Where does one start writing about Allan Gardner’s most recent work? It’s been almost a week since Indifferent Stars opened up on September 7th at No Gallery in New York, and I’m not sure I’ve gotten any closer to finding my entry point. This is not because I have trouble finding something to say, but instead because the work exists on multiple, almost entirely discrete thematic and operational levels, none of which are privileged above the other. How does one write incisively about work when any description necessary occludes equally present meanings?
Gardner’s latest series is largely of watercolor paintings that use images from a Tumblr page titled Girls and Meth as their source imagery, with several oil paintings and a video of similar themes accompanying the installation. For those that go looking, Girls and Meth itself no longer exists, but I’d encourage readers to both do a cursory Google search and use their imaginations—the images are, in most regards, exactly what they sound like. But as the exhibition text emphatically notes, the show is not about drugs. Instead, as is the case with much of Gardner’s work, online aesthetics are deployed to question contemporary discourses around the epistemologies of the self. How do we learn to become the people we are in an online world? What does the content we produce and circulate say about our value systems and our modes of meaning-making? Not simply interpretive meaning—as in, I believe such-and-such means a certain thing—but more foundational, personal meaning, perhaps better understood as capital-M Meaning.
These images, almost painful in their casual destruction, suggest a need to be seen—to be, in Gardner’s words, reified by virtue of their own online presence. In this particular context, it goes hand in hand with the comparable need for crisis to be visualized in order to be recognized. Put rather bluntly, is there a famine in Afghanistan if we see no starving children, and is your neighbor a drug addict if there are no pictures online of them smoking meth? But ever-lucid about his own work, Gardner himself could tell you as much in his statements. Yet, in series an additional facet reveals itself: the uniformity of pose, medium, and mode of distribution makes clear how inescapable today’s modes of representation and interpersonal interaction are. That is to say, they all, down to the last image, include a kind of personal performance for the camera, signaling a perceived public or viewership. Like bizarro ersatz-celebrities, they pose for their “fans” with their bolos. These works as evidence, there is another level to simply being seen: even the aesthetics of crises require the performance of pop culture in order to be legible. Or, putting an ironic twist on things, personal performance is so inescapable that it remains ubiquitous even among society’s most avowed outcasts.
But watercolours? Here I think Gardner makes a point of associative contrast: watercolors are often a medium associated with Sunday painters and placid, lonesome afternoons. In this vein, they make a mockery of the online; to depict these scenes in watercolors is to declare them a farce. Yet, this didacticism doesn’t seem to be a position Gardner looks to inhabit; doing so flies in the face of much of his other, less direct work. Instead, it seems that the watercolors are posed as a kind of caricature, mocking not the addicts but those who flippantly dismiss them and the meaning their images bear. The kind of rejection fails to grapple with the gravity of contemporary signifiers in their most distressed form—laid bare among the (literally) meth-addled.
What exists in the middle is a terrifying reckoning with a collective struggle with capital-M Meaning, and the ever-shifting visual framework we have to make this struggle legible. Perhaps a contemporary equivalent—even now, Tumblr imagery threatens obsolescence—are tragic TikTok videos, in which posters share their grief over losing a loved one to the backing of a popular Coldplay remix. More egregious are the videos in which posters dance to the tune of irreparable sadness ft. Harry Styles. As signs always promise to, they have not disappeared, only transmuted, no closer to resolution.