Long written off by a capitalist culture where success is determined by the market, writes Ralph Rugoff, ‘over the past decade the “Amateurs” have returned with a vengeance. Indeed at present we seem to be on the cusp of a cultural revolution … being defined by amateur practitioners and to a large extent fuelled by the Internet.’ Mirroring this cultural shift, Rugoff argued, artists have turned to amateurism ‘as both an aesthetic strategy and a field of cultural production’. ‘Amateurs’ included at least four versions of his proposal: artists who collect and represent existing amateur cultural artefacts, including letters, paintings, knitted objects and letters (including materials collected by Phil Collins, The Long March Project, Cameron Jamie, Jim Shaw, Alan Kane and Jeremy Deller); artists who produce, in collaboration with their amateur counterparts, plays and performances (film and video by Harrell Fletcher, Johanna Billing, Yoshua Okon, Javier Téllez and Michele O’Marah); those, such as Josh Greene, Eric Wesley and Jeffrey Vallance, who occupy, inventively or inadequately, existing professions; and artists such as Jennifer Bornstein and Hirsch Perlman, who pursue, in dreamy and solitary fashion, jury-rigged special effects.
Let me get my criticisms out of the way. Perlman’s rooftop photographs of kitschy rockets and early-cinema-style light shows (created using a pinhole camera, long exposures, flashlights, and other low-tech paraphernalia) and Bornstein’s humorously homemade film of celestial events (Celestial Spectacular, 2002), fell flat in the context of San Francisco, where such scrappy and poetic improvisation has ossified into something of a cliché. Kane and Deller’s Folk Archive (2000–ongoing) has lost its lustre for this critic – it seems too much to discover authenticity in cuteness and vice versa. I felt similarly iffy about Mike Figgis’ documentary about The Battle of Orgreave (2001); removed from the context where the labour struggle Orgreave re-enacted has meaning, its politics became pure semiotics. Deller’s project ought to be a subject of contention and argument; here it was a talisman of social-practice-gone-right. Finally, the first room presented Andrea Bowers’ melancholic Non-Violent Disobedience Drawings (Go Perfectly Limp and Be Carried Away, Transvestite Smoking, and Poor People’s Campaign, June 1968, Washington, D.C., all 2004) alongside Jeffrey Vallance’s Drawings and Statements by U.S. Senators (1978) and a selection from The Long March Project’s The Great Survey of Paper-Cuttings in Yanchuan County (2002). As touching as these works were individually, together they felt didactic and reproving – a bit like Citizenship Corner at the local middle school.
Elsewhere, though, the viewer slipped like Alice down the rabbit-hole into an enthrallingly peculiar and fantastic place. Near Bowers sat works by Simon Starling – Blue Boat Black (En Valise) (1997) and Bridge (2000). Blue Boat Black presented artefacts – photographs, plans, tools and models – related to the transformation of a museum vitrine from the National Museum of Scotland into a small fishing boat. Setting out to sea in his makeshift vessel, Starling caught several fish; returning to land, he burnt the boat to cook the fish before turning the charred remains back into a museum object. Objects from Wesley’s Untitled (New Amsterdam) (2003) presented a similar forensic array, here related to Wesley’s improvised production and marketing of bootleg New Amsterdam cigarettes – from growing and curing tobacco in his Los Angeles studio to ‘Curb Servin’ his hacked smokes in New York City.
Produced by Javier Téllez in collaboration with residents of a psychiatric home in Colorado, Oedipus Marshal (2006) relocated Sophocles’ play to the Wild West, adding in masks from Japanese Noh theatre. The result was enigmatic and inexplicably horrifying – something about the masks, maybe. About 30 works from Jim Shaw’s collection of found paintings (Thrift Store Paintings, 1991–2006) were arranged Salon-style on one wall. They embody such an efflorescence of bizarre subjects, hybrid styles, juggled representational codes and broken rules that the history of painting as we know it seems both tame and wrong.
A television played The Neotoma Tape (1983–95), an anthology of Cameron Jamie’s recordings from late night public access and amateur television; watching it, I felt the world come off its hinges for an hour or so. Much of it is beyond description: a man searches for a dog-rabbit in Vermont; a cackling Afro-marionette attacks its terrorized owner; a mixed-race couple in rhinestone-crusted codpieces improvises a synth-funk jam called ‘I Like Your Smell’; a stuffed spider leers at children (‘What if I pulled your pigtail, little girl!’) and raps about Jesus. Alongside O’Marah’s Girls Rock the Boys (1997) – an acidly funny trailer for an imagined biopic of The Runaways – The Neotoma Tape presents an amateur universe discovering, with giddy and weird energy, its ability to picture itself. A camera plus an audience means anything goes.