It is hard not to admire the intrepid founders of Ballroom Marfa, a non-profit space for contemporary art in the remote west Texas town where Donald Judd transformed a defunct army base into a sprawling permanent exhibition space. Marfa has become internationally renowned as the ultimate place to view Judd’s work, and the outpost is filled with art cognoscenti who come, pilgrim-like, to submit to his rigorous vision. In this context expectations for a contemporary art space are high, and Ballroom is successfully developing a spirited programme by inviting artists, critics and curators from across the country to mount sharp and inventive shows.
The compelling Hello Meth Lab in the Sun (2008) was the first collaboration by New York-based artists Jonah Freeman, Justin Lowe and Alexandre Singh, and it was an ambitious, exhaustive and utterly immersive installation. Working from the premise that the production and use of crystal methamphetamine are a fertile analogy for alchemy, the trio crafted a sculptural assemblage in which the science, philosophy and art of transformation coalesce before their viewers’ eyes. The show was structured as a warren-like series of rooms and corridors, beginning with an anonymous hallway that leads to a charred kitchen, ravaged by fire (and indebted to the example of Mike Nelson), which blotted out the bright west Texan light and recalibrated the viewer’s expectations for drama. Small visual and aural details such as a fading Terminator (1984) film poster, a tape recorder and a video camera added to the vibe of decrepitude and paranoia. The project’s audacity only became evident in the next quadrant of connected scenes: a human-size terrarium filled with cacti; a blinding-white room displaying cat-litter busts; an attic crawl space wallpapered with porn and outfitted with an old TV; and the eponymous crystal meth lab stocked with the requisite ingredients and materials such as cold medicine, acid, hot plates and matches that are used to create the highly combustible drug.
On the one hand these scenes demonstrated a faithful attention to the realist details of their subject (alongside the practical necessities of meth production they account for the habits of users such as a predilection for sugary soda like Mountain Dew). On the other hand, they leverage the quotidian supplies to catapult their project into something beyond verisimilitude. For instance, in meth production kitty litter is often used to mask noxious lab fumes. Building on their alchemical theme, the artists instead paired the granular crud with cheap wigs to craft a series of grotesque heads perched on thin plastic shelves. The harsh fluorescent lights lent a grimy dime-store quality to the installation that was functionally realist, but which also linked their project to the contemporary sculptural trend of ‘un-monumental’ assemblage. Nearby, a greenhouse similarly straddled two worlds, evoking both the Western scrublands where many illicit meth labs are found and the counterculture of homeopathic therapeutic remedies derived from aloe and a number of other plants.
From here Hello Meth Lab… moved abruptly into an immaculate formal gallery space, with plush red carpeting and white wainscoting. Physically clean, it aimed to be no less psychologically loaded, and to this end were displayed a series of disquieting black and white photographs of men and women, dressed in stylish dinner garb c. 1920, holding crystals in front of their faces as though playing an occult parlour game. Nearby, burnt panels from the ashen kitchen were displayed in vitrines, as well as a series of still-life photos of ersatz meth paraphernalia. In these works the artists seemed to be coyly playing with contemporary strategies employed to transform installation art into discrete, saleable objects. Like the figurative busts, these pieces reflected the art viewers’ acculturated readiness to accept detritus or residue as sculpture, and point to the alchemical power of artist and gallery in transmuting random objects into art.
The exhibition culminated in a low-ceilinged wooden pantry, where crude shelves were lined with jars and a ladder led to an upper floor beneath a patchwork geodesic dome. The homespun eyrie was stuffed with folksy old objects and packed with vessels full of feathers, cacti, crystals and taxidermy. In this sudden hippie enclave (exited through a refrigerator that disgorged visitors into an empty Ballroom gallery) the illicit act of living off the grid in the West was, if not celebrated, then espied through the prism of its more innocent and naive origins.
For the artists each transition from room to room is analogous to a cinematic cut, and the disparate elements within the installation accrue into a larger story about projection, fantasy and alternative realities. If alchemy was the conceptual crux of this show, escapism is surely one subtext, and Freeman, Lowe and Singh have created a convincing argument for why this continues to be a compelling reason for making and experiencing art.