By what right does someone exhibit a doormat as artwork? Billy McGuinness’s twelve-foot wide dirt-monument gets on the wall as part of “Migrant Files,” a three-artist—McGuinness, Jaxon Pallas, Austen Brown—show currently up at ACRE Projects in Pilsen, on the basis of a pretty good idea. McGuinness’s mat began as a strip of canvas—the same stuff you’d stretch into a painting. He laid it on the floor, just past the visitor’s door to Division XI of the Cook County Jail. It ended as an intricately anonymous record of human movement over time and a self-proclaimed (although decidedly tongue-in-cheek) “high-modernist object.”
But the strictly cerebral level of McGuinness’s work, and the propositions of the other two exhibiting artists, isn’t what “Migrant Files” is out to question, though. The show seems comfortable with conceptual art. Rather, “Migrant Files” asks us to consider a principle of conceptual art: the gap between the art object and the idea that justifies it to gallery-goers. The exhibition transforms this gulf into a statement on the link between decontextualization and dehumanization, especially in difficult political or socioeconomic environments. In short, we’re nothing without our background info.
McGuinness is not a painter here. He gives up the direct action of authorship as we’re accustomed to think of it (working with a brush and maulstick), letting the marks of hundreds of individuals quietly come together in a randomized whole. He’s consequently very attentive to concerns from the fifties and sixties about the role and identity of the painter. The site-specificity of McGuinness’s work matters, as it’s the only part of the work that he has direct agency over as maker. “Second floor visitor’s entrance” belongs to McGuinness’s body of “foot-traffic” canvasses that have been placed in soup-kitchens and homeless shelters. This time around, rather than the site where basic necessities such as sustenance or shelter are satisfied, McGuinness instead documents movement at the place where loving family and friends arrive to meet less material necessities: the need for news, companionship, and belonging.
A penal system hardly makes these needs its first priority. In fact, the penitentiary project could be described as doing much the opposite. It blatantly disregards that prisoners are social creatures, largely erasing them from society for the duration of their sentence. “Second floor visitor’s entrance” similarly erases the particularity of individual bodies. It’s impossible to correctly attribute the lint balls and footprints that make up the artwork’s only legible content. McGuinness’s canvas registers glimpses of people, clues indicating their presence, but leaves the beholder clueless as to who they are, or what brought them to the jail in the first place. Like an incarceration number, the dirt smudges are gestures that can’t tell you anything meaningful about a human being.
It’s only at the scale of the exhibition, however, that “visitor’s entrance” really drives home this notion of gesture without the capacity for empathy. Conceptual art at times proves infuriating because the data needed to appreciate it isn’t always contained inside the object. A work like “Visitor’s entrance” only transcends its status as a stained piece of fabric once we grasp where it came from, what determined its upbringing.
Jaxon Pallas’s work with a July 4, 1976 edition of the Detroit News neatly formulates this thought, as a kind of overture for “Migrant Files.” He’s reproduced some articles and put them behind glass as inkjet prints. He’s taken other articles and pasted them against glass—the windows of ACRE Projects itself. Both uses bring the newspaper down to the level of an empty gesture. Behind glass, the newspaper is sterile and abstracted from the reality of holding it in hand and reading it. Over glass, it’s mere material—wallpaper. In either case, the paper stops being a compressed version of the concerns and anxieties of a specific place (Detroit) in time (July 4th, 1976). What’s more, without attribution to Pallas, this newspaper doesn’t exist as art. It might just convince you that ACRE’s building has been abandoned. Without insight, without elaboration, without context, this newspaper is trash—at the most fit for a library’s periodicals collection, but otherwise alien to a gallery.
If it doesn’t sound convincing that markers devoid of context are all that threatening, consider Austen Brown’s “Looking for the Bright Spot,” a series of shale core samples laid out on the floor, in a line, as a seemingly sequential order. “Bright Spot” belongs to Brown’s ongoing artistic investigation of North Dakota oil extraction. For the miners, boom-bust practices often leave them as mobile and detached from the normal rhythms of society as McGuinness’s homeless or inmate cohorts.
The shale samples themselves are placed right in the path of the room’s entryway and are not fixed to the ground by any epoxy or mounting. People can easily run into the artwork—as they often did, throughout the exhibition’s opening evening. The result is that its physical position is disrupted, and frequently.
Here’s a moment where context would be helpful: ACRE ultimately expressed a kind of coolness that folks were tripping over “Bright Spot.” Various hands nonchalantly nudged the pieces back into place after each collision. ACRE invited this sort of interaction by arranging the room as they did. It challenged even those visitors who would have, for example, accepted Pallas’s newspaper as “artistic” without prompting. A blanket overestimation of every object in that room allowed rocks—simple rocks—to attack a real person’s self-confidence. “Migrant Files” thus attends to the nuance in the conditions of objects, and the conditions of the people they often track or represent, from a variety of vectors. Without the right kind of context, real persons can fade into smudgy footprints, and unsmiling stone will make you blush at a bump.
Correction March 5, 2014: Due to an editing error, an earlier version of this article misspelled the name of the exhibiting artist. He is Billy McGuinness, not Billy McGuiness.