Imagine trying to tell your life story to a stranger, armed only with all the greeting cards that you ever received. The great and significant events of your life rendered as a sequence of Hallmark moments. Grief, joy, birth, death, graduation, ‘sorry I ran over your goldfish’: there’s no event or emotion that Hallmark doesn’t have a card for. The formula of has been so thoroughly perfected that you would be hard pressed to pretend it didn’t apply to you.
Grant Stevens likes to push these well-known formulas to their logical extremities. His works might well be described as a pastiche of such clichés; they are meticulously constructed to give the appearance of being meaningless. Take Lake, for example. It’s an unframed print of a lake surrounded by plants, so generic that it hardly registers. But it represents a moment in Steven’s life. This isn’t any old lake: Stevens travelled to this lake, stood by this lake, photographed this lake. This lake is part of his personal life story. But like all life stories, it can be reduced to a cliché when it’s experienced by someone else
Then there are the text videos, for which Stevens is best known. In entering the curiously timeless world of Threshold, the clichés flow so thick and fast that almost all viewers give up on meaning entirely. It’s a pasting together of the profound with the profoundly empty (you smiled/and spoke to me/of nothing), and it speaks of the enormous difficulty that humans face in constructing meaningful dialogue, particularly in the face of great emotion. Enter Hallmark with their readymade platitudes
The works in Horizons arose in part as an attempt to answer the questions that are scrawled onto neon squares and interspersed throughout the exhibition. Questions and comments like “You look tired”, or “What do you do?”. By plucking readymades from the stilted awkwardness of human interactions, Stevens fashions a world based on a great many repetitions. The term repetition is used loosely here. After all, the pink rose depicted in Bloom is not literally the same rose that was on your 8th birthday card. And the rocky mountain scene in Outcrop is not exactly the same as the one on the postcard your aunt sent you from Virginia. The sense of repetition is overwhelming, however. It asks the question of what we have left. What tools remain for us to construct our own individual experiences, in the face of such relentless repetition? Stevens seems to suggest that the freedom of the individual lies in the ability to pick and choose from these clichés; to reject the ones we don’t think apply to us, and embrace those that do. If this seems like a limiting type of freedom, it’s not necessarily meant to. Rather, by rendering the ordinary, the everyday and the inane in such distinct ways, Stevens encourages us to engage with the practice, and to test out its limits.
Horizons 10 Aug - 11 Sep 2010
Gallery Barry Keldoulis, Sydney