Duchampian spirit is alive and well at Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara (MCASB), with a few critical differences of contexts and endgames. With their delicious and senses-altering exhibition Blue Orchid, the emerging North Minneapolis–based artist Cameron Patricia Downey slyly taps into the dry audacity of pioneering modernist/Dadaist Marcel Duchamp (1887–1968) while keeping their art relevant to the perspective of a young, socially engaged Black artist in 2023.
They often use found objects, retooled, and Downey even titles one sculpture with an upended glass coffee table “Auntie Readymade,” a homey nod to such Duchamp’s legendary “readymade” works as his “Fountain” (1917), a humble urinal presented as art. He was interested in striking blows against the empire of accepted artworld wisdom of the day, blurring the line between fine art finery and functional objects around the house/outside world.
A century-plus later, the aesthetic of Downey — who graduated from Columbia University in 2021 — is one still willfully in progress and is naturally more complex and layered. Calling themself an “anti-disciplinary” artist, in contrast to the more common “multi-disciplinary” description, Downey sets up a certain persona and set of expectations, fulfilled by art that is subversive yet somehow lyrical and surreal yet somehow grounded in palpable realities — streetwise and otherwise. Downey’s art celebrates the profundity of ostensibly mundane objects, reframed and reoriented through a process of disorientation.
The sum, and blurry, effect of Downey’s art could be described in terms of a “dissociative fugue,” with the commonplace materials and objects turned asunder and leading us to some uncommon and irrational place. Even so, their instincts for contemporary realities and social issues transcends the absurdist reflexes of Dada. Meaning and light-bulb realizations sneak in various side portals of our art observer’s mind.
Aspects of distorted memory and emblems of the everyday are involved in that disorientation process, which blends objects, photography, sculpture, video, and printing on unconventional surfaces — as in “Jackie on the Floor,” an enlarged photograph inkjet-printed on linoleum. More dramatically, a literal centerpiece in the exhibition is “Player’s Gate,” a large arc of a sculpture, composed of stacked and balanced ironing boards. Hints of nostalgic domesticity also waft in, vaguely, with “Unctie Relaxation,” a mutant furniture piece made from separate hutches turned on their sides — lovely to behold, but rendered functionally useless, like some memories.
Some works are edgier than others, as seen with a central set of pieces, the “Mailbox Solutions,” featured as an introduction in the “window box” display case outside the museum and in three examples inside. Elegantly composed aggregations of scorched planks, resin, and steel take on much deeper meaning when we learn the materials were gathered from a building in the artist’s Minneapolis neighborhood, burned during the uprising after George Floyd’s brutal murder and the incendiary response around the country and the world.
“Blue Orchid” itself is a weirdly figurative/floral concoction of a wall-hanging sculpture, a design made from dark blue hoodies. A slightly menacing air is offset by a cozy, warm lighting fixture below.
That woozy admix of the unsettling and the soothing also figures into the video/sculptural piece in the small side gallery, “Kanekalon LCD,” the burbling dialogue sound of which provides a strange soundtrack in the museum proper. As we watch a closely cropped video shot of a Black woman with ultra-long kanekalon red braids (and with lengths of actual braids dangling before the screen), a mysterious and seemingly “found” conversation loosely describes a narrative and the real-world struggles of the on-screen figure.
But we’re not clued in, completely, to the details. Similarly, we’re left to speculate on the fragments of narratives which meander and intrigue us throughout the exhibition, proper. It’s a wonder-based conundrum. —Josef Woodard
Cameron Patricia Downey: Orchid Blues is on view at Museum of Contemporary Art Santa Barbara through December 23. For more information, see mcasantabarbara.org.