While the art world is often composed of strange, often unusual pieces of imagery to reflect upon, few compare to the downtown Samek Exhibition, “You Never Know”, which closed this past Sunday.
Originally designed by Cliff Hengst (and advertised on every cork board on campus), this exhibition has a “use of cast-off materials and DIY technique makes even charged political topics seem human and approachable.”
Keep those descriptors in mind, they’ll be important later. This curative description was taken from the gallery page on the exhibition, which mentions that Mr. Hengst came down to Lewisburg for a dance party in June. This gallery page also has some pictures of the exhibition, if you would like to see it as well.
Now, while Mr. Hengst surely put a lot of thought and effort into his best works, it is difficult to say that this is his best. As an unlicensed art critic myself, I took a short walk down to the gallery to check it out, and the results didn’t exactly “pop out” to me. They felt a little “flat,” actually. Do you get it? Yes, they’re paper puns, because that’s all that was there. When the museum described his visual style as a “thrift-store aesthetic,” they really meant the “thrift store” part. It was homemade protest sign-levels of thrift — and that’s an insult to protest signs! People have come up with much more creative ones, really.
Now, it may seem like I’m being too harsh on it. People might argue that yes, these works of art may be on the basic side, but they’re not that bad. Maybe someone could claim I’m “punching down” because of my criticism. Sure, I can admit that a few of those drawings aren’t too bad — that is, the actual drawings, not the cut-out poster board with “BLEEFS” (don’t look that up, I thought it was the word “beliefs” and I was wrong) and “UM AHH UMM” written on it. I’ll be blunt here, if someone is using a “thrift store aesthetic,” I’d take that to mean the artist is actually doing something with it. Make a diorama, make a project out of glued-together paint brushes or make some origami out of Florida Man news stories. There’s a million ways to go about this apart from protest signs. If I wanted to see those, I’d take a day trip to the Supreme Court.
However, it’s not all bad. The aforementioned drawings are relatively few amidst the protest signs, but they were the most appealing part of the exhibition for me. In fact, they were the best part of the gallery because I could actively derive something meaningful from them. The subjects are rainbows, or humanoid figures clad in rainbow colors. The downtown gallery website says that “Cliff’s work echoes the tragedy of the AIDS epidemic, queer activism and absurdist theater,” and I see those first two elements in these drawings (while the absurdist theatre is everything else on the walls).
Of course, Mr. Hengst had his work displayed in the Tang Museum in New York, Gallery 16 in San Francisco and in the Institute of Contemporary Art in Philadelphia, so that being said, he is much more successful in his craft than I ever will — so it wouldn’t technically be punching down anyways.