THE SECRET LIFE OF A FAKE UTOPIANIST DAN ALLENDE Humans: The Secret Life of Martin Handford
New YorkThree Four Three Four Gallery
October 24 – November 8, 2014
David Hu and his collaborators at the Georgia Institute of Technology study Dynamic Living Architecture, a phenomenon in which the architects and the architecture are ants. The ants join in the hundreds of thousands to create towering edifices, expandable bridges, and living rafts, all without an executive mandate. The type of intelligence required for such complex architecture—termed “swarm intelligence”— emerges only through a multitude of independent interactions. The ants, through self-organized cooperation, synthesize a shared, quasi-virtual provisional brain, which makes them able to ascertain, for instance, the number of air pockets needed to ensure the viability of their creation.
It’s unlikely Dan Allende, the artist behind Humans: The Secret Life of Martin Handford, follows ant research. His clothing-optional show at Three Four Three Four, however, a nomadic gallery run by the artist Nick Fusaro, indicates he’s imbibed the science of mass decentralized action and the potential for using living entities as building blocks. He is, after all, a member of Futurefarmers, a swarm-intelligent design collective based in California that fosters collaboration between architects, scientists, farmers, and artists.
The “Martin Handford” of the show’s titleis the creator of Where’s Waldo, the famous children’s book (done in the Wimmelbilderbuch style of Hieronymus Bosch) that aims to lure readers into scanning crowd scenes for the geek in a red-and-white striped shirt. Allende tweaks Handford: he skips the tedium of drawing clothes and outputs his characters like bits of raw dough squeezed from a cookie press. The resulting figures are idealized as bare-assed nudists modulated only by the native details of hair, genitals, and skin tone. Even Waldo, the celebrity in the group, gets the egalitarian treatment and is pantsed. Stripped of his trademark outfit, he’s demoted to a mere nodule of flesh, an autologous normcore brick in the collective edifice.
Up close, what’s revealed in Allende’s maggot-surfaced drawings is a nudist-colony-flash-mob-orgy collectively subjugating itself to become dynamic living architecture in the shape of recognizable artifacts from the industrial world. In three separate drawings Allende synthesizes an ocean liner, an airplane, and a water tower, by rallying rigorous collective effort from each of his whimsical doodles. He seems to say, “Individuality is out. Celebrity is an outfit. It’s time to get over our selfish needs and pull together for the greater good.”
But is Allende messing with us? Pulling away from the pictorial minutiae and attending to the frame one notes the soft, brown logs of clay clinging to the outer rectangle that hold the picture together. Abruptly, the earnest contemplation of social cooperation evinced by Allende’s laborious and affectionate draftsmanship is destabilized by our avowal of the craftwork as excrement, soft and cute as it all is. The artisanal shit, which is jarring for the wrong reasons, discursively opens up the work, redeeming its blundering presence on the frames and the floor.
Clues to the artist’s agenda accumulate in a second room of the exhibition. There’s a droll, hand-written wall of text by an engineer (purportedly Allende’s sister), which describes, in mechanical terms, the human body parts of an oversized extruded plastic model-kit that’s displayed nearby. Also on display is a smattering of pinned-up drawings (ink and watercolor) that spoof instruction manuals, mobile field operation guides, and the classic inventor sketchbook. One hair-brained diagram shows how an elevator doubles as a turtle feeder by lowering food into a turtle pond each time it fully descends; in “Bag Check,” the cut-away exposes a conveyer belt hidden behind the counter that delivers stored belongings to a hungry lion, who then, by eating zoo visitors’ backpacks, provides them with entertainment. The simplest drawing is of a carport built from a repurposed stretch of road encroached upon by weedy grass. It’s a car wig that literally overturns relations and potentially works like a reversible jacket. The car can back out of the carport and drive up on top of its own sheltering device. The piece’s restraint allows us to create our own instruction manual and to dream of the carport’s actualization.
These days, it can be tricky to square the “Believers in a Better World” with the “Posturing Dissemblers.” The Utopians, it turns out, are (self) serious and unsmiling in their mission to make the world a happier place, while the Absurdists divert us with hilarity from their ultimately despairing interiority as they cavort like pranksters. Allende’s progressive embrace of nudism, his membership with the Futurefarmer collective, his fixation on recycling and ecosystems, and his interest in the body are all, perhaps, decoy stances. Ultimately, Allende is not convincing as a pragmatic neo-hippie with a social agenda. His work repeatedly enacts bafflement, binding him more closely to Eugene Ionesco and The Theater of the Absurd. If life has been reduced to meaningless acts, he seems to ask, why not hyperbolize our fate by striking poses from a purposeless script?
In the show’s best work, Allende provides us with meaningful nonsense. Three implied sculptures are marked solely by floor diagrams made from body impressions of dozens of splayed hands, butt cheeks, thighs, arms, and bare feet. Allende summons the visitor to press their body into transient service as a producer of living sculpture. Applied directly on the walls, in landscape view, are helpful drawings showing the proper way to inhabit the exhibition: “Bike Rack,” “Fountain,” and “Speedbump,” all of which require multiple participants to enact.
The sensibility of the ’70s performance group, Nice Style, “The World’s First Pose Band,” registers lightly in these works. Nice Style critiqued pretentiousness as asserted in the body by mocking those whose perduring state was pure posture. The collective aped the pose of celebrities, socialites, and the rock bands T-Rex and Bay City Rollers, by performing audacious frozen parodies on stage. As an opening band for the Kinks, they simply posed and left out the music. Allende’s pose veers from Nice Style’s specific critique of stars, however; he stands alongside “power-to-the-people” laborers and fixates upon inert public detritus rather than humans with outsized personalities.
Flannery O’Connor wrote, “The way to despair is to refuse to have any kind of experience.” Thankfully, Dan Allende grants us experience as he searches for the inherent meaning in life, while not entirely believing it’s possible.