“Agnes Bolt: Dealing” At Project 4 to Nov. 26 An exhibit starring Agnes Bolt, Philippa Hughes, and lasagna.

“After Falling” (2011)

When Agnes Bolt occupied collector Philippa Hughes’s apartment back in May, it felt as much like a political standoff as a performance-art project. For one week, the Pittsburgh-based artist lived in a plastic bubble erected inside Hughes’s 14th Street NW apartment, challenging the terms of the artist-collector relationship. Neither knew what to expect. Hughes hadn’t wagered on so many demands. Bolt wasn’t prepared to eat so much lasagna.

“Dealing,” an exhibition featuring the notes, lasagna, and other artifacts from Bolt’s live-in, is ostensibly a solo show of her work. It’s also inherently a group show, costarring Hughes and Philip Barlow, another D.C. collector whom Bolt challenged in a series of interactive provocations. In the difference between the two experiments, Bolt shines.

Installed at the gallery, Bolt’s makeshift plastic apparatus isn’t nearly so overwhelming as it was in Hughes’s comparatively smaller apartment. Here, as in Hughes’s home, it still feels too sculptural. Gone are the plastic pet agility tubes that allowed Bolt to extend the physical reach of her containment. Missing, too, is the sense of tension between Bolt and Hughes that seemed, on my first visit to her home in May, to be the only likely product of the collaboration.

Bolt has mined it for a great deal more, including a bite-sized sculpture of lasagna (complete with one of Hughes’s forks) in honor of the meal and leftovers she persisted on. (Hughes provided Bolt’s food, to mixed reviews.) Bolt communicated with Hughes primarily through hand-written notes, initially a source of stress for Hughes; these notes have been installed, for no discernible reason, inside cleaning brushes and hung on hooks as sculptures. Better designed is film footage captured over the course of the exercise, presented as a sculpture with accompanying 3D glasses.

It may be that initial tension that Bolt intends to convey with these obstructed objects: notes you can’t read, a film you can’t watch. The show doesn’t quite convey the sense of comity that Hughes has said she and the artist reached by the end of the week. Bolt’s project with Barlow—done over distance, without the same unconditional surrender that Hughes tendered—conveys a tighter artistic investigation.

In a number of videos on view, Barlow cuts a perfect John Baldessari, mugging over a web-camera connection with the artist. For “Trust Falling,” Barlow agreed to a slapstick take on corporate trust exercises, falling into the arms of an artist who is present only virtually (meaning he hits the floor with a thud). Complementing the physical comedy are splitscreen videos in which Bolt and Barlow meditate, read manifestos, and otherwise goof off. “Barlow and Bolt” has the making of a great buddy movie.

At Bolt’s request, Barlow, an actuary, mocked up a predictive report for Bolt. In “An Assessment of the Future Artistic Career Prospects for Agnes Bolt,” he cites the career outcomes for 118 MFA students from Carnegie Mellon University (where Bolt is also an MFA candidate) from 1985 to 2009, as well as U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics data. Barlow concludes with reasonable confidence that Bolt will show her work at the Museum of Modern Art by roughly 2021, and stands a good chance of working as a professional artist well beyond 2029.

Risk and reward flow both ways in Bolt’s work. When Barlow asks her for a drawing of the two of them, the results are not great. She even apologizes for the work in a note to Barlow. Intentionally or not, Barlow had asked her to legitimize her aggressive, conflict-oriented performance through simple, traditional representation. Bolt produced a lame stick-figure drawing. With that, she winds up submitting to the critique that performance art is somehow less than art—while also creating a performance artifact with a great deal of weight.

Bolt’s show with Hughes was predicated on a sort of Real World–esque question: What happens when the collector collects the artist herself? The tightly edited presentation with Barlow was both more polite and more real. The way to success in 2029 for Bolt will be through more and more of these: provocations that impose drastically on others, but perhaps in the end reveal more about Bolt.

Photos: A visit to Philippa Hughes' apartment with Agnes Bolt

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