Chris Golas’ Dumb–everyman at Exclamation

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The performance Dumb at Exclamation Gallery Saturday night was totally of this moment in time and art.

Chris Golas in his performance Dumb. He is drooling thanks to the effects of chewing on dieffenbachia leaves. All photos courtesy Exclamation Gallery.
Chris Golas in his performance Dumb. He is drooling thanks to the effects of chewing on dieffenbachia leaves. All photos courtesy Exclamation Gallery.

After chewing the poisonous leaf of a dieffenbachia (aka dumb cane), an ordinary houseplant that causes mouth numbness, excess salivation and vocal chord malfunction, Chris Golas tried to sing along with a karaoke machine for a couple of hours, using a targeted play list (from James Brown’s “I feel good” to Springsteen’s “This Gun’s for Hire,” for example).

The visual for this aural and oral pain was patio kiddie pool meets Ft. Lauderdale spring break asshole. The  backdrop was a Super Mario Brothers blue sky with white cloud blots (they looked a lot like an Austin Lee painting; Austin and Golas said the set was a collaborative effort). Around the pool were an array of patio plants (thank you, Ikea). And a sofa on the other side of the room, with art above it, turned the audience into doting parents, or disapproving parents, or friends as witnesses to their buddy’s tomfoolery. Some people watched from the sidewalk through the windows, a shift that I think must have mediated the performance so it felt less like being there, more like watching YouTube.

Chris Golas, Dumb, viewed through the gallery windows from the sidewalk
Chris Golas, Dumb, viewed through the gallery windows from the sidewalk

The kiddie inflatable pool was Chris’ spittoon (he needed it) and therefore his foot bath. Sporting a sports-fisherman porkpie hat and surfer jams, the barefoot performer was hardly heroic looking. The real-world early sunset of late autumn made the getup even more absurd.

I have to say that, as I sat there watching, I worried. I am a consummate worrier when it comes to people doing potentially harmful things to themselves. At the same time, I wanted to see how the plant affected Chris. Those issues, plus Chris’ engaging qualities as a relaxed performer kept me sitting and watching for about 15 minutes.

Chris Golas, Dumb
Chris Golas, Dumb

Chris did say he expected people would come and go. So he was like a short video loop repeating over and over (the music did change, but all else seemed to remain the same for as long as I was there. Austin posted a video of Chris’ performance on Facebook, and it confirms my impression of a video loop).

Chris Golas, Dumb
Chris Golas, Dumb

I found myself less interested in the performance itself, the physical sense of presence and emotion, and more interested in the idea of it. It’s a feat of endurance; but what Chris chose to endure is mostly unpleasantness rather than excrutiating or life-threatening pain.  With that decision, Dumb didn’t pack the recoil of Chris Burden’s Shoot or Marina Abramovic’s various forms self-abuse. Those old-style performances, with their seriousness and self-importance and whiff of politics, seem grandiose and self-important–the artist heroically crossing into unsafe territory.

Chris Golas singing in the pretend dusk
Chris Golas singing in the pretend dusk

Golas’ piece captures art’s redefinition of the role of the artist as Everyman; it also captures contemporary society’s definition of grown young men as children. Golas’ cheerful self-portrait of the artist as a young screwup; as an overgrown kid still playing on the patio (and eating a houseplant–oh the pain of domesticity); as a product of suburbia, playing with but not committing to danger, is a wholly different kind of vision from Jackson Pollock’s or Vito Acconci’s. Today’s artist is self-deprecating, non-political, and in touch with his inner boy. This is the art version of Judd Apatow’s stoner anti-heroes, the man-boys of the Pineapple Express or Knocked Up.

I don’t think this performance would have shown up in a gallery 10 years ago. This is quintessential endurance-performance body art in the age of less (2008 Whitney Biennial curator Henriette Huldisch’s term).

(All photos in this post from http://www.flickr.com/photos/austinleenet/sets/72157622680711351/ ).

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