Education Pig: Body by Body at Chateau Shatto

Chateau Shatto is a gallery newly opened in Los Angeles by Olivia Barrett and Nelson Harman. I missed the grand opening with a joint exhibition of Body by Body and Odilon Redon, but came in a while later, offhours and unannounced, to see. Inside the gallery, on museumishly tall walls, hung seven plastic panels, each machine-shaved into a spastic relief. The chewiness of their polyethylene, plus the vertical metal bars, gave them all an exhilarating bunkbed quality. On the floor were three doghouse forms, of differing materials. Above, ran a wheatpasted banner of alternating posters; one with Cameron Soren (half of Body by Body) sitting in a doorless car, the other with Melissa Sachs (the second half) pulling an octopus tentacle out of her mouth. A stack of their one-sheet, newsprint graphic novel was plopped on the floor, to take, and prints of the symbolist Redon appeared throughout the gallery.

The name of the show is Education Pig, which the release says “speaks to the intemperate refinement of tastes,” to the “education of sensibilities,” and though this kind of talk— “refinement,” “sensibilities,” “taste”— throws us back to Victorian times, to fin-de-siècle concerns, it’s a talk that needs revisiting. For Taste ain’t what it used to be. Longer ago, Taste was a relatively stable, learnable thing. Changes came with each new season, but slowly enough that a student of Taste could master them if they were in the know, paying close enough attention to the Taste-makers, to the aristocracy. Lords and ladies started wearing funny hats; then you started wearing funny hats; then everybody started wearing funny hats, as they trickled down the taste-hierarchy until no longer tasteful, relevant— a form of distinction.

Nobody thinks this way anymore— at least nobody who’s anybody. Certain democratic notions (and not to mention capitalism) have burped their way into the social order; the aristocracy has waned. Taste— once singular, self-certain, top-down— has fractured into tastes— plural, equivocal, topsy-turvy— and culture is today continually refreshed by a dialectic between good and bad taste. With all this, what’s a contemporary student of Taste to do? When eyeballing a newcomer or new work that appears in very, very bad taste, how can we tell right off whether they’re really far behind or really far ahead, completely oblivious or more fully in the know? We can never be certain— and certainty has always been the cornerstone of Taste. The Taste-maker must pronounce, sneer, and never waver or doubt. In cultural matters (art, beauty, etc.), as chief theorist of Taste, Immanuel Kant, will tell you:

“He judges not merely for himself, but for everyone, and speaks of beauty as if it were a property of things. Hence he says “the thing is beautiful,” and does not count on the agreement of others with this his judgment of satisfaction, because he has found this agreement several times before, but he demands it of them. He blames them if they judge otherwise and he denies them taste, which he nevertheless requires from them. Here then we cannot say that each man has his own taste.”

Taste, in this older sense, imposes itself universally and unwaveringly. However, I think we’re less likely today to listen to such demands when it comes to aesthetics, and are doubly skeptical if they’re coming from once securely-upper echelons. Think about fancy people, for example. They’ve all but gone extinct. I’m not saying that there aren’t wealthy people; nor am I saying that there aren’t people who think they’re fancy. I’m just saying that they’re increasingly difficult to take seriously. Fanciness is now everywhere a pretense and nowhere a reality. Tastefulness emerges from many sources and any quarters, and still then will be subject to ambiguity and instability— wavering, strobing, capsizing— as more an inquiry than a demand. Our aesthetic categories, as Sianne Ngai says in a book of that title, have themselves become inherently “equivocal”— and I would insist not only for the ubiquitous, “minor” affects that Ngai investigates (cuteness, zaniness, and interestingness), but at large, and for larger feelings. Taste is debate; no longer decree. You can read this as upbeat and democratic: that the ancien régime of Taste has fallen, that anyone can potentially make taste, be a proud poet of their tastes, and so on. Or you can read it critically, pessimistically: that we’re witnessing a “waning of affect,” or a crisis of indecision, or as cynicism and uprootedness brought about by late-capitalism and the “post-Fordist” world and workplace.

Whatever your take, work like Body by Body’s only makes sense in this context. Much of their stuff— especially earlier on— is heavily inflected by the internet. And I can think of nothing that has contributed more to the equivocality and proliferation of tastes than the internet. Accelerating cycles. Breaking open enclaves. Blurring provenance. Putting (potentially) anyone in the know, and able to add or take from any sensibility, no matter the enclave (and if you have any doubts here, just remember that you can now retweet the Islamic State). Though Body by Body style is very signature, they go deep with this access. They plunge right in: fan fiction, deviantART, image generators, and Kim Dotcom, mags and zines— sensibilities that are as much vape shop as Photoshop, created more enthusiastically than with an eye toward the art historical. However, when I asked Melissa and Cameron about this over email, they were more critico-pessimistic than I had originally perceived, openly worrying about the contemporary state of a “cultural overload which results in an inability to act or have a point of view”— “intellectual diabetes” they called it. Despite my dismissal of taste-hierarchies, they insisted that the echelons still exist; that they’re just “coded differently.” And I’ll admit it: they’re not going away without a fight.

