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Over-the-hill artists at Hallwalls Contemporary Arts Center

Work by Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby is at the center of the current Hallwalls show.

Hopelessly Middle Aged

The current Hallwalls exhibit is called Hopelessly Middle Aged. In resigned acknowledgement by the artists in the exhibit that they have recently crossed the threshold of that ominous segment of life’s journey. The ineluctable next steps being old age and demise. So lots of consideration about, not so much old age, but cutting right to the chase, demise, death. Sounds grim. But not so grim, really. Even some good news about death.

The centerpiece artists are the team of Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby, and their work is largely about animals. Make that animal life. And therefore, of course, death. Lots of dead animals. Critters or remnants found in fields around their place near Syracuse. And pets. Former pets, that is. Several of their late cats. Skinned, so just the hides, or fully taxidermied, a little amateurishly perhaps, but it’s the thought that counts. (So, what do you do with your beloved pet when the inevitable happens? An alternative to the earthen grave would be put it in the freezer, until somebody comes along, maybe years later, and teaches you the rudiments of skinning and taxidermy. That’s what happened here. One of the other artists in the show, Dani Leventhal, showed them how.)

One advantage of the taxidermy condition over the life alternative is that now you can deck kitty out with costume jewelry and silk cuffs, like a Russian princess, the way in life kitty wanted to be treated, and in fact you did treat her, but she never would have tolerated the jewelry and furbelows.

The Duke and Battersby display includes an excellent brief universal instructional/explanatory video from a cartoon cat and rabbit called Here Is Everything. Everything from a philosophical disquisition about God as metaphor, to nature and grace (grace as another term for art), to engrossing footage of some elegant locomotive maneuvers of a tapeworm. The interest in the tapeworm has to do with the artists’ general goal, purpose, objective, of empathy for all things. Part of the Here Is Everything message. A message nature, the universe, is plainly trying to tell us. But since we haven’t gotten the message, the animals—the cat and the rabbit in particular—are trying to make it plain to us.

The everything objective also has something to do with a statement in a letter by Dostoyevski to his father about a novel he was working on at the time. As to what the work was about, he said, it was important that it “contain everything. If not,” he said, “I will hang myself.”

Among various crucial information from the cat and the rabbit that thus far the human species has gotten completely wrong: “Death is not a problem. Suffering is the problem. It’s suffering that’s terrible, not death. Death is okay. Death ends suffering.” Other important information is that guilt is good. Guilt is useful. People who do bad things ought to feel guilty. Whereas, shame is bad. Shame is just a negative thing.

Another excellent video is by Mike Hoolboom, consisting of a half dozen or so individual segments ranging from gritty personal—on a litany of former lovers, or more precisely, breakups with same, often over differences in the matter of carnivory—to a slick video essay on Madonna, owing much to the MTV music video genre. Some guy involved in the production asks Madonna if she wants to say anything off-camera. She shakes her head no. Another guy comments that she doesn’t want to live off-camera.

The best segment is about composer Philip Glass, employing a combination of 1900s-era still photos and film largely of Lower East Side New York, and Ellis Island, the world of the immigrants, and recent footage, including of the composer noodling at the piano. The old and the contemporary, evoking perhaps a thought about the Bachian roots of Glass’s meditations on mathematical relationships among harmonic structures.

Dani Leventhal’s works in the show include some vaguely blood-stained heavy-stock papers on which some of the skinning and/or taxidermy work was performed, and two short collage-type videos, without discernible story line.

And by Julian Ansell, a sculptured gorilla face emerging from the mist of an otherwise unsculpted white matrix material.

One thing I found a little shocking in connection with the exhibit was to hear from one of the artists how they were reckoning middle age. She said she had recently turned 40, and that all the artists were close to but just past that hump. Middle age, 40? I would have thought 50, minimum. Fifty-five.

The exhibit runs through November 2. An evening of other Emily Vey Duke and Cooper Battersby short videos and dialogue with the artists about the videos or whatever (about anything and everything) is scheduled for October 12 at 8pm at Hallwalls.

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