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TindelMichi’s Relics, a battlefield of symbol and story, form and flatness

March 25, 2011

By Ryland Johnson

The Marietta-Cobb Museum of Art sits tucked away on a side street off Marietta square where it has so far showcased safe and uninspiring artwork, the secondhand fallout from some distant art world happening in another universe. This is why it is genuinely exciting to see the museum’s current exhibition by TindelMichi, the collaborative duo of John Tindel and Michi Meko. Relics is a breath of fresh air: Not only are the works in the show more exciting than the whole of the museum’s permanent collection, they mark a change in the kind of art that gets space there.

Relics marks the return of TindelMichi as an art-making pair after a three year hiatus where the painters explored work independently. In the past, collaborations between John Tindel and Michi Meko have been noted for a fast and flat, graphic form of painting that explores subject matter and symbols associated with Southernness and tweaks the representation of the South to fit the 21st century. Today, TindelMichi’s style seems very much in line with previous work: It still draws largely from the influence of graphic design and graffiti writing, and it still deals with Southernness as a primary theme.

Signage in front of the Marietta-Cobb Museum of art promotes the current show. Photo courtesy the artists.

But it would do the work a disservice to remain fixated on the big narrative content that is “THE SOUTH.” The interesting aspects of Relics certainly appropriate Southernness as the image content, but there are suggestions that the pair has begun to tackle the issue of language and story in a more comprehensive way — to address the underlying structures of symbol and image.

John Tindel and Michi Meko both call their paintings as TindelMichi “conversations,” because in collaboration the paintings work themselves out as a dialogue (and sometimes as a “battle”) between the two painters as they layer paint on the canvas, respond to each other’s aesthetic choices with symbolic images and fragments of language, and build a full, all-over-the-canvas composition.

For John Tindel, the play of language in these conversations seems to be one of, if not the most, important facets of the paintings. “I almost want to say that [the paintings are] all language,” he said in a recent interview with both artists.

For Michi Meko, the conversation in paint carries the effect of transmuting symbols (which are, after all, linguistic) either into a new mode of interpretation or into total destruction. Meko explained: “The destruction of symbols in the work begins in understanding the symbol. For me, it’s learning which symbols I’m interested in hold power, what power they hold, and to whom they communicate. From there the process of deconstructing and remixing happens, whether [it happens by way of] color changes, omissions, or combining many symbols at once. In my thought, this begins to change the power of that symbol or object. I believe it affects the way symbols and objects can communicate.”

You get the impression that this imaginary battlefield of the canvas helped them understand the inherent mutability of language in their own unique way. But there is something about the content they return to over and over, Southernness, that gives their works the depth of meaning necessary to avoid the cliché of art-making which seeks to destroy only for destruction’s sake. The destruction in TindelMichi, one could say, is destruction by creation and vice-versa: destruction that initiates change and novelty.

Each artist takes great care to support the other: Michi devises narrative elements to pull images into context, and Tindel supports Michi’s images with design elements. “I wanted to create a spirit world around Michi’s story, something the subjects in the story had to pass through,” said Tindel. It is in this dual nature of the conversation — the play of symbol and story, contents and container, care and conflict — that language occurs most properly in and only in active dialogue, producing the best aspects of the works in Relics.

In keeping with their graphic roots, TindelMichi’s compositions are very flat, really flat — they are closer to “paint on wall” than “paint on canvas,” or, in many recent works, wood — drawing from both artists’ respect for graffiti writing. Michi describes graffiti as part of his process and studio practice, a skill that he apprenticed in and learned from older writers. He continues: “I see writers and the language of writing as a lineage of communicative mark-makers. History is filled with mark makers from petroglyphs to the graff’ writer.”

TindelMichi, Debating White Walls, 2011. Photo courtesy the artists.
TindelMichi, Debating White Walls, 2011. Photo courtesy the artists.TindelMichi, Debating White Walls (detail), 2011. Photo courtesy the artists.

Several paintings seem to solicit this interpretation, such as the one titled Debating White Walls, generally by layering images to create the impression that one is looking into a world within the wall, or upon a wall littered with a conflagration of graff’ imagery.

Depth isn’t “real” or “actual” in these paintings; it isn’t created by true lines of perspective or materially by a mass of paint on the canvas. Depth is virtual — created by a layering of images, either drawn or via stencil. These symbols are flattened out and given equal importance in their treatment in “real” depth.

