
Her three-dimensional works include USofA Drone Carpet: a series of 3D-printed drones arranged in grayscale parallel lines to form the American Flag. One implication here is that we are known abroad through our manifestations of military and panoptic control rather than our erstwhile pretensions to liberty and prosperity. Similarly, Keller’s series of frescos, Proliferate, asks us to consider the means by which we are inviting surveillance into our lives, and glorifying it through neoliberal and techno-utopian fetishization. Each fresco features an eye, and a form contained within an altoids-tin, which is not-coincidentally the size of an iPhone. One gets the sense that Keller wants us to consider the network we are building through our use of hardware and software to structure not just our respective realities, but the infrastructure through which we might be observed and manipulated.
Keller appears most at ease in two-dimensional media, and yet I can’t help but think her frescos and indeed her manufactured drones are the most ambitious. Her wall work leaves me with a technical question: When art is political, intentionally drawing attention to a very real issue in our social order, is it more efficacious if it is subtle, earnest, and evocative of underlying truths, or if it smashes the viewer over the head? Certainly, I’ve seen both in St. Louis. I recently attended Exposure 19, which is concurrently running at UMSL’s Gallery 210. Adam Turl, one of the artists in the show remarked on abstract art according to its popularity among wealthy patrons. To paraphrase: It is popular because it’s easy, it doesn’t require one to think too much, or if it does, it invites one to passively consider bugbears from one’s armchair. If this is true, I suspect we are dealing with a continuum. I wonder if it’s fair to place on one end abstract work like that of Gabriele Evertz, and Todd Chilton and on the other the overtly political work of people like Turl himself or artists like Howard Barry and Basil Kincaid, whose process is revolutionary if not always figurative. Each creative act, in expressing truth about struggle, appears clearer and more vibrant the closer it is derived from personal experience. Keller’s subject matter progresses organically from her observations in nature, interwoven as they are with her civil rights concerns like so many wires among the very same branches.
Privacy rights are cobbled together from foundational documents: The fourth amendment, the Brandeis decision in Olmstead vs. US (1928), Missouri House Bill 1085 (2014), and others depending on where one lives and whether one’s current president is acquainted with the constitution, or is merely a madman. There is little in the way of codified ‘Privacy Law.’ In working against the erosion of these presumed liberties, we can either gradually try to change minds, or take a different tack and go for the explicitly confrontational. Privacy protection may not have the same immediacy as issues of race and class, especially in St. Louis where people of color are being murdered by racist cops, crazed drivers are careening into candlelight vigils, and closing down the mall at 1 pm precipitates a police riot against protesters. Institutional logic is oppressive. In the long term, civil rights advocacies should converge. Police target activists through dubious investigative procedures. Various means exist to counteract this intrusion, but the overreach itself affects any of us who work to change the system. As beautiful and haunting as it is to the amenable eye, Keller’s work connotes an acknowledgement that the pace of change tends to be glacial. Her call to action is specific, compelling, but gentle, thus the subdued quality of her renderings belie the urgency of her message. Framed appropriately, Keller’s work compels reclamation of the digital self, and insists upon freedoms nestled in a broader constellation of personal liberties, and potentially a wider composition for advocacy, both social and political.