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November 11, 2010

Art, the anti-desk

New Times - Volume 25, Number 15

Art, the anti-desk

by Anna Weltner

Photographer E.F. Kitchen spent two years following warriors of the middle ages. Called the Society for Creative Anachronism—SCA for short—the group is made up of modern knights. Kitchen’s portraits show them standing tall against a timeless backdrop of dirt and brush, brandishing swords, hoisting flags, and lifting their shields to show their royal insignia. They wield rattan weapons and invented titles like Duke John Fitzgerald de Clare and The Honorable Lord Otaktay Ogee Wanagee, Thegn of the Iron Heart.

The resulting platinum prints make up the show “Suburban Knights: A Return to the Middle Ages,” currently on display at Paso Robles’ Studios on the Park, as well as a book of the same name. The knights of the SCA are re-enactors who, wearing full armor, regularly get together to stage epic battles. Some spend hours every day constructing their chain-link armor from scratch. Kitchen discovered the society in the ’90s, though it would be several years before she dedicated herself to the two-year photography project. Members of the SCA, often (inaccurately) compared to Renaissance Faire enthusiasts, take their neo-medievalism very seriously. Thus, it was with great caution and respect that Kitchen approached the media-shy society with her project idea.

The SCA is “very reticent about dealing with the media and outside people,” Kitchen said in a phone interview, “so I became a member, and I am still a member.” Still, she recalled, “they didn’t quite know what to do with me.”

Among those Kitchen approached on the battlefield was The Honorable Lady Bridget Lucia MacKenzie, known in the real world as maintenance planner Roberta Brubaker.

“I’m not a professional model, by any stretch of the imagination,” Lady Mackenzie said, “so somebody wanting my picture was kind of strange.”

Brubaker/MacKenzie’s gleaming, metalclad likeness made the final cut, appearing on page 67 of Suburban Knights.

The Venice, California-based photographer, whose extensive portfolio includes portraits, nudes, and land- and cityscapes, was asked to don something resembling period garb by SCA officials. The introduction to the accompanying book likened the SCA’s request to a model who insisted the photographer be naked, too.

Kitchen also set out to understand, as she put it, “the appeal to these warriors, in a time of peace, that attracted them to go into battle and fight each other.” The answers varied. Some felt that they weren’t heroic in
their everyday lives, and relied on the gallant world of the SCA to inject some chivalry and honor into their existence as stay-at-home moms and dads, marketing managers, and computer technicians. Some credited the SCA with providing a healthy outlet for aggression and frustration, which could otherwise have landed them in jail, or, as in one case, possibly take their own life.

“People are not made to sit at a desk,” neomedievalist Katja Spearinviter says, quoted in the book Suburban Knights. “We have a hunting instinct. Some people have more aggression than others, and if they don’t have
a safe outlet for it, people get hurt.”

“There is an element of escapism, of being able to leave the real world for a time,” commented Lady MacKenzie. “It's entering a completely different time period and a completely different person, … We work all day at our normal jobs so that we can go and do the play that we enjoy playing.”

Whether as a noun or a verb, the word “play” came up again and again. Another knight surveyed by Kitchen, Lord Simon Joseph Donnerbauch, said of his society participation, “ I don’t playact. I come out here and act the way I normally feel like acting in the real world. The real world is where I have to playact.”

For the project, Kitchen, something of an anachronism herself, would spend a day hauling around a giant antique camera in 100 degree weather to create her 8-by-10 platinum prints, which then required another entire day to develop. Kitchen likened the development process to baking a cake.

“Once you start, you can’t break for lunch,” she said in a phone interview, heels clonking hollowly in the background. “You’ve got to stay with it, keep everything going so prints aren’t soaking when they’re not supposed to be soaking, and you keep everything moving. … You want the chemistry to be fresh.”

Sometimes, out of about 50 prints, only one would be useable. Kitchen pointed out in her artist’s statement that she’s “using an antiquated creative process as an alternative to the high-speed consumption and production methods of the present”—much like her subjects.

The evils of the early '90s

"On this picturesque block, in this manicured home," a voiceover booms, "something evil, something terrifying, something horrifying, is haunting Lionel Cosgrove: his mother." The advertised film, 1992's Dead Alive, fllows a young man whoese mother, fatally bitten by a Sumatran monkey, comes back from the dead to eat dogs, friends, and neighbors.

Los Angeles-based artist Alison Walker was just a kid when Peter Jackson's New Zealand horror flick came out, but the effect it had on her would become the impetus for her art show, quite simply titled "New Work," currently on display at the Compact Gallery. A scene involving ferocious lawnmowers so spoke to the young artist that she proposed a lawnmower installation piece titled Harbinger at the Compact.