The flattening of symbolic images is emphasized by the inclusion of golden mandalas (which symbolically contain everything and which, in the case of TindelMichi are created using doily stencils). These mandalas serve as seats or frames for more recognizable images and figurations. You don’t empathize with the figures, because there’s simply too much going on: The eye glances from familiar image to familiar image, and the effect is a simulated nostalgia. In other words, you construct the feeling of the work by viewing it as a sum of interrelated parts. The painters ignore the “seats” (the doily mandalas) as that which would traditionally hold a figure and, instead, fragment the figure into a scattering of symbolic figurations and partial images, broken words, and so on.

However, in equivocating the myriad images in play in an all-over style of composition, the painting team runs the risk of arbitrariness: It could all make sense by accident. The clichéd nostalgia for Southernness, the easy assimilation of conventional Southern imagery, could be called too simple, all too simple. But this is forgivable because it shapes the general aesthetic of Relics as a whole, carries the work into a recognizable genre type, and lends it a playful tone.

TindelMichi begins to address the problem of depth by migrating to the sculptural and sculptural materials that, as Michi puts it, “exist on the wall at times,” hanging like paintings. There are markedly less images in these works: The images seem to be hiding behind the materials, peeking out sometimes as if to say, “The same artists are still here, and we mean the same thing as we did before.” Interpretations align with particular materials in themselves, and again these symbolics are primarily “Southern.” There’s rust, wood, and other such dilapidation. Once again, the threat of cliché hangs above the work, but somehow TindelMichi seems to float past it all. The mood, care, and good sentiment carry the day.

For Michi, the movement to sculpture was a formal concern. “I’m very involved in my process,” he explains. “I enjoy the physical aspect of constructing and deconstructing objects. I’ve been searching for a way to break the rectangle and square in my 2D works. So much of art history exists in [the] form [of the painted square]. It’s standard. It’s boring. I began to question this idea about works existing on these surfaces.”

TindelMichi, Quilted Meditation Kachina, 2011. Photo courtesy the artists.

The most successful and advanced works in the show go the furthest toward the sculptural and divorce themselves from the figurative entirely, but, interestingly, not the symbolic. These works are large, hanging wall sculptures assembled from found objects and “maybe-not-so-much-found-as-purchased-or-stolen” objects, such as the speaker box in a gourd included in Quilted Meditation Kachina. Here, TindelMichi appropriates the traditional Hopi doll, extracting its essential function in that, according to Wikipedia, a kachina can be made to “represent anything in the natural world or cosmos, from a revered ancestor to an element, a location, a quality, a natural phenomenon, or a concept.”

Like the mandalas that appear in their paintings, the form of the kachina serves as a container for a play of symbolic associations. It is the inherent multiplicity of these associations that seems to draw the painters’ attention. Michi explained: “They are sculpture, spiritual forms we developed. They are magic. I like when the two disciplines can collide. I enjoy a good remix. I like mash-ups. I enjoy seeing Tindel’s razor-sharp elements on rough aged wood.”

And everything is well made; the paint and wood pieces are all where they’re supposed to be. This is an important commonality between painting and language: If you can create a system of rules, you can represent anything so long as you craft the statement well enough. And TindelMichi has learned that you can break the rules, too. A single conversation can reveal the functions of language as a whole, and, when you break the rules, the system shows you how it works. It’s like seeing a secret revealed and being at a party at the same time.

My favorite piece in Relics was one called Life and Death, because it was the only one that seemed to offer a way out of the business meaning and representation. A mass of kudzu wraps around a rope in the middle of the kachina room forming a big, chaotic, egg-shaped thing that suspends from the ceiling like a giant, lonely testicle. There’s no explanation anywhere. It just hangs there, innocently decorative and blissfully meaningless. It’s the only piece that doesn’t tell a story. It’s the only piece that asks a question.

Hopefully, this exhibition is a sign of good things to come for the Marietta-Cobb Museum. John Tindel was particularly complimentary of the museum’s director, Sally Macaulay: “Sally is really looking to change the Museum’s image and feature some great regional artists that can create professional-level museum exhibits. [Macaulay] and her staff are really trying to broaden the vision of Marietta-Cobb Museum and showcase a new contemporary rising of artists. The museum let us do anything we wanted to make the exhibit what we envisioned.”

The exhibition, Relics, continues through this Sunday, March 27, 2011.

Ryland Johnson earned his master’s degree in philosophy and art from SUNY Stony Brook. He lives in Marietta, Georgia, and teaches philosophy at Kennesaw State University.

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