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Art Attack at the Fort Wayne Museum of Art
An edgy multi-media piece created by Fort Wayne artists has its debut at the FWMA. It’s not as odd a pairing as you might think.
By Michael Summers
Fort Wayne Reader
Fort Wayne artist John Commorato has built a reputation for work that, to simplify a great deal, could be described as non-traditional.
Painting and sculpture aren’t necessarily his thing. What interests him is often multi-media work, pieces combining spoken word, video, still photography, and performance. Based on a Do-It-Yourself aesthetic borrowed from the early punk rock movement, some of the work Commorato and his collaborators produce under the moniker Art Attack is experimental, non-mainstream, edgy, and confrontational. Part of the Art Attack philosophy is to use what Commorato calls “industrial space” or “raw space” like basements, warehouses, or clubs to exhibit art rather than a traditional gallery. “Oil paintings and traditional art is fine,” Commorato said in an interview last year. “But there are more than enough venues for that.”
So then, what is an Art Attack project — a mixed-media film and visual installation dealing with some very harsh subject matter — doing in what might be considered a very traditional venue — the Fort Wayne Museum of Art?
“This was initially going to be screened in a basement somewhere for 50 people,” Commorato says. But as he started to think about the technological requirements for the piece, he realized he might be facing some pretty big logistical hurdles. “I thought ‘the Art Museum has all this stuff in house that we need to produce this properly.’ So I got the dialogue going with Charles (Shepard, Director of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art).”
Commorato and Shepard had already discussed the possibility of doing something together. They met when Shepard first came to Fort Wayne, and discovered they had a shared interest in contemporary art. Before his stint as the director of the Fort Wayne Museum of Art, Shepard taught art history and contemporary art at Connecticut College, and had worked with some of the artists Commorato was interested in. “I found I had a really good rapport with John,” Shepard says. “We’ve (the FWMA) always left the door open in the realm of spoken word and performance. We always felt that if we had the chance to do something with integrity, we certainly would love to do it. If we had the chance to even just be the site of something like that happening, that would interest us. (Commorato) had a piece that he felt was of a caliber that could be presented in the museum. I trust John, he’s always proven that you could trust him.”
The timing also happened to dovetail with the Fort Wayne Museum of Art reconsidering its mission. Not that Shepard was planning to (or has any plans to) transform the Fort Wayne Museum of Art into an avant-garde showcase; it’s just that when it comes to the museum’s focus on American art, he sees the need to take in different kinds of media. “When I got here, we didn’t focus on any particular art, though we did focus on the printed media,” he says. “I’m troubled by the restrictiveness of printing — prints, photography, or painting — as the only thing to do.”
Launching into Professor of Art History mode, Shepard explains that each generation of American artists reflects the preoccupations of their times. Early on, as we were busy building a new country, the subjects were the great heroes of the time. Later, as the nation grew and we began to see what a huge country this was, the subject became the American landscape… “Today, given the way our society operates — and art, I believe, comes directly out of our culture, the complexity of our society — I think you have to be open to the fact that it’s going to take on so many different kind of forms. Sometimes, they’re going to be way different from the classical forms of painting, sculpture, and print-making.”
The Art Attack piece is a mixed-media film and visual installation called “------:Prelude to a Bad Tatoo.” It begins with a collage of images — outtakes and morphed images from the film — correlated to specific audio tracks. “There’s a sequence to it, there’s a logic,” Commorato says. “The images are matched very meticulously to each audio track. There’s concern with tempo. What you’re looking at is going to have a correlation to what you’re hearing.”
A 17-minute movie created by Commorato and his collaborator, cinematographer John Hartman follows the still images. Neither Commorato or Hartman go into specifics about the piece, but it’s a grim story about two people on the fringes of society, the events that brought them there and some of the things they go through. “That’s pretty much as accurate as we’d want to go without going into the story too much,” says Hartman, who wrote and directed the sci-fi short D.R.O.N.E.S. and worked as an assistant on In the Company of Men. “It’s not Wedding Crashers. Bad things happen to people everyday, and you hear about it, but you don’t get to see this real of a slice of life that often. It’s a true, down-and-dirty Fort Wayne story.”
Hartman is more forthcoming about aspects of the film’s visual style. “It’s shot more like a documentary with a couple of characters interacting, so all the locations are actual, real locations with the real people who would be in those locations, except for the two main characters,” he says. “It has the feel of an old slideshow, or an old flip-book, with these sort of stuttered images.”
Commorato says the Fort Wayne Museum of Art gets a single copy of the installation, of the images and sound used, as well as a copy of the film, for their permanent media collection, which they have plans to use in various exhibits as they see fit. “As an artist, I’m thrilled, because they’re a major institution,” Commorato says.
If the idea conjures up an image of punks let loose in the temple of high culture (whatever that is, exactly) or, alternately, a watering-down of the D.I.Y. aesthetic which fuels much of underground work (another cliché), both Commorato and Shepard are quick to dispel it.
“(The project) is hands down, unequivocally, the most brutal subject matter I’ve ever worked with,” Commorato says. “This is the first time I’ve ever censored myself. I’ve put on the flyers that this is rated ‘R.’ I don’t want kids to see it. My concerns are socio-economic, issues of class warfare, racial violence, psycho-sexual violence, the effects of drug and alcohol abuse on very specific circumstances.” It’s a grim story for people who are ready to talk about a grim story, he adds. “Frankly, I think some of the images and subject matter, you might see on cable television any night of the week, but I don’t want it to ‘sneak up’ on anybody.”
“It’s really all John’s gig, but we’re willing to collaborate to the extent that we’ll give him the space and resources to do it,” Shepard says. “In an exhibit, we sometimes have content. In this case, this is John’s thing, and he’s got control there.”
Shepard isn’t really concerned about the reception of the piece. It’s made for a particular audience, he says, and those who won’t be able to deal with it will probably know it’s not for them. “In my discussions with John, I’ve felt he’s not doing anything in this presentation that is intentionally to upset or confront anybody, he’s just telling a tough story,” says Shepard. As contrast, Shepard points out how some controversial contemporary art and artists aim to shock a perhaps easily shockable section of the public. He mentions headline grabbers such as film-maker Matthew Barney, Damien Hirst’s cow or shark in formaldehyde, and the Robert Mapplethorpe exhibit in Cincinnati. “Those situations are exploitative, in that what they’re hoping to do is put something shocking in front of a group of people who are expecting Impressionism. That’s where their kick, their punch comes,” he says. “I don’t know that John has ever gone down that road. John makes things for an audience that is ready to talk about tough subject matter.”