Walker Art Center

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Ordinary Culture: Heikes/Helms/McMillian

Dozens of semi-abstract drawings marked with inky imprints of ghostly masks and hoods. A rock band’s “road gear” made up of casts of mundane objects. A large piece of linoleum, apparently ripped from some kitchen and reconstituted, now mimicking a painting. These are some of the works that make up the exhibition Ordinary Culture, which brings together three emerging artists from Minneapolis, New York, and Los Angeles. In a manner resembling that of field sociologists or anthropologists rather than lofty-minded critics, Jay Heikes, Adam Helms, and Rodney McMillian examine culture by imitating its accepted representations, dissecting its systems of signs, and finding fissures in its structures of morals and values.

In his earlier work, Heikes, who splits his time between New York and Minneapolis, plumbed various sources of popular culture—from real-life celebrities such as Sharon Tate to characters from fictional narratives to rock bands. He once sought to explore his own cultural identity as a consumer through the summoning of well-known images, characters, and narratives, but has more recently turned inward toward his own psyche and identity as an artistic creator. His current series of structural investigations of myths, jokes, and symbols constitutes, according to one writer, an “attempt to purge himself of past cultural obsessions and influences in order to create a new space for artistic freedom.”

New York–based Helms considers himself something of an ethnographer, though not in any traditional sense. He is intrigued by “the ethos of violence and the romanticization of extremist ideology.” Based on this abiding interest—obsession, even—the artist has been producing an ongoing series of graphite drawings that depict the New Frontier Army, a fictitious militia group that practices group living, hunting, and possibly mass mayhem. While this representation of illegal, non-state-sanctioned collective actions seems very current, it also operates as an archetype of (anti)social human behavior. What ultimately emerges is a suggestion of the darker side of society and nationhood, modernity, and perhaps civilization.

Los Angeles–based McMillian, though employing diverse mediums, subscribes to no particular style or subject: his work can materialize with equal ease into a classically painted vanitas of rotting apples or a found discarded carpet. He often installs seemingly unrelated and irreconcilable pieces in canny and provocative combinations, an approach inspired by his view of an exhibition as a sentence made up of individual words. By doing so, McMillian invites viewers to a critical examination of history, aesthetics, and the institution of taste—and what gets omitted in their establishment.

Featuring works produced for this exhibition, Ordinary Culture is a concerted effort to scrutinize culture—that amorphous and abstract yet all-encompassing entity—from various angles. The artists open up paths to populism and extremism, fantasy and violence, and elitism and esotericism. Their statements, made up of many dissenting voices, remind us that despite our collective ideological belief, there may be no such thing as a “common culture” that we consume and inhabit. At the same time, Ordinary Culture is a reminder that all creative expressions, either strange or familiar, could very well be what make culture ordinary.

Curator: Doryun Chong