A conversation with Keith J. Varadi

Rites of Spring (2016)

February of 2016 marked the beginning of a suite of solo exhibitions I have mounted, all of which have been scheduled to open and close before the first half of the year ends. The first show was Free Wi-Fi, Comedy at Night Gallery in Los Angeles, the second was Self-Evident Loss at Cooper Cole in Toronto, and the third is now Miso Soup for the Silicon Soul at Et al. in San Francisco. I see these three shows functioning as a trilogy of sorts.

Part one featured thirteen encyclopedic book paintings, which are all bound on panels and embossed with gold and silver leaf titles, and each of which corresponds with a previous solo (gold) or curated group (silver) exhibition of mine. In addition to these wall works were eight pallet panels covered in adhesive vinyl images; a printed and framed mission statement; a custom, limited edition 7” record titled MASK LIFE, which I collaborated on with the artist Wesley Friedrich and which was available to be played on a turntable on an aluminum AV cart; and a short film. This film, titled Good Luck and Good Nite, follows a ‘character’ “played by” me traversing throughout the city of Los Angeles.

The film starts off with this character drinking and doing research at the Good Luck Bar, wandering in wonder throughout Santa Anita Park until meeting a ‘stranger’ who becomes his gambling partner, and then finally going to The Good Nite to drink more with his new ‘friend’ and to sing karaoke. My character, dressed almost entirely in white, sings (“The Man In Black”) Johnny Cash’s cover of “Hurt” by Nine Inch Nails. This film, in a way, served as the centerpiece of the exhibition, with the climax being profoundly prophetic and poetic, in that it was shot immediately before and edited immediately after my fiancée left me. Furthermore, my ex-fiancée was and still is the Director at Night Gallery.

For the second exhibition, Self-Evident Loss, I had selected four stills from this film, enlarged them, and printed them with UV cured ink on vinyl at 40 x 32 inches, and stretched them on panels. These are significant moments throughout the film and help contextualize the centerpiece of this exhibition—a sculpture titled Circus Circus. This sculpture is composed of a custom aluminum I-Beam plinth with casino carpet adhered to the center strips and the engagement ring of my ex-fiancée placed on a velvet display finger on the top surface, contained within a custom clear acrylic box.

As with the film from the previous show, this piece uses gambling as a metaphor. Whereas the film used gambling as an illusory backdrop or landscape, as well as for oscillating tonal effect, this sculpture embodies risk and reward as both a sturdy shrine and a grim gravestone. The stakes at the racetrack were purposely a bit unclear, but the selected stills and skeletal sculpture help clarify the outcome in this blurred personal narrative. These works were all situated on the top level of the gallery.

In addition to these works occupying the upstairs space, I placed other works down in the basement level space. Down below, I had a sample bottle of crude oil from Oil City, Pennsylvania (located not far from where I grew up) placed under an overturned pint glass for drinking beer, serving as both a functional vitrine, and also visually and conceptually making a connection back to the work upstairs. Regarding this piece: I have been thinking a lot about how much oil (and other natural energy) has defined the area where I grew up (Western Pennsylvania) and is now affecting it again, through the fracking debate.

Many parts of Canada now seem to be going through a similar crisis—to drill or not to drill, and what are the consequences either way? If I consider my own personal politics, I do not believe in fracking, nor do I believe in the “all or nothing” approach to drilling. However, these things are often circumstantial—it’s easy to say what you’d do from the other side, whether that means looking at things from a different social standing or merely looking at things in retrospect.

Of course, it’s easy to say you wouldn’t give in to the local pressures of fracking, if you haven’t had to worry about feeding your family (or simply yourself) for years. But what if you have had to worry, and then now all of a sudden, you’re being promised a salary you never could have imagined? Perspective always alters perception and vice versa. It’s also easy to say you wouldn’t propose to someone with whom you fell out of love, if you didn’t realize you fell out of love until it was too late. Distance and hindsight always help you see your shortcomings and oversights, but sometimes “all or nothing” seems like the ideal or, at least, idealized approach in the moment.

Crowding the room where this sculpture stood were the repurposed pallet panels from Free Wi-Fi, Comedy. These works were on the floor at Night Gallery; in this second iteration, they were leaned against the walls, with the surfaces of each now covered in footprints and stains. The images stuck to the surfaces depict situational observations and experiences from the perspective of this character I’ve been developing. This character is a modified, personified version of myself, who essentially gives in to these moments, in order to give, period.

This current, third, and final exhibition, Miso Soup for the Silicon Soul, further continues on with this narrative, albeit with a rupture. My character at this point is stepping away from himself a bit and is beginning to harness the vulnerable self-musings of the previous two offerings in order to begin looking outward so that he can be even more critical of issues surrounding him—commerce, education, entertainment, etc.

Hanging on the walls, there are nine works, all of the same dimensions—eight of which are text-based and are vertically oriented at 34 x 43 inches; one of which is a map of the Santa Clara Valley Transit Authority and is horizontally oriented at 43 x 34 inches. The text works are all fake slogans I have created for falsely imagined developments or redevelopments. In tandem with the map of the transit system that primarily serves those immediately affected by the imagineering technocrats who have been (re)developing the area, these phrases are intended to satirically blur the lines between hope and despair, wants and needs, and coulds and shoulds.

Additionally, the same casino carpet used in the ring sculpture from the previous exhibition has been cut into the shapes of faux rock tiles and adhered to the floor throughout the space, codifying and conjuring the immersive effects of capitalism that come along with this (re)developing process: inground pools, multiplexes, fusion bistros, etc.

The final two components here are placed on a plastic AV cart. On the bottom shelf are copies of a recently published book titled LIFE TASK, which contains similar photos to those on the pallet panels and poems similar to those recorded on the 7″ at Night Gallery. On the top shelf is an old television playing a video titled Copyright on loop, which features found, digitized, and edited footage from the infamous Stanford Prison Experiment set to “Anesthesia (Pulling Teeth)” off Metallica’s first album, Kill ‘Em All. The speed at which individuals can manipulate and be manipulated within these systems is astounding to me. And the darkness of these psychological discoveries paired with the thrashing sounds of the most ubiquitous metal band thus far in history serves as a haunting dystopian reminder of what we are collectively capable of as human beings when we don’t collectively check ourselves. Ironically, this experiment took place in the Bay Area during Nixon’s reign and the band, who had roots in the Bay, formed during the end of Reagan’s first term. Perhaps a fourth line that can be blurred here is authority and autonomy.

For me, the Bay serves as a beautiful model / peculiar Petri dish for the rest of the world: This is a place where anything truly seems possible, but the positive power of this innovative center has the potential for disastrous effects, too. For every peak, there is a valley; and history has continued to prove that most of us can never come close to reaching the peak, and many of us who do are likely pushed back down to the valley. However, this region has also historically (or for at least well over half a century) been the epicenter for progressive politics and honest acceptance of all in this country. Is it possible to forge an innovative future without forgetting this model’s core ethics?

Ultimately, all of these aforementioned industries illustrated on these blank advertisements can often resemble the boom and bust structure of the energy sector; and in the case of the Bay Area, the tech industry’s boom seems to signal a potentially inevitable doom-filled bust: Does solutionism actually provide any real answers? In any case, whether we are in Northern California or the Rust Belt, we all seem to keep on gambling as if there is no alternative. Perhaps the only help we are able to receive is the help we’re willing to offer?