You expect different things from a bar than you do from an art gallery. In one you pay someone to help you lose consciousness. In the other you don't have to spend a dime to become hyperconscious.
For his solo exhibition The Blue Flame at Get This! Gallery artist Ben Roosevelt makes a hash from those two seemingly incongruous spaces. In the process, a strange synesthesia emerges: Maybe these diametrically opposed spaces of escape and connection aren't so different after all. Roosevelt has transformed the gallery's white walls into a trompe l'oeil of a dive bar complete with mismatched tables, faux-wood paneling, a Pabst neon sign, and cans of Old Milwaukee.
Proceed through the doorway in the distance marked "Restrooms" and the whole mirage falls apart. Two-by-fours prop up the fake walls like the Spanx keeping a zaftig babe in check. What are galleries and bars anyway, but places built on artifice and a little show biz, too, where an atmosphere and mood are conjured up for the delectation of their patrons?
Both the watering hole and the white cube could stand to be a little bit more like the other, says gallery owner Lloyd Benjamin, who likes to sit behind the bar to tell the tale of the Blue Flame. Galleries would probably be more vibrant, social spaces where you could sit at a table and shoot the shit about art while nursing a Champale. Bars could benefit from some aesthetic edification beyond a St. Pauli Girl poster and a dartboard, and the opportunity to argue about art instead of politics or the most recent "American Idol."
The Blue Flame comes to us courtesy of a dream Roosevelt had, a dream which took place in a low-down where rocker Iggy Pop, romantic poet Samuel Coleridge, Divine Comedy poet Dante, and seminal conceptual artist Joseph Beuys made appearances. Roosevelt's show takes that dream and transforms it into a physical place to give the viewers the not altogether unpleasant sensation they are rattling around in the artist's psyche.
Roosevelt has decorated the walls with a series of vaporous, delicate colored pencil and graphite drawings that riff on this insular world of poets, singers, and artists Roosevelt has evoked. In keeping with the ersatz barroom setting, the works are framed in a hodgepodge of gilt, cheap wood and generic frames. There is a series of drawings of Iggy Pop's amp, his microphone, his boots, and the singer himself sprawled out bowlegged on stage. Tongue-in-cheek drawings of bar marquees advertise gigs by Iggy but also Beuys, both passing through the Blue Flame. Larger drawings picture the Blue Flame's exterior, envisioned as the kind of roadside dive with a Cadillac-sized mud puddle out front where big, whiskey-fueled plans are hatched and careers hit the skids.
Not one to let some headshrinker do the heavy lifting, thirtysomething Roosevelt has done his own auto-dream interpretation. Roosevelt sees Iggy, Beuys, et al as brethren who have all taken part in the mid-life, mid-career crisis. And it's hard to think of a better place to contemplate issues of self-doubt, failure, and scab-picking anxiety than either a down-at-the-heels bar or an art gallery.
While all of Roosevelt's references to Coleridge's hairdo and Dante's "Inferno" may not gel into a coherent whole, as a Freudian mood piece, The Blue Flame succeeds much in the way the films of David Lynch or Lars von Trier succeed. It's hard not to feel you've gone someplace peculiar and reflective of an individual sensibility in the course of this tale's unfurling.