13 Baristas Through October 31; Thursday & Friday, noon-6 p.m.; Saturday, noon-4 p.m. Brett Wesley Gallery, 702-483-8844.
The Brett Wesley Gallery is, temporarily, a mess. Look at those unsightly smears, the horribly stained mattresses, dirty curtains, garbage and coffee cups—countless Styrofoam coffee cups. Twenty-eight robust black and white paintings hang on the walls. A disorienting mix of anger and aggression, sadness and loss clobbers viewers when they cross the threshold. Crime scene? No blood. The essence of life here is coffee. The smell lingers in the air; the grains grate underfoot; the used filters slough in messy piles on the floor, along with dirty laundry and paint cans. It looks like an artist-studio-cum-homeless-crash-pad, which is exactly what it is: the former home base of a shadowy, fictional art collective that lends its name to the exhibition, 13 Baristas.
The creation of Adam Turl, 13 Baristas is a complex, immersive installation emitting competing signals. The backstory is explained in the “final issue” of 13 Baristas Art Collective, a tabloid distributed to gallery goers. According to one article, the artist-activists were arrested or disappeared in order to silence their protests against injustices of class, economics, race and gender. All that’s left of the movement is a studio full of artifacts documenting the struggle, with a milky portrait of Malcolm X presiding from the central easel.
The premise suits a dystopian 2015, but Turl sets his doomed arts collective decades in the future, in the 2030s, when the plight of minimum wage, downwardly mobile workers has reached an ungovernable crisis.
If he’d stopped there, the installation with its slogan paintings would function only as political-protest art. Instead, not only society, but art itself, is the target. Sly, jokey disclaimers abound. For example, in a painting captioned “THE CERTAINTY OF MATH,” Turl takes the sober figure from the famous 19th-century painting “The Wanderer Above the Mists” and combines it with a mod spaceship, producing a rich comic incongruity. In “BARISTA F WAS GOING TO BE A GREAT MAN,” the portrait of a guy in a baseball cap seems doubtful of his ability to attain his dream. The subtext of absurdity extends to Turl’s materials. The canvases have been brushed not only with acrylics, but also with coffee. All carry the collective’s signature, a stylized coffee cup with a Tàpies/Malevich cross in the middle.
Turl uses coffee the way other artists have used wax, or thread, or honey—as a way to tell a story. 13 Baristas is a tale about a fake arts collective, but also a narrative about activism, social realism, post post-modernism and art history. It’s a theatrical commentary about workers in society, a 3D graphic novel in which the viewer walks among the pages. Despite the doomed, political outcry of the 13 Baristas, their show is, finally, hopeful. Instead of the hammer-and-sickle, Turl gives us hammer-and-palette. It makes you think.