Greg — Next big thing clues lurk in 'dark matter'

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Baltimore Sun 11/09/04
Next big thing clues lurk in ‘dark matter’
Art: Glenn McNatt
November 9, 2004
Say you’re an up-and-coming contemporary art
enthusiast and you’re trying to spot the Next Big
Thing. What to do?
Well, you could bone up on your connoisseurship
– sharpen an expert eye for line, color, etc. But
maybe you’ve done that; the next best thing might
be to look for “dark matter.”
Artistic “dark matter,” like the celestial kind
astronomers search for through their telescopes,
is that 90 percent of the whole enchilada we
can’t see, even though we know it’s got to be
It’s what Baltimore Museum of Art contemporary
art curator Chris Gilbert calls the welter of
images, objects, performances, happenings and
collective projects by mostly younger
artist-activists that lie just under the radar
screens of mainstream institutions like art
museums and galleries.
And it’s at the BMA in the second installment of
Gilbert’s experimental exhibition series, Cram
Sessions, which invites museum visitors to
participate directly in the art-making process.
On Saturday, a few dozen people, many of them
students from area high schools and colleges, sat
on tiny folding stools near the museum’s
second-floor lobby listening to New York-based
artist and critic Gregory Sholette talk about the
origins and influence of artistic “dark matter,”
an idea he invented.
Meanwhile, displayed in booths that lined the
walls were half a dozen mini-exhibits of
prospective “dark matter”: Zines (self-published
magazines), graffiti, impossible musical
instruments (guitars made from pool cues, a
“melocipede” constructed out of circuit boards
and an old bicycle frame), even a politically
correct pasta stand that used recycled bottle
caps to punch out thimble-sized tortellinis.
Neither Sholette nor Gilbert made any claim
about the artistic value of the objects (which
was just as well, because they had none).
Rather, their point was that this stuff, which
the established art world doesn’t look at twice,
constitutes the potent but invisible cosmic
background radiation out of which the real art of
our time eventually emerges.
“This is not a show about art, and there is no
claim made that what we are presenting is art or
should be considered art,” Gilbert wrote in an
“What I am interested in is the space of art and
the permissions that space provides” – in other
words, the show is an opportunity to explore the
relationship between the visible art world of
museums and galleries and its invisible but
influential doppelganger of pop culture, activist
politics and underground production.
Gilbert and Sholette’s proposition is in some
ways a startling hypothesis: To understand where
contemporary art is going (or coming from), don’t
look at the art itself – look instead at all the
junk artists were looking at, and being
influenced by, even though they may not have been
consciously aware of it.
Because all of us are immersed in an ocean of
media images, Internet connections and social
relations that tie us inexorably to the political
and economic ideologies of our era, we also feel
the huge but invisible gravitational tug of
artistic “dark matter.” It helps shape our ideas
about what art is, if only by default.
Of course, the definition can change
unexpectedly, as when graffiti art suddenly
starts showing up in mainstream galleries (or,
for that matter, when Impressionist paintings
finally made it into the Louvre more than a
century ago).
In fact, there’s a reasonable argument to be
made that what Gilbert and Sholette call artistic
“dark matter” in today’s context has always been
around in one form or another.
In the last decade of the 19th century,
avant-garde artists like Toulouse-Lautrec, Pierre
Bonnard, Odilon Redon and others side-stepped the
gatekeepers of mainstream art institutions by
creating colorful posters and prints that allowed
them to reach their public directly.
During the 20th century, art created by
African-Americans long occupied “dark matter”
status, and in fact only now is finally shedding
its invisibility to emerge as a subject of major
museum and gallery exhibitions.
Today’s artistic production is of a different
order, of course, one in large part shaped by the
radical practices of Marcel Duchamp and Andy
Warhol, which encourage artworks that are little
more than plastic embodiments of philosophical
To be sure, there’s plenty of fancy French
post-structuralist theory standing by to serve as
intellectual gloss for this show, if one were so
On the other hand, artworks have always been
embodiments of ideas on some level, so the Cram
Sessions’ thesis that an art experience may
consist of considering the possible influence of
non-art objects within the context of the museum
may not be that shocking after all.
The Saturday audience certainly didn’t think so.
“It’s definitely something we need to talk
about,” said Alyssa Dennis, a 24-year-old
Maryland Institute College of Art graduate. “I’m
all about incorporating daily life into art
rather than having them separate and letting the
media drive everything.”
And Hopkins undergraduate Jessica Begans loved
the experimental musical instruments (“They
increase your heart rate,” she said after
listening to a tape of the music they produced)
but hated the Zines: “The people who make them
are so boring! Why do they think anyone would be
interested in their dull lives?”
Love it or hate it, the artistic “dark matter”
in this show is so quirky, unconventional and
capable of producing strong reactions that one
shouldn’t be too surprised if one day it turns
out that what was once invisible is actually the
wave of the future.
Cram Sessions: 02 Dark Matter runs through Nov.
28, with public programs Saturdays at 2 p.m. The
museum is at 10 Art Museum Drive, 31st and
Charles streets. Hours are Wednesday-Friday 11
a.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturday-Sunday 11 a.m. to 6 p.m.
Admission is $12 adults, $10 students and
seniors. Call: 410-396-7100 or visit the Web site
Copyright © 2004, The Baltimore Sun