Saturday, December 13, 2008

de mortuis: in memoriam Jack Sinclair

first drafts are frequently a bad idea. “First thought, best thought” does not mean that first writing has any merit at all. Even Kerouac modified On the Road. But it seems desirable to get some perspective out quickly regarding a too little known enabler and anti-commodification gadfly from the Atlanta alternative art scene of a generation or so ago. So, here, with regrettably minimal edits, is:

A first draft towards a proper memorial for Jack Sinclair


The names of most installation artists are written in water (sometimes literally).

These days, the odds for remembrance are slightly better. Everyone takes digital photos of everything, and the vast majority of those photos get posted to Flickr or Photobucket or the art websites. (Not that this exhaustive documentation is necessarily secure; the days of a site’s popularity are numbered, and how many of those photographs will have been backed up to more secure modes of storage?)

But back in the day, long before the advent of on-demand online publishing, few exhibitions had catalogues. Even in informal records of the event, hard-to-photograph installations designed to exist temporarily were documented badly. Few images of them ever appeared in print, and descriptions even in long reviews were enigmatic.

Thus it is that Jack Sinclair dies in New Mexico and the news is greeted in Atlanta mostly by ”Who?”

I am not sure where Jack’s site-specific installations should stand in the history of art in Atlanta, but his interventions in the 1980s stretched considerably beyond site sculptures.

Jack was one of the instigators of the annual Great Mattress Factory exhibitions (so named because the first of them was held in the disused Southern Cross Mattress Factory) that brought together upwards of three hundred Atlanta artists working in a range of aesthetics from romantically decorative to in-your-face confrontational.

Two steps (and increasingly only one step) ahead of the developers, Jack and his collaborators—I omit the names and focus on Jack because we are talking about Jack here, even if John Payne’s death this year has the others feeling their mortality—ferreted out vacated factory buildings that could be rehabbed sufficiently to install art. (The structurally dangerous sections could be cordoned off.) And under their supervision, three hundred artists marked off their individual territories and some of them helped clean up the site sufficiently to admit a few thousand guests.

Towards the end of the Mattress Factory and Mattress Spring exhibitions' history, the buildings in which they were staged were already under contract, and the developers had recognized that big come-one-come-all art shows were wonderful marketing tools that cost them nothing.

The anarchist impulse that drove the Mattress Factory collaborations was finally done in by a combination of events: the impending Olympics (which led to the retention for speculative purposes of every semi-ruined site in town, by developers who didn’t want a bunch of artists cluttering up the neighborhood) and the sheer success of the Mattress Factory shows themselves.

Jack was one of the organizers who believed that since the artists put in the sweat equity and the upfront entry fee to pay for publicity and lighting, the artists should share equally in whatever profits remained from the memorable art party of the opening night. Others wanted to use the funds to institutionalize the annual collaboration, and the surviving members of that inner circle ought to write a history of those shows to supplement the few reviews that can be found in back issues of Art Papers, Creative Loafing, and the Atlanta Journal Constitution. (For that matter, who has archived even the maps and the rosters of artists, who ranged from the recognized to the deservedly unknown?)

Jack also ran his own anti-profit exhibition space for sculpture and installation art on Edgewood Avenue, for as long as he could afford to do so. Meanwhile the young Turks (and other ethnicities) were staging alternative-space shows of their own, and some of them, such as Michael Jenkins, went on to run distinguished New York galleries. Others sank into unsurprising anonymity.

But Jack just kept on keeping on until there was nothing more to be kept. Eventually he started his own letterpress operation in the Little Five Points Community Center, for which I contributed the poem for the press’s inaugural broadside.

After his marriage and move to New Mexico, Jack continued to create new work. He had projects that were interrupted by his hospitalization.

Atlanta is a town where all that counts is what you did yesterday, and even the most spectacular of accomplishments from the day before yesterday tends to be disparaged when it is not forgotten altogether. This is as it should be: the days of taking over whole ex-industrial sites for community-wide art shows is over, and I shudder to think of the number of safety laws that were productively overlooked (because many of the organizers worked construction in their day jobs and knew which laws they could safely overlook). Nostalgia gets us nowhere.

But one wishes that there would be at least critical evaluations of what was done in the past and why. (There should be a separate blog post devoted to the reasons why Atlanta artists are regularly fated to reinvent structures and strategies that once existed and have ceased to do so.)

In collaboration with other artists and in productive contention with them, Jack maintained an artist-organized face for contemporary art that addressed and/or involved the public, especially a public that was not ordinarily inclined to go to art galleries. The Thursday Night Artists group in which Jack and I were involved staged one such community intervention in Virginia-Highland at a moment when the lower-middle-class neighborhood was being revitalized by new arrivals (solidly single-family, it never required the kind of reinvention that other intown neighborhoods had needed).

The Reliable Paper Company distributors of, I think, restroom towels and toilet paper had recently vacated the storefront next to George’s Bar, and a number of us (you could look it up) installed our paintings and our site-specific pieces as the Reliable Art Show, planning to interact with passersby who were taking their children for a walk or looking for a quick beer and a sandwich at George’s.

In a ceiling-to-floor corner installation, Jack created a giant hornets’-nest-cum-tornado from the felt sheets then used to insulate buildings. We noted that every afternoon, the wasps building a nest in the eaves outside would fly through the open door into the space, looking anxious at the new arrivals in the neighborhood.

Just before the show opened, George himself stuck his head in the door to see what was going on. He remarked, glancing briefly at Jack’s sculpture, “Why, why…that’s insulation.” “It sure is,” organizer Miles Boyd replied.

Going next door for lunch the following day, I heard George declaring to a customer at the bar, “You know what they got next door? They got a bunch of insulation hanging down from the ceiling, and they say that’s art.”

“I’m with you, George,” the customer replied. “That’s not art. Norman Rockwell’s art.”

Norman Rockwell got his own retrospective at the High Museum in the years following.

And even though we tried hard to get High Museum director Gudmund Vigtel to walk in when he showed up by chance for a lunch meeting at George’s, by and large Jack made damn sure that nothing he made would ever end up in anybody’s permanent collection. His principled stance against the commodification of art preserved the best of an earlier idealistic decade in the era of Reagan and the first George Bush. Unfortunately, it also ensured his eventual near-disappearance from the public record.

I would be curious to know how much documentation MOCA GA owns of the site sculptors and installation artists of those years.

14 comments:

pt@ptnunn.com said...

Jack was a good friend of mine from the early 70's. We would stay in contact sporadically, but I had not heard from him since 2000.

I did not know of his death. Or his move to NM.

I have photos by him as well as of him. Pls send more info about any memorial for him.

My heart breaks.

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