I must confess that, upon my first turn around Mark Shetabi’s current exhibition “The Grand Tour” at Jeff Bailey Gallery, I wasn’t convinced. I am, admittedly, more cynical than most and often quick to dismiss. That said, I’m glad I hung out with this body of work for enough time to find a way into it, to let it cast its spell on me. I discovered that (much like the exhibition itself) the diffuse glow of the sculptures and the trace, blurred powers of the paintings eventually envelope the viewer completely, pulling him/her into a journey which I can only describe as shamanic, a journey that could (perhaps) only be led by a child of the 1970’s.
For a bit of background, “The Grand Tour” recalls a travel itinerary that began in the mid-1600s and continued for approximately 300 years (it was known as “the Grand Tour”). On this journey, members of the European elite would embark on a continental voyage as a pilgrimage (of sorts) to their Western cultural legacy; destinations included classical ruins and highlights from the Renaissance. These tours are now considered manifestations of both cultural and imperial hegemony.
Although I don’t have a clear line of sight between that defunct tradition and this exhibition, the works, situated as they are amid both the nostalgic and the uncanny, DO evoke travel, in both a literal and metaphorical sense. Most obviously, in the four “Camper” sculptures that serve as a platform from which to consider the part kitsch, part pop, part post-consumer fallout that most of these works are invested in.
These sculptures, cleanly crafted yet simple representations of classic camper shell styles (and lit from within by soft white lights) evoke a sense of Americana from decades past. The portable domicile of the great American highway, these time capsules recall the domestic vacations of camping trips past; they house a portion of our collective memory of a time when “the West” was still considered “the best”; they draw upon our explorations of the vast expanse and potential seemingly inherent to the country’s foundations- an illuminating notion through which, without reaching too far, we might connect Manifest Destiny and the “American Dream” to the imperialist program of the Grand Tour.
Positioned at the entrance to the gallery, “Opening Credits”, a medium sized oil painting with the text “2001: A Space Odyssey” large and clearly visible across the bottom third of the picture, leads viewers into the space and helps define the psychological tone of the show. As in all the works (some more successful than others) “Opening Credits” is a conjuring act utilizing a specific cultural reference (this one, perhaps the most obvious of the lot, being Stanley Kubrick’s iconic 1968 film “2001: A Space Odyssey”) in order to materialize and harness its sense of time, space and power.
While several of these works summon the mojo of historically significant persons (Freddy Mercury, Keith Moon, composer Gyorgy Ligeti) and objects (Keith Moon’s drum kit), Shetabi’s paintings and sculptures feel more like remnants left behind when a soul is “stolen” by a photograph. Their powers aren’t diminished, they come across more like disembodied or sublimated, as they transmutate into metaphysical markers, so their subjects might transcend the work’s material limitations to provide us another set of references for our own spiritual journeys. According to the press release for the show, Shetabi “provides a place for resistance against the eventual disappearance of things.” I don’t entirely agree…. Resistance suggests that the works are engaged in a battle with viewers, a battle between permanence and impermanence. That’s just not the case. The feeling I walked out with was that I had left a liminal space, one that exists ever-so-slightly out of sync with our personal memories, one that positions “America” as an idea just out of focus in the shadows of the global stage, hoping a strong enough vision will pull it into the frame.
Mark Shetabi is a Philadelphia-based artist and educator. He is an Assistant Professor of Painting and Drawing at Tyler School of Art and has exhibited regularly at venues across the U.S., including Ratio 3 in San Francisco. “The Grand Tour” is open at Jeff Bailey Gallery through June 22, 2013.
-Contributed by Louis M. Schmidt