Like all good things, Robert Frank’s quick and dirty retrospective Books and Films 1947–2018 has come to a close. Frank and his long-time collaborator and publisher Gerhard Steidl wanted the show to be cheap but high-quality. They printed Frank’s images on non-archival newsprint even though the paper’s flimsiness and acidity would destroy the prints over time. Steidl and Frank wanted the show to stick it to the art market by allowing the print to destroy itself. Blue Sky Gallery decided to have some fun with it while they could.
“He has some books that he does for money, and he has things like this that he does for love,” said Chris Rauschenberg, president of Blue Sky Gallery. “All these Robert Frank books, these don’t break even. These lose money. This is how he’s spending his money: He’s making doing Helmut Newton fashion books or whatever.”
Rauschenberg reached out to a number of performers to make the destruction of Franks’ work a piece of art in itself. This performative destruction created a much less pretentious atmosphere than anticipated. People laughed and danced to “You Make Me Feel” by Sylvester. They painted with their hands, photocopied, shredded and even ice skated over the work. Some performers invited the audience to participate in some destruction, while others worked alone. The show attracted all types of people: gallery owners, artists, curators and dozens of photographers.
Destruction can be beautiful
While event attendees waited in line to enter Blue Sky, a dancing man was already making marks over the portrait session with another performer in a painter’s suit. At one point during the event, a janitor showed up but he didn’t appear to appreciate the mess being made.
Tiny footprints embellished photographs on the ground, and at first glance, it appeared as though someone had let their tiny child run through a bowl of blue paint then over Frank’s work. The footprints turned out to be the literal handiwork of Subashini “Suba” Ganesan, who founded the SE Belmont dance studio New Expressive Works. While the tiny footprints are a part of Hindu culture, Ganesan explained how the footprints are traditionally created with white powder on the floor—as opposed to paint on the walls—and how they represent playfulness.
Portland artist Lu Yim stood against the gallery wall draped with shredded bits of newsprint before joining the conversation. “[The event] was a great opportunity to hang out with so many incredible people from the performance community,” Yim said.
The Dancing Man had moved to a different part of the gallery and was now dancing to “You Make Me Feel (Mighty Real)” by Sylvester on a blue tarp next to a wall of photographs. Why dancing? “Why not?” responded Kaj-anne Pepper and Ms. Pepper Pepper, who invited attendees onto the tarp and asked what their most memorable destroyed creations were, then asked participants to post about it with their names on the walls. Later on, Pepper was listening to “Howl” by Allen Ginsberg while making sure the crowd knew Ginsberg was even gayer than Pepper. Ginsberg’s photograph was displayed on the wall behind them and at one point. Pepper invited attendees to join them in shouting, “Allen Ginsberg was, 1, 2, 3, gay!”
In another room, Yim had an office station set up where they were photocopying photographs and promptly shredding them. In front of this station was a 4-by-8-inch piece of plywood. Some attendees wondered if Robert Frank was hiding under it. They were informed he wasn’t, but at 8 p.m. they made space around the wood because it got slightly dangerous. Linda Austin, manager of Performance Works NW, ascended a wall featuring a large quote to perform whiteout poetry: slowly moving through the text while removing letters one by one to destroy the original quote while creating something new.
A bell rang at approximately 8 p.m., and a man named Mike Barber hobbled over to the wood covered in sheets of newsprint. It became apparent that the man was wearing ice skates, which are probably not ideal for walking on slick concrete floors. Nonetheless, Barber proceeded to perform a satirical ice skating routine complete with cheesy, dramatic music. Although the routine was not Olympics-worthy, it was enthusiastic and earnest enough for any ice skating competition. The crowd lightened up and laughed as Barber did jumping spins and struck dramatic poses while shredding the photos under his skates.
As Barber left the stage, the Ranchera classic “El Rey” began to play as the janitor moved through the crowd with his wheeled trash can. He removed some rags and a spray bottle before placing a ladder in front of the wall of Frank’s contact sheets. Ascending the ladder, he began spraying the images with cleaner and scrubbing them. The cleaning solution, however, contained diluted ink, and the janitor was actually performance artist Meshi Chavez.
Chavez then grabbed a mop and enthusiastically danced along to Frank Sinatra’s “New York, New York” and Nat King Cole’s “I Love You For Sentimental Reasons”—interrupted when Chavez pulled out a loud leaf blower that blew scraps of Frank’s work around. Many of Chavez’s choices were deliberate and thought out.
“How do I make my art relevant to now?” Chavez said. “Because I am Latino, I played it up. Hanging around in my janitor costume, people were uncomfortable, they didn’t know if I was a performer or actually a janitor; they’re used to seeing Latinos like this.”
The song “El Rey” was famously sung by Lola Beltrán and describes a poor man who feels like a king. Chavez expressed an admiration for Beltrán’s refusal to change pronouns in a song about a “king” written by and for a man’s voice. Chavez’s performance as a cleaning, dancing art gallery janitor appeared to say I am the king.
The event at Blue Sky was certainly one of the least pretentious and most fun art events I’ve ever been to. It’s not often an art gallery is full of laughing people. “I think it’s nice to be doing something that people don’t expect you to do,” Rauschenberg said.
I don’t know what other people expected, or what I expected, but it certainly wasn’t this. This was better. Ganesan’s appreciation of play was a prominent theme throughout the evening, and the whole thing was goddamn delightful.