Pulling from the immemorial and recollected, the associated and imaginary, Haynes Riley transformed TOPS Gallery into a veritable summer stage in the style of the Absurd Theatre in "An Attitude You Can Wear," on view another week through August 13th. Scenography associated with the original post-war movement presents itself in the exhibition's austere and colorless environment — stylized, symbolic objects; selective realism; lax production values; use of projection; and function of movement.
In case examples from 1950s Europe, playwrights such as Samuel Beckett in the West (Waiting for Godot) or Eugène Ionesco in the East (Rhinoceros) used nonsensical plotlines and dialogue that only served to ridicule the state of speech. This was one of the tactics used to stir audiences into understanding the absurdity following World War II. Of course, "An Attitude You Can Wear" is not a play but an installation. There is no plot but what we can imagine — or, effortlessly insert from reality. This is exactly what makes an Absurd Theatre proposition so elegant here and now: Not to get into a pissing contest with post-war Europe, but this summer has been as absurd as it gets. What the intellectual cognoscente saw then is widely apparent now.
TOPS operates out of the defunct coal and furnace rooms in the basement of 400 Front Street. The ante gallery is a "cozy" concrete-on-concrete foyer with nook-and-cranny remainders of extracted machinery. Exhibitions such as "An Attitude" consider the layout of the room, history of the building, natural resources, and moment in time as the first step in creating the work. The information is used as subject matter, to form themes, and to inform what materials can and may be used. Here, it's all covert — nothing Memphis as Fuck about it. And regardless of Riley being from Arkansas, this is no regionalism either. There's something very "eating the whole buffalo" about how all the many attributes are used. But, if nothing is sacrificed, it is because this process — start with what you have lying around — is very efficient for the compulsively creative.
What is lying around: a lot of vaguely utilitarian objects; some placed more natively to their use-case scenario than others. A couch covered with a white bedsheet is against one wall, on which you're free to sit. Above it, straight up couch art: In Cueva de las Manos/La mano de Dios, sand from the Mississippi River was used to reproduce hand-stencil cave art of Paleolithic era. Across from the couch, a white curtain hangs a few feet from the opposing concrete wall, ceiling to floor, and it's clear this is where the entertainment is supposed to happen. An installment of galvanized steel pipe, waved like a bike rack and punctured in vain with industrial-strength hardware (Toltec Mounds), crosses the curtain's front width. Our "actors" are scattered about (T-shirts stretched over cardboard with faces cut out), but it's the prefabricated wooden bar stools, none for sitting, that the artist names: Pedestal Ann with fake plastic plants; Pedestal Elise, straddling Toltec Mounds; Pedestal George in the ante room and absolutely covered in neon zipper. Pedestal Davis is my favorite, because it/he/they perfectly models the estate-sale aesthetic I hold dear: still life with coffee cup, banana, and window unit air conditioner, with homeless duffle bag strap, in camouflage print, lying across the top. Sweet, incidental-like juxtaposition.
If it hasn't already been established, this is the kind of exhibition wherein objects merely typical to a room are in play. But I didn't realize the extent of it until I was on my way out, when TOPS owner Matt Ducklo disclosed that the oscillating fan in the corner was part of the show. It worked — quite pleasingly, and I imagine the hotter outside the more unassuming it would be as art in here (rather, a luxury for the everyman). No matter the temperature, taking such a pure, unadulterated readymade very seriously can get a little silly, and that's not what we're after here. "Silly" has no value; it's easy to explain. The source of marvelous comedy used in Absurdist Theatre more closely resembles nonsense.
I recalled the classic Mitch Hedberg joke about how oscillating fans say "no" to things before I wrote Fan off for good. My asking, "Are you art?" as it moved side to side was just the punchline needed.