Sam Lipp at Free Paarking
Over nine people came to the opening of We, Free Paarking’s exhibition of work by Chicago-based artist Sam Lipp. In fact, exactly ten people showed up to the young, St. Louis gallery—a higher-than-expected turnout for an opening that was held from 4:00 to 7:45 a.m.
“We served beer, but most of it was consumed by me and the artist,” said Deo Deiparine, Free Paarking’s owner and a current undergraduate architecture student at Washington University in St. Louis.
Sam Lipp operates a gallery space in Chicago called Queer Thoughts with his partner and artist Luis Miguel Bendana. But, despite Lipp’s history of curatorial practice, We was his first foray into early morning openings.
“When artists from other cities come to show work in St. Louis,” said Deiparine, “I think they have a mindset that is more open and willing to try something that they might not be able to get away with in their own city.”
The exhibition’s title is a marked contrast to the show’s vacant opening as well as to the content of the show, where the few traces of human presence have been rendered nearly imperceptible. On the gallery floor, lines of fluorescent tubes—a staple element in a contemporary gallery—are reconfigured to form elongated stacks of cold light.
Lipp’s seven paintings in the show are equally cool. In each, loosely-applied red, green, blue, or black paint skirts the edge of a textured field composed of small touches of acrylic. The proximity of the paintings to the fluorescent lighting calls to mind the mechanism of the digital screen, which creates colored pixels when beams of red, green and blue electrons are fired at phosphors on a screen. When a viewer is confronted with a static television screen, it marks the moment when the spectacle of the show, movie, or advertisement is lost. At that point, as is true when looking at Lipp’s paintings, the viewer is left with the medium of transmission. By hosting his opening at dawn, Lipp ensured that his sleep-deprived viewers would take in the work slowly, hazily. As if they were sleepwalkers or screen watchers without conscious control over their bodies, viewers could drift through a space that was not a dream but never fully graspable.
All of the paintings are untitled except for the smallest, titled La Chinois or The Chinese—perhaps alluding to the 1967 film La Chinoise by Jean-Luc Godard. In the film, five French students involved in a Maoist revolutionary group seek to adapt the world to their political agenda through terrorism. The painting’s reference seems curious considering the quiet aesthetic of the rest of the work in the show. But the title of the exhibition, We, describes a collective relationship signified in communist propaganda by the same color that frames the textured field of La Chinois. Is the work expressing a political wish? Or—as is revealed of the revolutionary aspirations of the five students in the movie—is it, in the end, driven purely by aesthetic concerns?
In the gallery’s back room, a green pack of cigarettes—half-empty as a result of the visitors that have previously occupied the space—has been placed on the floor underneath a painting of matching color. Two sheets of white copy paper on a nearby window seat display almost undetectably light pen drawings of two men (We?) with their pants down. Unable to be revealed through photo documentation, the delicate representation presents an intimate portrait of a subject that might otherwise be salacious.
In a small yard outside the entrance of the gallery, ivy cuttings (apparently transported to St. Louis in a padded, mailing envelope) litter the ground in a matted clump. It is a sad-looking piece that will either spread throughout the surrounding areas or decompose into the ground. Either way, the plant will become a permanent addition to its new landscape, visibly or invisibly preserving Lipp’s small, initial intervention.
Markers of a now-vacated human presence quietly pervade the neo-minimalist, digital aesthetic of We, functioning as momentary reminders of the human context in which the work operates. And a physical human presence is vital, because Lipp’s works call for close, in-person viewings. Referencing the workings of the digital sphere, Lipp’s paintings have been worked into dynamic, textured fields unable to be grasped in photo documentation. The fluorescent lights were not included in the gallery’s online images, the pen drawings can’t be seen in reproductions, and the pack of cigarettes was never allowed to be photographed. Whether intentional by Lipp or not, experiencing his work is highly constricted when mediated through digital representations. We requires physical attendance, and its neo-abstract aesthetic requires a viewer’s active—and sometimes sleepy—engagement.
The word “we” refers to a collective relationship between a speaker and others, and this is what We promotes. But it is not a relationship of collective connection. Lipp’s presence is felt only in the whisper of a pen drawing, the semi-decomposed ivy, the missing cigarette. I was the only visitor to the space when I viewed the show, and at the opening, when there were multiple viewers of the work at one time, they floated hazily through the space occupied by cool abstraction.
There is a collective relationship inherent in We, but it is one of collective detachment—the solidarity formed among those that sleepwalk.
Sam Lipp: We was on view at Free Paarking in St. Louis, MO February 1 – March 8, 2014.
Images courtesy of Free Paarking. Photo: Deo Deiparine