I want to talk about art.
But since I'm in Portland now and MECA won't let me roam their studios critiquing other people's work – their loss – I'm going to take a stab at this writing thing. This is an exercise for me, but also I think documenting thoughts and sharing them can only be good. Plus no one wanted to do the podcast. In the very least Mike Vance will have a review he can point to if he ever needs one.
Mike Vance was apart of my graduating class of 2011 at Montserrat College of Art. He had a concentration in illustration, with a knack for soaking up many styles which he'd distilled into something recognizable but still his own. His junior year he spent a semester in Ireland where he developed an interest in painting signs on found wood, usually driftwood which was in abundance there. As senior year came around several people in my graduating class were finding weight in the idea of installation art, including myself. Just as I was starting to mastermind my own thesis show, I learned of Mike's. His idea got me excited for the sense it made for him, but also that it seemed feasible. He wanted to construct an ice cream truck where he would hand paint the signs for it. Then he would place it in the gallery and sell ice cream. Through out the year I talked to Mike Vance about his work often, cornering him at the 301 studios late at night. Mike can articulate his thoughts pretty well, and while he might not be crazy for heady art discussion, he seemed happy to delve into the ideas of his own project. We had good conversations, many of which informed this article.
There are many attractive qualities to installation. In the age of internet, where there is so much image saturation, you start looking for reasons to have a show at all. Yes there is the fact that most art looks a hundred times better in real life, but also there's a want to give something more than what appears on your website. You want it to be worth the visit.
If this is the scale we judge Mike on then he passes with flying colors. There was something so engaging in an ice cream truck made out of plywood sitting on cinderblocks. Waiting in line to pay 50 cents for an ice cream cone was great. While there are usually lines for the food at receptions, here it was apart of the art. The line became apart of the truck's environment. You could almost see the dominos fall in people's heads as they approached. What was an ice cream truck doing in the gallery? why are people lining up? what do you mean you have to pay for the ice cream? Hearing people's reaction that they had to pay, and then to see them scramble for quarters was great. They were giddy to pay, even though on the other side of the room was free food. The real tell tale sign was when the truck still had a line and the free food had none. This was sustain by Mike taking breaks to talk to friends and family that created a shortage of ice cream that ensured that a line formed back up when he re entered the Truck. Then as it got to be the final hour of the show a man in a monkey suit appeared who was insistent on giving out free samples. It gave the whole show a strong presence as an event and made it all well worth the visit. Full disclosure: I bought three cones and a cake ball over the course of the reception.
Having the artist, Mike, sitting in the truck with his ice cream parlor costume on was a delight. It was also a fun twist to have the artist who was showing to serve gallery goers. Usually they nervously stand by their work thanking people for coming, accepting compliments, introducing family, and on rare occasion explaining the idea behind their work. Here was Mike though, serving ice cream from within a commercial vehicle constructed out of his art. A strange glimpse into the future of most illustrators. If you take it as a metaphor. They won't be selling ice cream, but they'll be using their art to sell things. An article in a magazine, a book cover, or some concept art in a roleplaying book. It created a sharp contrast between those standing around accepting compliments and Mike busying himself with serving the people that came.
Then there is the actual ice cream truck to talk about. The maximumalism that Mike uses is about as far away as you can get from the modern austere design sensibilities. Almost every scare inch is used or covered up. Filled with icons, cartoon characters, or hand painted lettering trying to sell you some frozen treats. Splashed with a perverse humor that makes you excited to see what else resides on the ice cream truck's walls. There was so much that if I hadn't seen it slowly assembled over the semester it might have been too much for me.
From this scattershot of signage that ranged from absurd seafood ice cream to painstakingly hand crafted icons, a story could be revealed. The story of the creator. It is in this task of looking at all the signs, and trying to decipher its coherent source that became my favorite part.
It's all up for interpretation, and I'm about to go off the deep end here. It's not what Mike's work is necessarily about, but it's what I like to see when I look at his work. Many probably gave it no thought, just incline to see Mike as the creator. Technically speaking he was. I'm familiar with Mike's work though, and when I looked at all of the signs I could see a part of him absent. A forgetting of certain art school habits, but also other things like not knowing what Pikachu looks like. To me Mike's personality was held in check and in the freed up space was the fictitious possibility of who might of constructed all of this appeared.
This is important because it's the only way I could explain the sincerity I see within this piece. It would be easy to call this piece insincere. An ironic barb at their supposed future as illustrators equating them to some sketchy ice cream merchants. A mocking parody of kitshy signs and a few pop culture references. That it was all just a big joke. I don't think anybody actually thought it was that cruel. Just a little bit of fun, but I'm not sure how many people gave time to contemplate something they only saw as a running gag. I implore you to give it some thought though.
In an attempt to decipher what kind of person would have made this truck I got a sense of sincerity. I'm going to call the fictional character a he because I want to use pronouns and the actual artist is a he. Through his use of found wood scraps and drift wood I saw a will to save money, but also a virtue in taking what comes across your path and running with it. Plus, he had to keep costs down, because there was so many signs. He didn't seem to know when to stop. Prolific with a sense of passion. Most signs contain a caricature of some product against a full field of color which gives a sense of utilitarian simplicity. No need to over complicate things, just give the kids what they want with some cartoons. Though there was an interest in the nautical that can't be restrained. An earnest attempt to draw popular cartoon characters, without knowing what they look like. There is an inescapable sense of pride from this theoretical self-trained artist with his work so openly displayed. Here is someone who is happy with their work, and just tries to get by .
It's not a big joke made out of plywood, but a monument to being humble. This was not some lowly comparison. Mike put the ice cream salesman on a pedestal. What more could we hope for? Than an occupation to practice our craft. Some might mention fame, but I don't think this is against having ambitions. Just a reminder of what it's like outside of institutions.
There are other things I could mention with this great piece of art. A comparison between Mike Vance and Rirkrit Tiravanija. The homage to Mike's coastal home that was imbued into the truck. How it all was another example of the shift away from assembly line perfect to the DIY unique. But my favorite was how all the signs, performances, and setting came together to tell a story. Even if I'm the only one seeing it.
Here is the Artist's bloghttp://myartwhale.blogspot.com/
photos were stolen from there