Wednesday, May 11, 2011

Plumb Perfect

by Drew Martin

At the end of my previous post I touched on the contemporary arts organization SmartSpaces and Shannon Plumb: The Window Series in the storefront of 200 Lafayette Street.

SmartSpaces matches artists with transitional public venues. Their mission to make art more accessible.

I like this idea a lot. It makes sense for the artist, the property owner/manager and for the existing or future tenant. Most importantly these types of projects add a little something to the lives of the people who are fortunate enough to view/experience the artwork.

For the past six years, I've been using a formerly neglected window at a dry cleaner down the street from my house in Ridgewood, NJ with similar ambitions. Pictured below/right is the first piece I did for the space (click on the image to enlarge). It is a photograph I took of a well (studnia) in Poland and the text of a conversation I had with its owner (translated into English).

The dry cleaner is on a busy street two blocks from the center of the town so I wanted to do something that would catch someone's eye, which the well did because it is quite peculiar looking, and then to accompany it with a very short text, which had the potential to unfold into a longer story. The idea to use this space came from a much larger-scale project I was part of around 1990, and have thought about quite often since that time as a good model for public art.

I was in the art program at The University of California at Santa Barbara while the city of Santa Barbara was renovating multiple blocks of its downtown, which flanks the main drag, State Street. Santa Barbara has a great little art scene that is bolstered by a very supportive Santa Barbara Arts Commission. As their website says, and to which I agree, No city of its size has as vast array of arts programs as Santa Barbara.

So with dozens of stores made vacant during the construction process and not wanting to see its vibrant downtown scene wither, artists were called upon to bring life to the area. It was a great recipe for success. The artists got space and there was a reason for the residents of Santa Barbara to continue to visit this part of town.

I had a small window with some narrative relaying my experiences with and fears of dentists and orthodontists, which was supported by a display of extracted teeth I had gathered from local dentists. I also sat in another student's much larger window space as a live model for her piece.

When I read up on SmartSpaces and Plumb last Friday, I was eager to see her work when I returned to the city so I walked over to Lafayette Street on Monday at lunchtime. I spent all of my lunch breaks the past month in the West Village working on my UNDER THE HOOD: New York project so I immediately felt a bit of culture shock being back in trendy SoHo where there is much more of a scene of people wanting to be seen.

I probably would not have noticed Plumb's Windows walking by at that hour: even though the sidewalk is covered/shaded with scaffolding, the two screens were washed out by the daylight. Non-the-less, I stayed for about fifteen minutes and watched a few of the videos.

I really like what such a SmartSpaces/Plumb combination yields but I think it works better in more desperate areas. In New York City it is hard not to stumble upon an art museum, gallery, public art project or even a really well designed retail shop window. No one else stopped while I was there but when I walked away and rounded the corner, there was a fashion model being prepped and the curious pedestrians had formed a crowd around the shoot. This is what there is to contend with in New York. I should really go back at dusk or in the evening to see what kind of response there is by people who stop to consider her work when it is easier to view.

Fortunately, Plumb has some of the work she has done since 1999 posted on her website, including one of the six videos in Windows, which she has referred to as Woman with a Fan. In this short movie (the clips in this series are around 4-7 minutes long) Plumb dons a burka.

This character is sitting by a window, which is reflecting an American flag and a few windows from an apartment building across the street, which are propped open by air-conditioning units. The character, with all but her eyes covered, is relying on a fan to cool herself off and tries to position herself every-which-way to get the best effect. Finally, after checking to see if anyone is watching, she lifts up the hem of the burka and scoops in the blowing air. Plumb's delivery is pure slapstick but the billowing burka takes the skit into something more akin to classic Saturday morning cartoons.

I did not phone in to hear Plumb speak about the works, which is an audio service provided at the site, but I had previously listened to her online. Plumb is quick to explain that she is not criticizing the tradition of wearing the burka or the religious reasons behind it. The piece was purely an empathetic response to how hot she was once she put it on. While watching it, I considered how probably even the most ardent supporters of the burka would have to laugh at this...because Plumb is hitting on the core of humor here. It reminds me of an old Iranian film I saw where the reoccurring joke (which did not move me to laughter) was that a westernized woman returned to her home in Tehran and was driving a man around and he was embarrassed by this.

What I like about Plumb the most in her works is her energy. Technically "over the hill" (born a year after me, in 1970), she has the spunk of a hyper seven year old. Her lean body and youthful face with a dimpled chin make it easy for her to play some of her boyish characters as convincingly as her female roles. She is a pretty woman and a cute guy, especially with a mustache. Pictured right, is a still from Olympics (2005) of one of her male athletes.

Watching Plumb in action on screen seems less as a performance inspired by Buster Keaton and Charlie Chaplin (not to mention the antics of Lucille Ball) as it is a reincarnation of these greats.

Plumb is simply captivating to watch, whether she is in a solo skit, such as Woman and a Fan or layering herself in different characters in the same scene, as she does in one film where she plays a runway model, male photographer and several fashionistas at the pretentious event in one room. I think what works for me is that Plumb is so playful that she recalls a time when performers were still trying to figure out what to do with the new medium of movies. The absence of dialogue makes her work entirely about the physical comedy, which she is so good at.

The movie that I think shows off her facial expressions and quick mood transitions the best is Stewardess, which is just over two minutes long. Typically such a variety of expressions is handled by Plumb with different characters but in Stewardess she plays the flight attendant before a plane takes off, going through the safety instructions to a cabin of passengers. The only sound is smooth lounge music and all you see is Plumb from the waist up.

Plumb's props are economical but perfect. She shows a childish picture of a plane, a happy person and good weather and she flashes a brilliant smile. She flips the page and shows another childish drawing but this time it is of a plane plummeting and Plumb mouths a long Psycho scream. Instead of a seat belt, she uses a massive truck hauling hitch and tugs at it like a sideshow strongman. She pulls out a big paper grocery bag, winks at a nearby passenger and then heaves violently and repeatedly into the bag. She uses a dust mask instead of an oxygen mask and then for the flotation device, she places a wreath of balloons around her neck and acts like she is drowning but quickly takes it off and resumes her calm manner.

In Rattles and Cherries, Plumb explores the collision of her femininity and motherhood. She made it in 2004, a few months after the birth of her first son, Walker, whose needy squeaking contrasts the jazzy burlesque music. Plumb poses with various fruits, slithers up and down a cool lounge chair but is constantly distracted by her off-camera son so she can never get in the right sultry mood. Finally, she stops her act to nurse and rock him.

In her discussion posted on the SmartSpaces website, she speaks about her one-woman-show approach, partially influenced by the process of Cindy Sherman:

It's really important that I'm doing it because it's my only vehicle. I wanted to be a painter. I wanted to be a poet. I wish I could have been a rock n' roll star and write my own songs but I have not talent in any of that. I only have this talent in my body. So my body is my paint and guitar strings. And the only way for me to get everything out is to use my body.

I also like what she says of the inspirations for her skits:

I watch people on the subway and I kind of take them home in my head as an idea.

A great introduction to Plumb is an hour-long video I watched/listened to on YouTube, Artist Talk: Shannon Plumb. Plumb speaks about her work, shows many of her movies and then is interviewed.

Additional work by Plumb and her bio/cv can be found on her website