Walker's work, though utterly unlike Kitchen's, finds a common inspiration in artfully staged violence. "How primitive is that, killing people with lawnmowers?" she asked rhetorically, polishing the piece the afternoon before the show's opening. In fact, she mused, mowing and lawnmowers have become artifacts in this day and age. Some people don't even mow their lawns, or think about how their lawns get mowed, she pointed out. They go to work and sit at a desk all day, and when they come back, it's done.

"They don't connect with the physicality of doing things like that," she said.

Walker told Compact owner Jeff Jamieson it wasn't terribly important that her inspiration came from a particular film.

"She's just reacting to this visceral experience she had," Jamieson said in an interview, his voice bouncing off the purposely spare walls of the Compact Gallery. "It's similar to hearing a song and making a painting. Artists make things all the time and filter it through their experience."

The mowers' angles are oddly menacing. Jamieson reckoned they were meant to convey the sense of doom one feels when something bad is about to happen. Walker's gleaming triumvirate could also easily represent a single mover in motion--rather like an object moving too quickly for the shutter of a camera, this writer suggested, hopefully, eager to draw comparisons. Actually, Walker said, the intent of the piece had little to do with photography. The arc created by the three identical machines was made to mimic the trajectory of a lawnmower if one picked it up off the ground and spun around 180 degrees--"As if I were about to defend myself against zombies," the artist explained.

The show, only the third in the Compact Gallery's short history, is a bold move, but one the artist came prepared for. Walker previously worked on projects by Los Angeles artist Jeff Koons, an experience that, she said, "came with the realization that no project is impossible to make."

A timeless neutrality

Walker obtained the mowers from a repair shop, but not before experiencing some difficulty explaining what they were for. When her vision for an art piece involving mowers failed to come across, she told a shop owner she needed them as a prop for a play. A play seemed an acceptable reason, and Walker then carefully stripped all labels and controls from the equipment before going about creating the single piece that makes up "New Work."

Kitchen, too, strove for timeless neutrality in creating her images. During battles, the SCA identifies opposing sides with red and blue stickers, which Kitchen found utterly atrocious-looking and took pains to eradicate before taking any photos. "You would have to take them off and clean the helmet or shield or whatever it was, to make it look natural and not like it had all those silly SCA stickers on it," said Kitchen.

The photographer also aimed for "a neutral background, so that you wouldn't see people walking around half-dresses, eating pizza next to an RV," she said.

A pulsating power

Part of the beauty of installation is its insistence on the viewer's physical presence. Echoing the weekend warriors' sentiment that we are not made to sit at desks, Walker said, "While I appreciate the ability to view images online and in books, I find that a true understanding comes from being in the same physical space as a piece of art. I, of course, intend to have the viewer engage my work in person if it is possible."

Art, gallery owner Jamieson insisted repeatedly, is not made to be seen from behind a computer: "There's a big difference between seeing something on a website and experiencing it in person. These things"--he gestured around the room--"have a kind of power. They're object-based. Object-based work you need to see. It has a pulsating power, a kind of shimmering quality that you can only get in its presence."

With such a flourish of offhanded depth, Jamieson could easily be describing the gritty, glittering battles that need to be experienced to be understood. As Kitchen could probably tell you, reading up on the art of medieval warfare while seated comfortably at a desk is a far cry from slamming into someone while wearing heavy armor (which you may have made by hand, spending an hour every day for a year).

"what sets the SCA apart from any Humanities 101 class," according to sca.org, "is the active participation in the learning process." This kind of art has nothing to do with a desk.

The two exhibits--one in Paso's sprawling Studios on the Park, the other in the appropriately named Compact Gallery-- are markedly different, and the comparison is not one that automatically occurs to most sane people. Yet when two very unusual art shows come to this county at the same time, the urge to explore the reasons why is hard to suppress.

The response to one art form by another is a hallmark of both. There remains a trace of Peter Jackson in Walker's Harbinger, and although Kitchen's expert hand in "Suburban Knights' is obvious, her show will always owe a certain debt of awesomeness to the Society of Creative Anachronism, which in turn owes its existence to the warriors and artisans of the middle ages.

A passage in the SCA handbook describes the society's battles as "not just a show for outsiders to watch, but a living play into which new folks can insert themselves." And in the arts community, too, new folks are inserting themselves all the time, watching from a distance at first, perhaps, in order to appreciate the work of others before them, then filtering it through their own experience, expressing it in their medium of choice, and offering it up--humbly, one hopes--as "New Work."


Arts Editor Anna Weltner shall henceforth be known as Annawelt the Terrible and Bold. Contact her at aweltner@newtimesslo.com.

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