Education Pig is all about these new encodings, and any pretenders in our purportedly egalitarian United States. The show overall is very Californian Dreaming: fad diets, tropical themes, food culture, new-tech exuberance, sun-worshipping, dog-pampering— all the signifiers of a subtler and decidedly West Coast form of taste-imposition: that is, lifestyle fanaticism. The plexi doghouse could be both a goof on minimalist cubes like those of Larry Bell, and a doggy version of a modernist home in the hills, a Philip Johnson Glass House for a high-living pooch. The other two doghouses vary the materials— steel, aluminum, corregated metal— with the same architectural variety found on the better-off streets of our city. A conspicuous proliferation of tastes.


Los Angeles God (Forage, Fair Trade, @#@*)

The plastic panels take Taste more literally, nearly all of them being about food. They were probably created intuitively, as spoofs. As a sworn enemy of foodie and restaurant culture, however, I badly wanted to mistake them for straight-up satire. Because for Angelenos, for Californians, food is where the ancien régime of Taste still reigns— and not only with the haughty-taughty, but more universally among the newly food conscious. Food has even become a new moralism, and in the panel Los Angeles God (Forage, Fair Trade, @#@*), sure enough, we see an angered, genderqueer deity hovering over the city, laying down diet restrictions like the God of Leviticus. Both South Beach Diet & Trident Milkshakes and Romance Café depict Love— or some twisted modern version of it— mediated through the rituals of food. And Zoonosis (Concrete Jungle), without any direct reference to food, wears the tropical décor of Trader Joe’s and Rainforest Café, and pokes at that Angeleno dream of hosting Nature in the heart of the city.

Though like I said, these aren’t satires. They’re more likely wanderings of the imagination in the same vein as their show-mate Odilon Redon. They even mentioned that they identified with chefs who, like contemporary culture-makers, have to pump out the same shit every day, every meal, over and over, for a gluttonous public ready to stuff itself on food as well as culture (rumor has it that the newsprint novel was written with local food critics, but you’ll have to ask them about this). Throughout, Education Pig gnaws on the question: with all these platters to choose from, all these different tastes to savor, all these chefs in the kitchen, how does judgment now operate?

Years ago, I was hanging out with a noise band after their show, listening to records, dancing. The music they were pulling came from every genre, age, artist, and angle, and no matter what song was played, they were always psyched. A friend leaned in and explained “yeah, they love all music.” Whether this was true or not, the idea stuck with me: what would it mean to love all music?— not just tolerate, or be cool with it, but to looooooove it— to deeply connect with the experiences that go into the creation of a sensibility— and for all sensibilities? Is this telepathy? It’s certainly one way to handle the new equivocality and proliferation of tastes, though not the one I could pull off personally (too much of a hater). However, it was way more alluring than, say, an anaesthetized indifference to all tastes, each to his own. Or worse yet, a cold-eyed, cool-hunting analysis of trends and cultural patterns without any warmth or personal commitment to any of them— the attitude most often and most rightly targeted by critique.

Walking away from the Body by Body show, I became more convinced of another possible attitude (whether or not it characterizes their own). Melissa and Cameron riff on a lot of different sensibilities, but despite their work being aware of how weird, off, or iffy these sensibilities are, I never detect any condescension or “knowingness.” Neither disinterest nor indifference nor imposition, they usually lean closer to noodling immersion. Engrossed and grossed-out delight. So what’s the attitude I’m getting at here? Imagine a family reunion with your aunt talking about her new art career, your little cousin détourning family photos with Fatbooth, your drunk dad blaring Yes in the living room, your burner older brother cranking Op Ivy upstairs, your uncle fretting over the fresh stucco job, and your on-the-spectrum cousin who’s obsessed with sprinklers with such an intensity that you finally see them for the mechanical ballets that they truly are. In this derby of sensibilities, everybody thinks everybody else is weird, but remains considerate enough to take them on their own terms, and comfortable and honest enough to say when they think something actually sucks. This could be a model for culture, for the education of sensibilities. Judgment surrenders its self-certain will to universality for a willingness to be surprised, confused, and undermined. And instead of being a matter of an imperious subject or beautiful objects, taste becomes eagerly discursive— it becomes the beginning rather than the end of the conversation.


Kimchi Carbonara (Alien Invasion)

Of all the panels, Kimchi Carbonara (Alien Invasion) is the most formally and improbably beautiful. Squiggly lines and shapes, vaguely illustrating the title, have been shaved into the white plastic, then painted over with a glowy Gak green, then partly brushed over again with a Calomine lotion color. This is a color combo that should’ve looked like Kimchi Carbonara tastes. Instead, its harmony held my eye. Body by Body had— by whatever intuition— reached down deep into the sale rack at Ralph’s and brought its dubious elements into startling accord and sense. Begin with any palette then, any palate, any set of tastes. As long as you know what you’re doing.

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