On any given day, we all have a handful of questions banging around in our bodies. Sometimes we go looking for them. Most of the time they materialize on impact as we bump into people and images that reveal our private wishes and personal shame.
I always have the same three questions in rotation:
“Should I be eating fish?”
“Is the universe benevolent?”
“Is my daughter OK?”
Others pop in and out, too:
“How many Brazil nuts is too many Brazil nuts?”
“Does Mittens have the best cat life he can possibly have?”
“Do I trust myself?”
“Are we going to reelect Trump?”
As I make the hour-and-fifteen-minute drive out to Fallon to see Austin Pratt’s exhibition, A Gate, Wild, Breathing, the questions I have about family, overfishing, and the impending election give way to banal relationship concerns.
Here’s what is on my mind: my significant other is moving in a year-ish. I have known this for some time now, but have chosen to ignore it because he is lovely—a funny, rare breed of un-showy feminist with a nice singing voice and the ability to overlook my pre-dawn obligations to Mittens, which is real red flag behavior to most suitors. But … a one-year countdown to an expiration date? Or long distance? It’s not ideal.
It’s also easy to overthink. Although I’m usually pretty good about letting my mind go where it wants to without a lot of judgment, the act of driving to Fallon seems to lend itself to wandering, looping, and self doubt. Something about the color palette coupled with hard-to-judge distances make things you think you know seem vaguer, shakier.
When I arrive at Oats Park Art Center, the question I’ve been asking myself over and over have coalesced into a thought solid enough to carry with me into the building.
Should I stay or should I go?
Once inside the door, once inside the gallery, a third gateway—the first one designed to be noticed—reminds me that I have arrived at an entrance. It is a thin, wide, salmon and cream painting with black lines that resemble an iron gate, and it stops me the same way a real-life barrier would. Beyond the painted bars that keep me out are pockets of receding, sunny space that invite me in.
I take a left into the gallery and meet Pratt’s questions again, this time in music form. There is a record player against the back wall playing a single, six-minute track titled “Some Openings.” On it, Pratt’s voice recites his words over an industrial, whirring background. They sound like incantations. When I go back to the entryway to revisit the questions, it’s clear that they are.
The first eight read:
What do we have here?
What do we have now?
What do we do here?
What do we do now?
What do we go here?
What do we go now?
What do we be here?
What do we be now?
The remaining 184 questions are permutations of this first set, substituting “what” for “who,” “when,” “where,” “why,” and “how,” and “do” for “can,” “should,” and “will,” while cycling through different combinations of the verbs “have,” “do,” “go,” and “be.” Each one ends in either “here” or “now.” This algorithm generates questions you might really ask yourself, such as, “Where should we go now?” and “What will we do here?” as well as nonsensical thoughts like, “Who can we go now?” or “Why will we have here?”
Played on a loop, the words devolve into a pulsing backbeat that transforms the artist’s questions into an echolocation signal—a probing search for order in a universe that may or may not be benevolent. What the questions lose in original meaning they gain in significance as enchantment, changing the paintings and ceramic works they bounce off of into objects of power that hold space and information for the beholder.
Large and small paintings of wrought iron fencing and beautifully titled gates—Pink Gate, Highway Gate, Witness Gate, Snake Gate—conjure up abstract locations where viewers can choose to enter, observe, or leave freely. As our eyes (and minds’ eyes) weave in and out of ornamental curves and repeating lines that recall metal bars, we linger in a state of contemplation made possible by the mere, visual suggestion of perforated borders.
If the paintings are psychically expansive, then Pratt’s ceramic and metal pieces are precise, helping the viewer close in on necessary details of their surroundings. Three oversized bronze goatheads on the west side of the gallery situate us in the high desert. Large ceramic fingerprints point to individual presence and human impact. An entire wall of big, blown-up clay keyholes are painted with pictures of open highways, rattlesnakes, mountains, stars, and more gateways—bringing to mind roads taken, as well as the either/or choices implicit in making a journey of any kind.
The visual pieces aren’t the only devices that help us adjust focus. Besides Pratt’s questions, there are still his 192 song “answers” to contend with. Ranging from Nirvana to Kendrick Lamar to Janis Joplin to Coco Rosie, Pratt’s music is eclectic with no repeat artists or songs—an attempt to counter uncertainty with refrains that will personally resonate or stick.
To solve the problem of how to present so many songs (so many answers), Pratt places the choice—once again—with his audience, allowing viewers to make their own selections. Each of the 192 tracks is copied onto cassette tapes and hung in one of three small listening stations around the gallery; all complete with a cassette shelf, tape deck, and small painting to look at while you listen. The setup invites the viewer to pick a song, any song.
I choose nine at random and play them while looking at one of the small paintings—a labyrinth you trace with your eyes. I do the maze a dozen times while listening to The Kinks, Black Lips, Black Sabbath, Pixies, Laurie Anderson, The Vaselines, Augustus Pablo, and LOL Boys—music that is basically a soundtrack for a dark romantic comedy. The kind where being in love is a liability because one or more people in the relationship is crazy and it’s only a matter of time before you find out exactly how. Sometimes it works out. Sometimes that person is a psychopath.
Usually, though, you come out on the other end better for it, having learned something about acceptance and self love and love in general, whether you stay with that person or not.
As I get to the song at the end of my playlist, “Let There Be Love” by Oasis (really), I notice a six-lined symbol in the corner of the cassette case.
Goddammit if it isn’t a hexagram! To be clear, I don’t have anything against hexagrams. They are powerful and interesting symbols. Used in the I Ching—an ancient Chinese divination text—hexagrams are made up of six horizontally stacked broken and unbroken lines that represent relationships between heaven, earth, mountain, water, wind, thunder, lake, and fire. The point is to project meaning from these elemental relationships into your own life to make better, more moral decisions.
My problem here is that I’m at total capacity for decision making. I already have my answer (I’m staying). It is unnecessary to add the extra steps of cross-referencing song lyrics with hexagram meanings and holding hexagram symbols in my third eye as sigils. But you know what? I do it anyway, because I am a hopeless completionist and am compelled in a way that feels partly medical. And it kind of is. Hyperfocus is the flip side of ADHD.
A day later, I have visually linked each song, each hexagram, the horizontal lines in Pratt’s paintings, each of Pratt’s questions, and my own question together in a triumph of memorization that is also a grand failure of personal restraint.
I am not writing this to critique Pratt (I love this exhibition) or give myself a pat for doing the most (it is embarrassing to even share this). I’m writing because it’s clear that I’ve been asking the wrong thing from the jump.
The question is not, “Should I stay or should I go?” The question is, “Do I trust myself?” and maybe, “Do I want to start taking my meds again?”
As someone who does not think twice about making decisions based on visual information—signs, psychic pictures, actual art—I need to remind myself from time to time that there is such a thing as an overread. There’s a fine line between confirmation and crutch. Not a huge problem in the scheme of things, but an item that goes in the category of Good To Know—both for me and for anyone else who might decide to stay, too.
Austin Pratt‘s A Gate, Wild, Breathing is on view at the Oats Park Art Center in Fallon through April 4, along with the Ahren Hertel‘s exhibition, Match. On Saturday, Feb. 1 the art center hosts a reception and panel discussion featuring both artists from 5-7 p.m. Admission is free.