Bubblegum rising at exit gallery
Few advertising jingles have enjoyed the lifespan or near universal recognition of the
immortal Doublemint song: Double your pleasure, double your fun, with Doublemint,
Doublemint gum! Probably a fine arts application of this all-American canon was inevitable.
Or maybe that wasn’t actually the inspiration, but the Doublemint ditty springs inevitably
to mind at the show Contractions of an Amorphous Solid at exit gallery. Since 2003 when
a piece of chewing gum got stuck to their rear car window and they whipped out a digital
camera, the Texas-based husband/wife team Mary Magsamen and Stephan Hillerbrand
have made much of chewing gum, both in tandem and solo. Contractions is an (even)
more astronomical/biological sequel to various works, beginning with sequences shown
during a residency at the Woolworth Building in Manhattan in 2003, and continuing in the
performance/video work air-hunger, featured at the Butler Institute of American Art in
Youngstown in 2004.
The most engaging (and sometimes revolting) components of the previous series were
color sequences and stills showing the pair in the act of exchanging large bubble-masses
(for want of a better term). Sometimes they were shown facing each other with the
bubbles conjoined, or mysteriously connecting with a sort of bubblegum umbilical cord.
The associations these images provoke are complex and deep-seated – or not, as you
please. A spirit of irony and general down-and-dirty, gooshy fun certainly plays a major
role in these works. But there’s more to it than that. The artists’ invocation of the concept
air-hunger, or dypsnea in medical terminology, brings a whole world of desperate,
gasping human experience into play. A very common symptom in a wide variety of
illnesses, air-hunger is of course the most immediately disturbing aspect of asthma and
In some of the photos, Hillerbrand and Magsamen face each other in normal orientation,
at once separated and united by the burgeoning pale pink gum. These can be wildly
suggestive. Crack, for example, shows the tips of each artist’s nose at the upper corners
of the frame, and their lips and chins; but at least three quarters of the total area of the
photograph is taken up with a glistening, almost flesh-colored mass suspended between
their mouths. This could resemble buttocks, but really it’s more mysterious than that. It’s
something like a blank cartoon speech balloon, waiting for the inscription of viewers’
response. In other stills one of the artists is upside down, and together they seem like
obscene putti sucking on a shared, globular halo. The Freudian theory-laden oral fixation
cum (cum) sexual rivalry implied in those images has been a thematic concern in other
Magsamen/Hillerbrand projects. In the multi-screen video installation earth-hunger – the
Great Race, for instance, also shown at the Butler, the pair run up and down the rows of a
corn field, like contestants in an even more demented than usual reality TV show.
As the bubblegum series has continued, the bubbles have taken on a life of their own.
Gradually Magsamen’s and Hillerbrand’s profiles disappear into background shadows or
off the edge of the frame entirely, leaving behind their breath. Whether you think of the
remaining bubble entities as vaguely obscene sketches of immortality, or as a new life
form entirely, is up to you. They can look like internal organs, for example, pulsing and
beating, captured by some modern miracle of medical imaging.
At exit the artists display exclusively black and white pictures and video. Viewed through
the gallery’s big windows from the street, it looks like a show of astronomical photography
– like shots of the moon, or some other wanly illumined heavenly body. Closer
examination doesn’t do much to clarify the matter, either; for the most part the artists’
presence has been elided from the finished photos, and what remains is simply an
abstraction, a mystery. The largely abstract qualities and focus of Magsamen and
Hillerbrand’s installation seen recently at SPACES, called Coffee and Milk, which was part
of the Misdemeanor group show (Free Times 12/20-26/06), were similar. That two-part
video projection also started with a metaphor for personal interaction – the mingling of
coffee and milk – with multiple implications involving intimacy and shared physical
experience in general. And like Contractions of an amorphous solid, the actual
presentation crossed, or travelled back and forth across, a formal frontier, moving from
everyday experience into a realm of swirling, cosmic or microcosmic motion. But both
works also retain peculiar hints of the human. In Coffee and Milk, mouths (horrifyingly)
penetrate the surface of the liquid, which was filmed in an aquarium. In context it’s like a
creature from a Lovecraft novel, swallowing the milky firmament. At Contractions it’s more
a matter of awareness. We can’t quite see the human demiurges who make these planets
swell in the studio’s dark sky; but we know they’re there.
Some of the stills at exit are matted and framed. This more formal presentation seems to
emphasize the oddity of the images. One at least resembles Galileo spacecraft photos of
Jupiter’s ice moon Ganymede, scarred and pitted like Moby Dick’s equally famous flank.
Or could it be some undersea creature, glimpsed in the deep waters of the Mindanao
Trench? Across from that, a video projection is split in two, like an open book, by the right
angle formed by two walls, also bouncing off the triangle of floor between. Various sized
bubbles wax and wane, dawn and sink beyond the horizon of the camera’s lens. The
sound component is a long, haunting, rolling, squishing loop. Gustav Holst’s The Planets
might seem to fit the rolling, planetary imagery, but Magsamen and Hillerbrand tend to
lean as far away from the grandiose as they can, preferring to kid their audiences a little.
The inscrutable sounds here are actually recordings of their washer and dryer, running
through a few rinse and permanent press cycles.
Magsamen and Hillerbrand met and married a few years ago while working toward their
MFA’s at the Cranbrook Academy of Art. Since then their use of combined video and
performance to consider the unfathomable depths of relationship issues has produced
some genuinely exciting results, as well as attracting a fair degree of national attention.
Developing metaphors for mutual boundaries, for the interpenetration of roles and the
fluidness of identity that characterize any human relationship, the pair plumbs profound
human concerns.. Compared to the installations at the Butler, the Art Academy of
Cincinnati, and elsewhere around the country, the selection of stills and video work on
view at exit seems like a sampling more than a show, leaving viewers hungry for a longer,
deeper look at these artists’ explorations. But that’s all the more reason to drop by
Tremont and grab an intro to some important contemporary work.
[Free Times 2/28/07]