GO WEST, YOUNG MAN
A solo-presentation by Misha Kahn, for FOG San Francisco, 2015
My personal memories of the west are from careening cross country in our family’s (gradually breaking down) red Mercury Villager. As a result, this show is probably the furniture equivalent of a road trip movie, one largely set in South Dakota, a state that has a giant palace built out of corn, a mountain with enormous carved faces in it, and a motorcycle rally with almost a million bikers (and one red minivan trapped in a leather-bedecked, Jim Beam-fueled parade of idling hogs).
There was also my 10 year old boy predisposition for imagining cowboys and Indians around every bend in a landscape that already felt airdropped from a Western film soundstage. UFO crash landings and extreme natural phenomena seemed likely and were heavily advertised on homebrew billboards. As if this landscape weren’t already exotic enough, let me add that on this trip we sugar-deprived babies of granola-head hippies were allowed prepackaged gas station ice cream.
All of this alone is a lot of otherness to contend with, but unfortunately there’s more to sort out: the town of Deadwood. This place had been an old Wild West town that was transformed into old timey façades interjected with casinos—rows of slot machines adorned with glittery wagon wheels, plastic lassos, and, hovering nearby, geriatrics with giant cups of nickels.
Basically, it was all very exotic.
I'm fascinated by the ways that exoticism plays out in American material culture. It doesn't seem as if there's been a mainstream movement that embodies this sentiment in recent years, like Tiki or Orientalism has done in the past. Yet there are myriad ways it shows up: Mexican restaurants and roadside attractions frequently imbue themselves with the same kind of exotic zeal.
I may not have succeeded in getting all these elements in play in this show, but I was curious about what it would feel like if I tried. So many of them feel quintessentially American: the wide-open spaces, and the sense that they are really still filled with cowboys, Indians. The American love of natural phenomena: twisters on the plains and blizzards that force wagon parties to cannibalism. The fascination with unnatural phenomena: extraterrestrials, Sasquatch, and perhaps even that curious feat of taxidermy, the jackalope. It’s all larger than life: tall tales told in a big land. This history and modern folklore come to life in new plastic versions of the past, built or sold on the very ruins of what is being replicated.
My work starts with experimenting with materials and developing some sort of process for working with the chosen medium. This often gets carried away and becomes its own kind of stand-alone craft; several materials used uncommonly and sometimes unwisely come together to create a new Frankensteinian medium.
I'm not very interested in creating a mutant material as an end result, or as a justification for the form. To me this (THE MATERIAL?) is just a necessary mechanism to set the playing field for the kind of escapism we crave in our home decor. We can't be grounded by too much material familiarity, we need structural novelty to cast us into an imaginative mythos.
The wallpaper of rendered spaghetti ("spaghetti western") seemed like a good start—a semantic slip, a misunderstanding of what that phrase means—basically letting go of the logic, and giving a nod to Italian film directors fascinated by the American West.
The tiled floor is heading into an eclipse - setting the stage that at any moment it could get dark for a couple of seconds while the sun hides. The lamps, already fairly animated characters, are both Indians and cowboys. The mirrors and sconces cover more of a broad section: the gas station treats, small town garden art, influence of Chinese railroad workers, some space alien moments, some weapons, and saloon decor. Nothing is rendered with any sort of aspiration of accuracy; instead, there is more of a gift shop or cartoon version that exists in my head. I see it as a bastardization of a bastardization that is tumbling through the saloon door after a hard day of riding and far too many thumbs of whiskey.
Before this show at FOG, I worked on a project in New York for which I was prompted to make something that felt Southwestern—so, since I was already heading west, and as long as the FOG show was west-of-everywhere, I decided to dig in and go West, and farther West, until I was about three days past it.