First came hieroglyphs, then epic poems, stage plays and operas. Then there were books, newspapers, movies, radios and televisions. Now, smartphones, iPads and Kindles. The methods by which we retell our creation myths and dispense our latest memes have morphed radically over the last 6,000 years. Each form withers to make room for the next’s bloom, as old-timers mourn the old era and fetishize its dusty souvenirs, be they printing presses, Victrolas or the Atari 800. This battle between technology and nostalgia is at the heart of Anna Gray and Ryan Wilson Paulsen’s thought-provoking exhibition, Maybe It Takes a Loud Noise.
Gray and Paulsen, a wife-and-husband duo who make art collaboratively, are especially interested in whether technology—and the content-delivery platforms through which we communicate—aids or impedes political change. They address this issue cogently in Can These Antiques Ever Prove Dangerous Again?, an installation of 101 miniature protest signs imprinted with slogans such as “FOLK SONGS” and “RESIDUAL POPULISM.” The piece directly references the shrinking impact of old-fashioned, 1960s-era protest marches and picket lines in our current era, when Facebook and Twitter fuel revolutions such as the Arab Spring. Then there is Clearance, a for-sale sign on which the artists have turned the letter “a” into an anarchy sign with spray paint.
If these works sound reactionary, morose, and tritely Marxist, it’s probably because they are. But they are winningly so. Expansively composed and chromatically airy in their crisp, white palette, they counterbalance conceptual ponderousness with endearing idealism and sincerity. Gray and Paulsen do not browbeat; they gently probe. It’s a strategy appropriate to a gallery whose director, Jane Beebe, has long promoted what she calls “quiet art.” Maybe revolution requires a loud noise. If so, Gray and Paulsen want to find out who’s paying for the sound system.