“The Great Poor Farm Experiment III”

The Poor Farm
E6325 County Highway BB
August 15, 2011–February 1, 2012

Guillaume Leblon, Down, South (detail), 2011, 36 x 65 x 6”.

Something about summer grips the American psyche with an almost unbridled wanderlust, an urge to escape the familiar. The contemporary art set would be hard pressed to find a destination that requites this desire with such Úlan as the Poor Farm. Located in rural Manawa, Wisconsin, and initiated three years ago by artists Michelle Grabner and Brad Killam, the project has opened up an alternative model for thinking about the way art is produced. The Poor Farm’s programming and exhibition strategies foster a unique type of camaraderie, mobilizing not simply a DIY approach but a deep investment in building community.

Yet rather than being an instance of relational aesthetics, the now often (and unfairly) scoffed-at term promulgated by Nicolas Bourriaud, the exhibition foregrounds ways in which art itself forms a locus for relationality. Duncan MacKenzie’s and Christian Kuras’s Diagram, 2011, is a delirious sculptural installation that maps everyday encounters and social structures by way of institutional bric-a-brac and architectural models. In contrast, Yvette Brackman’s contribution, The Catalyst, 2011, is a svelte sculpture made of colored fabric that doubles as a set for a participatory video performance dealing with global capitalism’s encroachment on Sami culture of northern Scandinavia, Finland, and northern Russia. Simultaneously functioning on its own and serving to inform his Summer School—an experimental discourse in contemporary art, theory, and practice held at the Poor Farm—is the video program, smartly curated by artist Aaron Van Dyke, that features Matthew Buckingham’s Within the Sound of Your Own Voice, 2007, an elegant meditation on the enigmatic nature of language and its bodily inscription.

The work that best epitomizes the ethos of the Poor Farm may be Guillaume Leblon’s Down, South, 2011. Into the ground around the premises of the gallery, Leblon cast concrete cubes that, once removed from their earthen molds, were left encrusted with thick deposits of soil. Witnessing these hulking works being ushered into the first-floor exhibition hall and aligned precisely by the artist and a number of helping hands on the morning of the opening, one sensed what is at stake in seeing our environs differently: To see dry dirt is to realize that there is no relationality without the aesthetic, and no art without its community.

— Zachary Cahill