The gift that keeps giving this holiday season is Cosmic Egg for President, John Lucas Hargis’ exhibition in Main Street Books’ Book Loft. The show closes at the end of December, so make sure to stop by and see the work. If you’d like to meet the artist, there is a closing reception on Wednesday, December 28th, 5pm-6pm.
The Book Loft is small, the wall space spare, which usually limits the number of pieces exhibited, but Hargis has packed every inch with art. As I ascend the stairs– bypassing a number of supermarket-cellophane collages, which offend my senses in much the same pleasant way that the hedonism of the supermarket offends my senses– I am greeted by a sign giving me permission to touch everything. So I touch everything. I pore over the pages of writings that are scattered about the room, flip through sketchbooks, dig through the ephemera contained within makeshift attaché cases, drag my fingers over the paintings, and rock a tiny horse.
Unfolding the instruction card for a piece titled Convertible Diaries Mini Series, I read the words “Kitchen Sink” and think, “that about sums it up.” Hargis has thrown the kitchen sink at us. There is so much information presented in Cosmic Egg that you could spend hours digging through it all. At one point, looking around to ensure nobody is watching, thinking I might be pushing the invitation to freely explore a bit too far, I take a painting off of the wall because I have a suspicion that even these regions, off-limits to all but the most handsy viewers, will contain information. And, sure enough, the back is covered with writing that was never intended to be seen by anyone. But being seen doesn’t matter, the writing is essential to the painting even if it’s hidden. It’s similar to the way in which the previous inhabitants of a house are essential to the current mood of the house. How their lives still speak to you, as if their stories, imbued into the plaster-lathe, radiate from the walls long after their names are forgotten.
Upon my first visit to Cosmic Egg, I discovered an acquaintance of mine was also viewing the work. We made our separate orbits around the space, stopping here and there. We tried to appear contemplative. We let out little sighs meant to signal to the other that we’d discovered something impressive in the work. Eventually we found ourselves drawn to the center of the room where two wingback chairs were facing one another. Hargis had draped the chairs with quilts made of the exact bed linens that your grandmother owned in the late seventies. Splashed into the mix were different superhero prints. I’ll admit I didn’t understand their purpose at first. Nor did I understand the purpose of the similar quilts that were draped above the loft’s banister. They provided a nice splash of color and lent to the overstuffed feeling of the space, but such crafty work seemed out of place amid the paintings and sculptures. In time, however, they’ve become the heart of the show for me. In all their kitschy boyishness and nostalgia for summertime sleepovers at grandma’s house, they’re a much needed emotional anchor within the grand-cosmic-wheeling of the rest of the exhibition.
When my acquaintance and I sat down in the wingback chairs our knees were nearly touching. I felt like Jacob Horner sitting with The Doctor in the opening of Barth’s The End of the Road. I asked my acquaintance if these were the ‘Marina Abramovic chairs’. A smile indicated that they were familiar with her performance at MoMA, where she sat in silence, gazing across a small table and into the eyes of visitors for 7 hours a day, 6 days a week, clocking over 700 hours total. There was only one thing for us to do; we allowed the silence to swallow us and we looked into each other’s eyes. There’s a reason proper etiquette requires a break in eye contact every few seconds, because sustained eye contact reduces oneself to a wavering beam of light. The personalities we wrap ourselves in fall away under the other’s gaze and we become pure presence. We, of course, have many private moments of being purely present, that is not what is startling. What is startling is being witnessed so blatantly in the act. It’s both terrifying and exhilarating. I wanted it to stop immediately, so I began talking to fill the silence, to weave with words a cloak of personality to conceal myself.
The title of the exhibition, Cosmic Egg for President, offers me some resistance. It seems to insert politics where there are none. And it’s true, the show is not overtly political, but these chairs are political in the sense that they offer the antidote to the partisan echo chamber. If only enemies would sit together, knee to knee, and look into each other’s eyes, they’d have no choice but to strip away all differences and greet each other as separate instances of the same vulnerable, frightened, and perhaps compassionate human presence.
The work in the show is all over the place: the aforementioned supermarket-cellophane collages, pinned insects, found (and altered?) folk art, painted canvases hinged together into makeshift attaché cases that are covered with writing and filled with curiosities, paintings of druidic looking owls, tchotchkes defaced with paint, a tantalizing tackle box pricing guide, a series of constellation paintings, and a set of erotic photographic portraits of the artist. These erotic portraits seem most distinct from the other work in the show. The photographs were taken by fellow artist Scott Smith, so they are not strictly the work of Hargis, though the arrangement and presentation are his. They’re displayed together on a separate wall in the back corner of the loft. Strips of red fabric hang in front of each photograph, covering Hargis’ blindfolded face in one photo, his exposed genitals in another. They flutter as I pass by. There is a sign posted beside the photographs stating “Please do not handle without permission,” leading the viewer to wonder whether additional permission is needed to go prodding around the photographs, or if this warning is trumped by Hargis’ earlier insistence that we “touch, explore, feel, etc. Any art in this space. You have permission.” The effect is sophisticated. We are put in the position of voyeur. We are, quite naturally, I think, curious to draw back the red veil and view the stark fact of Hargis’ naked body, but these intentionally conflicting instructions activate the societal constraints that twist and morph human sexuality into such monstrous forms. This series teaches us something about desire. That desire has its home in lack. That desire is not the wish to possess something withheld, but is the withholding itself. Desire is not what lies behind the red veil of our blind lust, but is the red veil.
All of these disparate bodies of work, taken together, create an atmosphere that feels slightly nervous, but in a good way. I’ve described the space as “overstuffed,” but it is not claustrophobic. It’s a kaleidoscopic womb, aswarm with warm astral light. It pulses with energy and sends my eye into orbit. It’s hard to get my footing. There is an off-the-cuff quality about the work. A jazz-like spontaneity. A sense that the work has flowed out of Hargis as simply and naturally as a tree bearing fruit. In Hargis I see a bit of Picasso; the fathomless reservoir of energy and the perfect confluence of ego and will that allowed him to continuously tap into that reservoir, without the self-doubt that paralyzes most. While Hargis’ fast and loose approach to materials sometimes misses the mark when it comes to presentation and finish, it is also what I find so exciting about the work. In the moment, feeling the jazz-high and riffing with whatever materials are at hand, Hargis has shouldered open a space for the accidental. In that space materials can become what they were never intended to become. They can become imbued with the mystical and cosmic.
There is a point in every painting, sculpture, and piece of writing when the artist threatens to push things too far. When the work threatens to become too heavy with the artist’s hand. The ego can cloud the intention. The opposite threat exists as well, that the artist doesn’t push the work far enough. That the work never gains wings. It’s been said that the artist’s only job is to know when to stop. I think, overall, Hargis has done his job. His work is nimble. Light on its feet. He has conjured these works like a hand tracing shapes in fog. I can see what he’s gesturing toward in Cosmic Egg for President. In the right slant of light an upholstery nail becomes a star, a quilt becomes your childhood, and a strip of red fabric reminds me that desire is not a thing to be gratified but to rest within.