Weather Report
Evolve / Adapt @ Front Room Gallery

Paranoia could be considered the modern state of mind par excellance. Who among us is
so sane as not to suspect that, at bottom, everything might be a plot? Not that there’s
anything new about conspiracy theories. Sometimes things are just too messed up for
any rational explanation. Almost two thousand years ago Gnostic theology ascribed the
evident imperfections of our world to the machinations of a corrupt, divine usurper.
Topping off such hysterical speculations are the various end-times prophesied from the
Book of Revelation all the way through author Cormac McCarthy’s recent novel The
Road, and the popular TV series Jericho.

Holding their own in such company are three artists with their own post-apocalyptic
scenarios, on view at Front Room Gallery this month. Subtitled Subsequent Ingenuity or
Lack There Of, this very hip show about how cultural fragmentation can culminate in
metaphorical dismemberment (among other things) consists of drawings by LA artist Colin
Roberts, sculpture/installation work by Sarasota based Nathan Skiles, and a startling,
masterful three channel video extravaganza shown in 20 minute loops, by New Yorker
Cliff Evans.

Since its inception last year, Front Room has brought younger artists into Cleveland from
various out of town venues, presenting highly innovative, conceptually open-ended
shows exploring current notions and dialogues in the arts. It’s somewhat misleading to
identify the artists taking part in these exhibitions as residents of any particular city, since
they’re part of a peripatetic, postgraduate generation that tends to migrate from city to
city and scene to scene in pursuit of academic opportunity and late-breaking gallery
situations. In the present instance, although Skiles teaches at the Ringling School in
Sarasota, Florida, he attended Montclair University in New Jersey and has roots in the
Northeast, while Evans, though currently participating in a Location One residency in New
York, was born in Australia and obtained his MFA at the School of the Museum of Fine
Arts in Boston.

 Skiles’ graphite drawings are gaily decorative renditions of multiple prosthetic legs, all
kicking in unison like a 1930’s era Busby Berkeley routine, minus the dancers. These are
vintage appendages, some with a feminine flair, like those that Skiles gathers and
arranges in a large U for one composition. In a smaller drawing, two masculine
prostheses stand at a jaunty angle to one another, while other groupings coalesce to
form a new type of spider-like, artificial creature, running free and crowned with the straps
and mechanisms that would attach them to a human hip. It’s probably not reaching too far
to associate these images with unpleasant factoids in the news. Recently the number of
amputees from the Iraq war officially passed 500, for instance, and of course such
horrors are familiar from every war. In any case, these drawings evoke a sense of the
fragileness and near-comic futility of the human body, faced with the destructive
capabilities of the mind that inhabits it.

 If Nathan Skiles’ works are metaphorical evasions, commenting by elision on the
violence of an era in which a terrorist bomb (or any other type of bomb) can blow any of
us to smithereens at any time, Colin Roberts’ wood and Styrofoam constructions present
similar ideas, conceived as three dimensional episodes in a landscape of latter-day
destruction. One of these consists of an object that might be most of a camouflage-
colored artificial human leg – like a 3D version of a computer-generated image of a
prosthesis – lying at the margin of a spreading pool of red fabric. Attached to it is some
kind of camera or monitoring device (also recreated in foam). Such references to the
voyeurism and scopophilia that characterize much of contemporary life are part of the
point in Roberts’ awkward-looking sculptures. Another shows a mini-complex of sound
equipment, apparently listening to and recording a small, blasted tree, set amid bean-bag
brown rocks and cartoon-like spears of grass. Roberts depicts an existential  disconnect
between action and object, narrative structure and content, in a world not only ravaged
by senseless violence, but deprived of coherent meaning.

 But, striking as Skiles’ and Roberts’ works are, Cliff Evans’ The Road to Mount Weather
steals this show. More than a year in the making, the video’s three sections stretch
across a twenty-foot length of wall in a spellbinding tour-de-force lasting the better part of
half an hour. One of the more fascinating chapters in the joint pre-history of modern
painting and cinema was the production of panoramic works depicting vast scenes –
often battle scenes -- painted on long rolls of canvas. For almost a century beginning in
the 1790’s large audiences in major cities all over America and Europe watched as vistas
of carnage wound slowly past. Evans’ phantasmagoric work was inspired in part by those
historic efforts – but also by everything else under the sun. The Beatles 1968 Yellow
Submarine comes to mind, too, and those surreal Monty Python animated shorts, not to
mention traditional Hindu illustrations of the Bhagavad Gita. Mount Weather, of course, is
the very real, not-so-secret base in Virginia where it is hoped the American government
will continue to function in the event of any very major catastrophe, like nuclear war or a
direct hit from a large meteor. The novel Seven Days in May “outed” the facility in 1962,
and the world’s biggest bomb shelter has only grown larger and more sophisticated since.

 FEMA (of course!) is in charge of Mount Weather, and Evans traces the trajectory of
our oft-imagined New Age apocalypse as it unfolds. Beginning with an account of the
“bread and circuses” distractions of contemporary American culture, the video takes us
down, down into the bowels of the earth, where we witness a functioning (if outdated)
control center being vacuumed by a “fem-bot” in S&M gear. Semi-familiar famous faces
float past, until eventually a Planet of the Apes, back to the stone age scene unfolds,
complete with Mastodons and hunters clad in turbans and white protective gear (at least I
think that’s what I saw). It all goes by at a steady clip, culminating in a presidential
apotheosis: a composite figure who looks mostly like Ronald Reagan but also includes
features of every chief executive since Jimmy Carter (Evans was born in the ‘70’s) rises to
the heavens in a halo-like circle. He releases the dove of ;peace, and the vision slowly
fades as red cherubs, looking like demonic aborted fetuses, flutter upward on stubby
wings, clutching signs that read “This way to Exit.”

 There’s not much left to say after that, although we might do well to remember Bob
Dylan’s famous line from his 1965 hit Subterranean Homesick Blues: “You don’t need a
weather man to tell which way the wind blows.”

[Free Times 3/14/07]