When is crap profound and when is it just plain crappy? When does a lack of posturing become just another posture? Undercutting even the low expectations they set for themselves, the four multi-media constructions and single video project that made up 'lo-fi' asked questions about use and obsolescence, artifice and artlessness. Like the elevator which intermittently refused to carry visitors the necessary twelve stories up to see them, the purposefully dim-witted works in this modest group show managed to operate as close to failure as possible without completely breaking down.
Organised by Michelle Reyes, 'lo-fi' drew inspiration from examples of the alternative music world's true underground. The exhibition was accompanied by a boombox soundtrack of CDs and tapes from artists like Ohio cult faves Guided by Voices and Daniel Johnston, a strange Texan who came to prominence in the early 80s, when his lonely, funny and powerfully weird basement tape masterpiece, Hi, How Are You?, was discovered and released. Designed to explore potential art world corollaries to this record-biz DIY ethic, 'lo-fi' was an embodiment of the aesthetic view which inspired by an understandable nostalgia for the essential in this age of hyper-mediation equates a kind of junkiness with vitality and sincerity, and, by extension, regards slickness with suspicion.
As 'outsiders' to the established commercial music machinery, artists like Johnston might have logically been matched with true art world 'outsiders', those figures whose untutored works, now increasingly visible not only in folk art galleries but also in conventional spaces and museums, provide a glimpse into the rare creative processes truly uninflected by the concerns and ambitions of the modern social age. As it was, though, this 'lo-fi' collection was composed instead of comparatively mainstream avant-garders Jason Rhoades and Steven Pippin among them going in for a bit of technical slumming, artists who have in the past made elegant, considered and carefully-crafted works here behaving like graceless, smart-ass high school art students.
All of which is, of course, good fun. Rhoades' ABS Gun with Pom Fritz (1994) delivered his typically well-realised dose of adolescent shop-project feel, with its crudely taped pipe body and handwritten instructions describing, with all the teenage earnestness the artist could muster, a complex method for utilising hairspray, potatoes and a bit of electrical current to create a largely ineffectual and very silly weapon. Pippin's video, Folly of an Amateur Photographer (1987), like the results of many of his pinhole experiments, had the flavour of a rainy afternoon endeavour. Rummaging around in a blurrily video-taped loo, Pippin manages to seem at once both serious and ridiculous: a brilliant scientist performing delicate experiments in the toilet bowl, he like Rhoades seems to revel in the role of basement-lab amateur, revealing the goofy activities which lie behind the meticulous tolerances of his more complex projects.
This sense of superficially aimless pottering made for a kind of charmingly inept jokiness but it also showed the limits of the show's thesis. The thing about the selected music-world analogues like Johnston, for instance, is that his reasons for going lo-fi have a lot less to do with considered conceptual choice than with sheer necessity. Too weird for the politics of the music industry, too modest in resources and ambition for big recording set-ups and famous-name remixes, Johnston and his ilk have stayed in the safety of the bedroom studio, plugging away not for MTV fame but simply because it's what they're driven to do.
By contrast, in the works of some of these artists there is the unavoidable sense that they've consciously chosen to dress down. Able to command high prices, serious critical appraisal and major curatorial attention, these artists have decided to see how the other half lives, or at least play at it yet, they never manage to completely break free of the Postmodern critique of quality which dominates their more carefully executed work and which, as a result, is implicit in everything they make. Similarly, Tom Friedman's purposefully underwhelming Two By Four (1990), with its painted-on wood grain, Vincent Fecteau's smashingly ugly cat photo and sequin collage, Chorus #3 (1994), and Kevin Landers' uniquely crappy untitled collection of Styrofoam and wire sunglasses hanging lumpishly from their drugstore display stand all carry with them more than a whiff of irony. Yet, at least part of what Reyes seems to be referencing when she unabashedly touts the visual works' ability to inspire 'a renewed feeling of possibility, freedom and hope; freedom from preconceived notions, set formal conditions and restraints' is what she posits as the lack of ironic critique in the works, a sense of purity and directness she sees here but feels is missing from 'hi-fi' expressions too carefully conceptualised and self-consciously crafted.
What was conspicuously absent from the show was the concession that artlessness can be just as much a 'preconceived notion' as artfulness. Less an example of the possibility of an aesthetically genuine expression than an advertisement for the traps in determining what it really means to be truly ingenuous nowadays, 'lo-fi' does make a point, but not the one it sets out to. It's nice to think that there are lots of grass-roots amateur magicians out there somewhere, pottering away on their funny, resonant and compelling projects that when seen will challenge viewers and reinvigorate artistic practice and in fact, there surely are. It's just that these guys ain't them they're far too savvy, professional and self-conscious ever to be counted as DIYers. 'lo-fi' only further stressed the degree to which they are party to, rather than outside of, the carefully-considered approaches and mainstream art world machinery its thesis sought to subvert.