What's the Use? Eliza Newman-Saul & Wonder Koch at Snowflake Gallery (2011)


“It is very hard to be simple enough to be good,” wrote Emerson. For most contemporary Americans of the consumptive, maximalist ethos, this seems anathema to the pursuit of today’s top-selling brand of “good.” Wonder Koch and Eliza Newman-Saul’s two-person exhibition What's the Use? casts a resigned shrug of a vote for mass cultural throwback in a collection of pencil-drawn sinking ships and limp, hand-stitched flags, suggesting in material and sentiment alike that less ought to be more by now, as the situation has already gone to hell. Presenting what they describe as “a study of insufficiencies—both personal and global,” the two artists craft a kind of Romantic letter to a highly disinterested world, using traditional handicraft and drafting tools in practiced post-media fashion to “softly subvert” the reigning idols of bombast and brash confidence, memorializing instead their capacity for error in defeatist archetypes.

Koch’s Red Flags, 2011, combines twigs, chips of wood, the odd coupon, and other sidewalk detritus into minute poles with crumpled flags. The flags themselves come in every variety of red and serendipitously pathetic: a deflated red balloon, a torn-off swath of red gingham table cloth, a mass of indistinct red woven stuff. The small items are jammed into the gallery wall, creating a dim haze of alarm. Surrender, 2011, reassembles torn-out white stripes from American flags to make a frayed white whole stating “you win” in overlaid lower case letters, with an inverted “y.” A medieval banner flag hangs in the gallery window, its block letters proclaiming “It’s Too Late” to the wearied neighborhood beyond, while a bright teal flag in the gallery’s center simply asserts “Problems” in large font, the assertive thrust of the word broken in half by a hyphen.

Between these diaphanous alerts is Newman-Saul’s series of five large-scale pencil drawings, To My Dear Impotent World, 2010. Each piece depicts a massive ship nose-diving into dark waters. The imagery looks vaguely archival, suggesting Titanic-scaled failed ambition. The drawings divert interest from their rendering to a sense of glorified gloom. From a distance, each ship appears photo-realistic. Yet, close inspection reveals an awkwardly generalized approach: tonal shades are colored in with heedless marks, palm and finger smudges left un-erased in the vast white negative spaces. Nothing here is precious, they seem to say, particularly when it’s all a bust. Marking the series’ end, a video of a man scouring the Coney Island beach with a metal detector flickers on the wall, the footage grainy and slowed-down to a pace that feels like an idly rocking boat. An ambient score accompanies the video, alternately resembling the washed-out sound of tides or a more lilting variety of television static. Another emblem of futility, the man’s quest is as likely to yield treasure as someone attempting to purify the ocean with a Britta, while his dogged, if dazed, persistence speaks like a colloquial translation of a Beckettian plot.

Newman-Saul’s practice has little to do with drawing, let alone any other traditional media, as she most frequently uses video and live performance to stage mock-seminars, pantomimed speeches, and other ersatz educational scenarios to relay that least objective variety of knowledge — the personal narrative. Most broadly, it’s an oeuvre dedicated to epistemological inquiry, which makes the return to one of the most fundamental means of crafting an artwork — pencil and paper — a complex choice, particularly when the depiction symbolizes inadequacy. What have I, and what have we, learned?, she asks. The ships, then, tender a polyphonic response, at once a return to fundamentals — beauty, rendering—and a critique of more contemporary promises made by art itself and society at large.

Similarly, Koch’s work has been primarily conceptual—and reliant on video and performance as her default media—with an explicit political agenda tempered by confounded attempts at communication and action. Earlier pieces extend a perhaps infinite performance as a “volunteer member of the cabinet” and include proposals for a re-constituted constitution, in which the current “cumbersome” apparatus of the US government is streamlined into a single, lone executive power; flying buttresses for FEMA trailers, to provide both Gothic beauty and support; and a massive Imperialist Fantasy Flag that reflects US foreign policy goals and includes stars for the 194 nations. In the context of these wry commentaries, Koch’s individual flags here become a distillation of a laundry-list of ideological choices, from their distinct return to the handmade to internalized politics that turn the broader notions of patriotism, stake-claiming, and surrender into daily, personal acts.

It’s the exhibition’s reductive simplicity, then, that produces its poignant cogency. Like the act of returning to pencil, paper, cloth, and needle, it resonates like a frank summons for a return to humanistic fundamentals. Yet, the summons is not writ-large; rather, it’s a postcard, scrawled with unlabored sincerity and as succinct as the one once sent by Newman-Saul's grandfather: “Fire Sweeps Horwell Today, Thursday Dec 9, 1915. Our hotel is gone. Loss is great. What's the Use.”

What's the Use? was on view at Snowflake Gallery, June 18—August 1, 2011. This review was published by Art Papers, September 2011.