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Nick Farhi: Don’t Need Roads

Cara Despain and Amanda Sanfillippo

Installation view: Nick: Farhi: Don’t Need Roads, Bill Brady Gallery, Miami, January 2015

Bill Brady Gallery
January 17–February 14, 2015

CARA DESPAIN: There are particular states of mind that can be described only as some potential elsewhere, but can’t quite be defined, and that are experienced by creation, particular stimuli, and collaboration. This wording might invite a transcendent, spiritual, or otherwise elevated connotation. Being enlightened has historically meant that one is privy to some higher understanding of a “truth” that is inaccessible to others—one that is gained through some revelatory experience. Art has relied on this, designating artists as purveyors of pretty, symbolic, didactic, and moralizing knowledge. Artists, musicians, and writers sink into “the zone”—in reality a place of sketchy scientific understanding and much romance—and churn out lovely codices for the world to decipher. For artists, it’s simply a place where they don’t think about anything at all but line/material/ sound/melody/beat for hours. For viewers, it’s perhaps a mystical place that is more complex than the reality.

At the risk of dispelling the magic, there is actual brain stuff happening here. There are neural, aural, and visual stimuli that provoke certain and varied responses in both the artist and the audience—separately and in tandem. Where improvisation is concerned, there is a particular spontaneity, uncertainty, and sensory satisfaction that pingpongs back and forth. Call and response. Though seemingly disparate, Nick Farhi’s exhibition at Bill Brady’s temporary location provokes all these things, and perhaps strangely is essentially art about this heightened mental space of creating art. It beckons exploration by viewers outright by way of a large sculptural installation/makeshift drum set replete with potential sensory triggers—set against a backdrop of paintings that are ultimately backdrops. Amanda, I think this paves the way for us to discuss something that has been on both of our minds. Where were we transported to while dingling the dangles and bopping the buckets of the installation, and why weren’t more people doing so, too?

AMANDA SANFILIPPO: It felt obvious that the sculpture was there for our full and unadulterated pleasure play. It had been configured by someone who delighted in each textural sound created by tapping, popping, or rapping on its varied and various materials. The imagination and energy of the gathered objects themselves—plastic buckets, wooden bowls, metal cups, wind chimes—and the large scale of the work produced a fantastical jungle gym of audio-sensory joy that was irresistible. We were invited to partake in a sumptuous array of senses.
To play is to lose your mind. To lose your mind is to lose the ego, the voice in one’s head constantly fretting about the past and the future. ASMR (Autonomous Sensory Meridian Response), a neologism that refers to a pleasurable physical experience most commonly manifesting in brain tingles, is triggered by various sensual phenomena that are present in Farhi’s installation. What such activation yields is a trip into the sublime, a suspension of self-awareness. This feeling is also latent in the paintings—massive clips of night sky that are also a lift-away, a catalyst to lose oneself, à la Caspar David Friedrich or the Hudson River school painters. There is a somewhat romantic idea of being teleported away. The layers of glaze create a dense, deep, murky void, an unknown depth. The unlikely pairing of the playful, jubilant racket of the participatory sculpture and the elegant, poised silence of the paintings creates a frothy brain fuzz.

DESPAIN: While I felt inclined to interpret the sky paintings—created from stills of dated animations such as “Frosty the Snowman” and “Rudolph’s Shiny New Year”—to be empty visitations to the history of landscape painting, cinema, nostalgia, and even religious paintings, after talking a bit with Farhi, I think it’s closer to the kind of transportation you describe—rooted in the sublime. It’s sky theater: an ever-in-flux, pretty backdrop that is a system functioning high above our fickle activities on the ground. Head in the clouds.

It’s been a while since I’ve seen glaze paintings like these in a context like a Miami pop-up. Farhi employs many layers that the light shines through, which gives them a special luster—one that conjures Vermeer, or nebulous, light-infused depictions of the sublime by the likes of those you mentioned, Amanda. However, though the lusciousness of his paintings draws you in, these comparisons may lend him a bit too much credit in terms of mastery. But there is something alluring to them. It is sensory. When I look at the paintings, I imagine moving medium-laden, transparent Alizarin crimson and Phthalos across the surface and it’s satisfying in this way more so than aesthetically. This bring me full circle, reminding me of the feeling of being in “the zone” of painting even though the end result as paintings fall short. I was having a hard time connecting them to the aural playground of the bucket drums, but I think maybe that’s the backdoor: both the paintings and the bucket installation are props for that intangible elsewhere. They suggest and invite you to go outside of them. I’m on the brink of letting them off the hook for not being altogether very great art objects. But we had an untempered, spastic experience making a clamoring racket, and I definitely think we were both in the zone he intended. It’s true, you lose yourself temporarily in moments like that, and losing it publicly is a little vulnerable.

SANFILIPPO: Yes, it was one of those encounters with participatory art where acting strangely is appropriate! We were delighted to discover an image of Animal from the Muppets giving hell to some drums against a cheery blue sky on the Bill Brady website, among other images of Brady standing in a monumental drum kit/drum cave, with no descriptions included. Our behavior had verged on acting like Animal. As to the paintings, the artist alluded to a unique flow taking place both in the sky, as portrayed by the luster techniques that you touched on, Cara, and the movement of people’s arms as they interacted with the installation (this is the artist’s first foray into kinetic/participatory sculpture). Cashing in on the pleasure and unveiling the profundity of easily accessible, quotidian phenomena of life such as the wonder of the sky and the simple joy of making sounds with your body are the exhibition’s goals. Relating to the Farhi’s standing as a musician, also, he speaks about a certain kind of euphoria that links the flow of the night sky to the flow of jazz and jamming with a band: “To be fluent in something can be liberating, almost sensationally, like taking flight. . . .The sky above us has always been something moving and has been cataloged this way, as an element that moves without a designated mark or route. Like a jazz player, it’s merely improvisation that goes on from a perspective of romance.”