It was like crashing an intimate party. People would just reach into the fridge— covered in magnets and shopping lists and art—and pull out a can or two of Busch Light. There were boxes of the stuff stacked in the kitchen by the recycling bin and mostly-empty cans piled together inside an ornately carved fireplace.
Forever and Always Projects is an experimental community center/exhibition space/unassuming townhouse on a quiet residential street off of Cermak in Pilsen, and is probably the last place you would expect to see empty cans playing neighbor to boxes of Cheerios and kitty litter. But mostly everything I saw at “Lit Up” was unexpected.
“Lit Up” is the newest exhibition put on by GURL DON’T BE DUMB, the curatorial duo of Eileen Mueller and Jamie Steele. GDBD brings together artists who break free from the accepted and stuffy art-world establishment and plunge freely into fun ideas and otherwise rejected spaces. As described on their website, “just picture a corn dog bathed in a pink neon glow: that’s [GURL DON’T BE DUMB].” The neon pink glow is greatly present throughout the exhibition space at Forever and Always. Pink fluorescent bulbs replace white incandescents in fixtures all over the room, bathing everything in a warm, but alienating rosy light.
The exhibition features photographs printed on vinyl that Mueller and Steele took while on a summer residency at ACRE (Artists’ Cooperative Residency and Exhibition) in rural Wisconsin. Most of the pieces are in black and white, but all are given a pink wash from the tinted light bulbs illuminating the rooms. Walking in, you’re greeted by a print of a topless woman, dripping in beads of sweat, throwing back a can of Busch Light. Opposite this, another print features the same person and the same action; this time she turns her back to the lens and wears a towel around her neck and lacy women’s underwear. These are “Mother and young son found drowned (No.1 & 2).”
Between the two prints is a small television showing a short film called “Beer Darts,” in which Mueller and Steele, outfitted in jeans, white t-shirts, and sunglasses, sit in lawn chairs facing each other in front of a forest. They throw darts at a can of, yes, Busch Light that sits at their opponent’s feet. When they run out of darts, a man smoking a cigarette rushes between them to return the weapons to their masters. When one of their darts finally hits the other’s can, she shotguns it and stomps it flat.
“Lit Up” plants ideas in the viewer’s head without directly presenting them in the pieces. A large print of “1. The Bush, 2. The Light Beer” is mounted above the couch and covered in suggestions of human presence: a bike, a camera, and a pile of assorted clothing are discarded alongside the bank of a small pond in the middle of a green and blooming wood. It looks like the ultimate boyhood summer scene, but this is assumed from the objects alone. Where are the people? And how do we know that they are boys, or if the one person there is a boy? Is it the bicycle? Is it the discarded briefs? Or is it the outdoorsy, ruggedly natural scene?
The poses and activities shown in Mueller and Steele’s photographs are decidedly “bro” while the people and settings are not. There is beer everywhere. There are powerful poses and aggressively male actions. A funnel with tubing attached (also known as a “beer bong”) hangs on the wall near the front of the house and is featured in a print called “The fountain”: a woman’s lips wrap around the end of the hose; she poses majestically in front of a field of wildflowers with one knee to the ground while holding the mouth of the funnel up to the sky. The piece next to it, entitled “Claire,” shows a feminine woman on a huge motorcycle. Her blonde hair, pale skin, and shining motorcycle create a bright contrast with the darkness of the woods behind her. Everything is still tinted by the pink lighting. The composition of the art and the exhibition that houses it creates this binary contrast between soft, delicate femininity and assertive masculinity.
This phenomenon of suggesting without telling is described perfectly by Forever and Always on their website: “GDBD is Jamie and Eileen making contact with playful material, creating relationships of mischievous viewership and interaction, and inviting everyone along for the ride—shotgun.” GDBD seems to weave this gender-binary and product placement-esque Busch Light narrative throughout Forever and Always, but they never say outright whether or not this is the correct narrative, or even the one you should be following: all you’re left with is an obsession over whether or not your constructed narrative is the right one, your panties in a bunch, and the taste of Busch Light on your tongue.