Phil Berkman

N.A.M.E. Gallery

When Phil Berkman makes objects, they are props or implements used to communicate ideas in his performances and installations. In the cover photograph of a catalogue for a 1976 exhibition entitled “The members of N.A.M.E. have agreed to show together,” Berkman lowers his head so that his is the only hidden face in the lineup of participants; it’s the one you notice. In a group self-portrait show in 1979. Berkman carved a jack-o’-lantern face out of the gallery wall and called it Okey-Doke. Despite its modest means, scale and negative presence, the calculated placement of Okey-Doke, a Halloween emblem acting as portrait, satirized the exhibition theme and claimed for itself the walls that other participants had to share. Risking the obvious, Berkman, who enjoys games of correspondence and contradiction, makes art out of life. He is a low-profile, low-key artist whose real-life job is chief of security at Chicago’s Museum of Contemporary Art.

No longer a member of N.A.M.E.—Chicago’s oldest established artist-run space—Berkman exhibits infrequently and so the show itself is something of an event. He takes over the giant space with only a few unprepossessing works. There are two new pieces, Thoreau’s Scarecrows, 1981, and ‘C’ Strike, 1981, and documentation of several other recent projects. Thoreau’s Scarecrows is a plywood construction of an intersection of two walls, about seven feet tall, creating four corners and eight surfaces. The edges of the walls are exaggeratedly jagged and irregular, suggesting that the structure has been ripped out of another architectural context (a studio, say) and relocated in the exhibition.

Painted museum-white, Thoreau’s Scarecrows looks like a book standing on its end, with pages that you walk into to read. The corners frame and control the viewing. Displayed on the walls, an unexpected assortment of objects provides a satirical slice of museum experience in a benign fabrication designed to mock security with its cartoonlike profile. Color photographs of information plaques at a Braille Trail near Aspen, Colorado, are made into signs with handles and hung on two adjacent walls. In Berkman’s “cornerama” viewers are encouraged to touch and handle artifacts that, once exhibited, become art. The contradiction with the gallery experience is as obvious as the sad irony of legibility achieved through tactility, the contrast between seeing and reading. The handles that Berkman attaches to his signs are taken from plastic toy buckets, hammers, brushes, knives and umbrellas. We recognize the absent object’s identity even though the functional part has been removed and replaced by a visible sign (photograph) of another set of signs from another context, one in which touching results in a blind person’s “perceiving” something he or she is unable to see. Mounted on the next wall is a crossbow-pistol arrow, whose lethal point has been replaced with an everyday key that fits the lock of the narrow door framed in the opposite wall. The door opens into the next corner and faces a red fire extinguisher installed like sculpture on a pedestal. Finally, in the fourth corner an artist’s sketch of a black man (a stereotypic “suspicious character”) confronts the generalized, yellow “smile” face of a clock, another benign mask for the tyranny of time. Scarecrows refers not only to the ordering of the museum experience but also to ideas of trust and security that order everyday experiences.

Berkman’s constant shuffling of contexts from real life to art world and his fascination with the artificial and artifactual is also operative in ‘C’ Strike. This piece is the third in a series in which Berkman uses the format and structure of a strike—its placards and concern for public participation—but empties its content for presentation to a tolerant art world. ‘A’ Strike, in January 1980, was a performance discussion during which the audience voted for their favorite picket handle, one that would be most comfortable to hold. Later, retaining artistic control, the artist made his own choice—short, rough handle—with which he staged a public art strike, ‘B’ Strike, on the steps of Chicago’s Public Library and Cultural Center. Stacks of free picket signs were left on the steps, available to a public who approached them with caution. Skirting the very real issue of why people go out on strike, this performance, using the trappings of a labor dispute, was unresolved.

In the current ‘C’ Strike, an actual picket sign never appears. Instead, a length of floorboard (handle) and a square section of adjacent wall (placard) have been removed, actions that refer to depleted material resources. Announcements for the exhibition were photographic reproductions of the absent placard bearing the inscription “LIFE IS SHORT SO IS ART SO WHAT?” and implying that everyone on the gallery’s mailing list was a participant. In case there were those who did not get the message, the same posters were available as handouts and plastered over the front windows of the gallery, neatly relating to a pre-existing graffito that read, “It’s not art, it’s vandalism.” Although the announcement brought hundreds of people to an art opening, the absent sign of ‘C’ Strike underlines the difficulty of an artist achieving a meaningful public message, or even a public. Berkman’s gently subversive art work parodies his role in the very system he is employed to protect.

Judith Russi Kirshner