Listen. Sometimes it’s all got to come down.
If you’re anything like me, despair is difficult to escape these days as we rocket from one calamity to the next. I don’t need to list them, the calamities. You know them. They are ceaseless and piling up.
In response, some of us have become numb. Some of us distract ourselves because the reality is a huge existential bummer. Some of us sleepwalk through an approximation of normalcy in our work and waking lives, silently in awe of the surreality unfolding around us.
I’m five years into my friendship and collaborative partnership with Jeffrey Michael Austin, the multidisciplinary artist (also known as Frey) whose deceptively whimsical solo exhibition EVERYTHING MUST GO is currently on view at Chicago Art Department
I can remember once, when we were buying drinks at a café, instead of signing their name on the touch pad, they signed: what collapsing empire?
In that moment, they’d put language to a thing I’d felt but couldn’t name. This is what it is to live through collapse. And this collapse is the subject matter of Frey’s new exhibition. To be clear, it’s not my intention here to review this work. I do, however, want to talk about the depth of what Frey’s work makes me feel, what it conjures, what it incites.
Their work echoes.
Upon entering, a banner with cut-out lettering declares EVERYTHING MUST GO, and I am catapulted back to my childhood, watching television on the carpet of the home in which I grew up, as a commercial blares a close-out sale for a struggling used car lot, a department store on the brink, a whole shopping mall wellpast its peak, a brick-and-mortar bookstore that never saw Amazon coming. In the commercial, there is always something desperate in its tone, menacing, maniacal. EVERYTHING MUST GO – OR ELSE!!! The sheer volume of this refrain would fill me with a subtle dread—something is coming to a terrible end.
Something is coming to an end. And in Frey’s work, that end is vital. The banner’s backside, for instance, is lined with the mangled remains of coupons and credit card offers, hurtling me back to the present day where making it through a year in America without accruing debt—student, medical or otherwise—is becoming, by design, near impossible. This, the banner implies, Must Go.
The refrain echoes in another piece where, atop a retail display shelf, an eye-catching LED board also proclaims that EVERYTHING MUST GO, and calls for “rapid far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”
Sometimes anxiety is simply longing.
Change is scary because it’s mysterious. It rejects our complacency. It asks us to engage. So we avoid it, but the fact is: change is inevitable. The fact is: change is vital. The fact is: you must shape change, or change will crash down on top of you.
Sometimes anxiety is simply longing for the inevitable to finally manifest.
Below the LED board, raw cotton cast in the shape of plastic bottles is flecked with seeds. I’m told that if I scatter the bottle across a field, wildflowers will grow. I am welcome to take one (or more) at the price of my choosing, a third of which will be donated by the artist to a local farming collective, and another third to a youth organization’s garden initiative.
I am welcome to shape change in this singular and direct way.
I am welcome to manifest.
You can see yourself in this work. Literally.
Among the most striking pieces in the exhibition is a digital print of a raging wildfire laid over a wood cutout that asks, “What Else.” I first saw this piece shortly after it was completed. Another calamity had just struck, I don’t remember which. The question resonated. “Yes,” I thought, “What else are we going to have to endure, fight, mourn, accept? FOR THE LOVE OF GOD WHAT ELSE?”
My nervous system recovers and I look again. There is no question mark. Is this, instead, an invitation?
At the center of the piece is a small mirror, treated so as to appear misted over, except for where fingers appear to have wiped some of the mist away. This way, I can see my own obscured reflection in the heart of the wildfire. Now the fire—the piece itself—seems to prompt:
What else can you, McKenzie, imagine.
After the fire, What Else will we cultivate in place of a toppled empire? “What Else” invites us to choose a path: either hunker down for the next, inevitable disaster, or imagine a response that can break the cycle of destruction. Fear or imagination.
Fear or Imagination.
People imagined capitalism and its vortex. People imagined police. Borders. Guns. For-profit healthcare. It is easy to forget that none of these institutions, embedded as they may be, constitute the truth of our collective existence. As we witness the threat they pose to our survival grow larger, what else can we imagine into being, in their place?
A large misted mirror hangs on the back of a retail display shelf. A message has been wiped into the mist: YOU, AUTHOR OF LIFE, LET HOPE BE YOUR FINAL LOSS ANYTHING CAN BE
This is another of the show’s refrains. I also find it stamped on another element in the exhibition—the many small paintings made on handmade cotton paper embedded with seeds, featuring the text and a bluepink dreamy cloud and sky motif. If I take a step back and look at all the small paintings together on display, I see that each piece comprises one part of a larger sky. The sun seems to be rising.
Like the seedlings beneath the LED board, I am welcome to take one or more of the small paintings of sky and clouds.
If I plant them: wildflowers.
I look over to the banner that declares EVERYTHING MUST GO, and see what’s left of a credit card offer. When everything that must go is finally gone, what will we sow in its place? (McKenzie Chinn)
“EVERYTHING MUST GO” is on view at Chicago Art Department, 1926 South Halsted, through May 28.