by Keith Banner
The exhibit currently haunting Semantics Gallery in Brighton is called “The Moon Show,” and it has the stylish quiet and unnerving grace of a palace right after a coup, or a vast suburban mall that’s just about kaput. The whole thing is about a lot of stuff (fiction vs. nonfiction, art vs. technology, paranoia vs. belief, etc.), but mainly it is about a collection of talented, disparate artists combining their resources and obsessions into an oddly cohesive spookiness that makes a lot of other contemporary art seem clunky, dull and way too intentional. As well, “Moon Show” is the curatorial debut of Near*By, a new collective here in town that “seeks to bypass the art institution, working as a liaison between artists and pluralistic audiences,” according to gallery notes.
That connection between audience and artists is truly what makes Semantics one of the best contemporary art joints in town. The walls and ceilings are gutted, cracked, a little rotten, the floor crusty and pirate-glamorous. The lighting has a David Fincher feel. It’s all part of an absurd theatricality that is often only faked in bigger museums and galleries, an authenticity of meaning and means that allows whatever art you install there to have a life outside of being art. The work fuses with the environment. And that fusion makes the whole viewing experience go beyond viewing: it feels closer to dream.
“The Moon Show” is a perfect example of this kind of metamorphosis. The work included by Near*By is scattershot and delightful and also has a flair and energy missing from most exhibits I go to and go through. The curation and the artworks and the setting find themselves worked out and finalized somehow through the thematics; “the moon” gives everyone a reason to wax and wane and yet also to satirize the need to wax and wane. There’s no romanticism or preciousness in “Moon Show,” only a back-of-the-house working-class splendor, a do-it-yourself punk refinement that suits Semantics’ CBGB’s vibe. You glance around the split-room/split-screen setup and feel like you have stumbled into the Exploding Plastic Inevitable or some other Warholian sideshow, and that’s a freaky pleasure not even this year’s over-the-top, Warholian-sideshow-wannabe Whitney Biennial could pull off.
Near*By does because they don’t seem to give a shit about anything other than getting the moon exactly right.
From Joey Verzsoza’s sly, frenetic fan-fictionalization of anime into burping mythology in “Moon Evangelion” to Greg Sweiger’s infantile and brilliant cardboard-construction remakes of surveillance cameras, from Britni Bicknaver’s delicately executed drawing of the moon juxtaposed with a Roman coin (“Empire”) to John Cairn’s eerily precise examination of hoax, paranoia and insanity in the video-sampled short film “Blast off to the Moon,” “Moon Show” allows artists who take artmaking seriously, but also consider cerebral playfulness and cunning as a part of the whole shebang, an inner- and outer- space to roam free. Peculiar, grim, but somehow self-involved enough to be fun and funny, “Moon Show” wears its IQ like a tank-top and jean cutoffs, comfortably numb and comfortably smart-assed and just plain comfortably accomplished.
The last episode of this season’s Mad Men features Peggy giving an impassioned, Apollo-11-inspired speech to a roomful of Burger King execs, the day after John Glenn’s landing on the moon’s surface. That historical footage of the big white boot hitting the scarred moonscape is skillfully laced throughout the episode. In her pitch, Peggy talks about that collective moment when everyone was able to watch the moon landing on their black and white TV screens, when the country was “pulled together” by its need to “reach the stars.” Peggy’s queasy but somehow heartfelt schmooze comparing something as perversely romantic and Quixotic as traveling to the moon, with her tightlipped, patriotic shilling for a fastfood joint is the perfect footnote for “Moon Show”: we are what see, we are what we eat, and we are what we lie about, all of that boiled down to one image, the moon trapped inside glass.