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The elephant is blissfully unaware, squirting rainbow-coloured water from its raised trunk over its back, a long tongue lolling almost to the ground. Its eyes are half glazed over, unworried by its x-ray skin that exposes its skeleton as a patchwork of cloth sequins and fake fur; unbothered by the fact that two other sets of eyes are peering out through its skull. One, a woman with a blonde wig stapled on and a bright green Halloween witch nose plonked on her face, peers a bit uncertainly over the top of the pachyderm’s cranium; while from its jaw, a dog in a suit stares out pluckily, a plastic fly resting on its tongue. This glimpse from Mike Shultis’s Old Bones (2019) is just one such moment amongst a jumble of textures and images: a snake plush toy winds its way through the mess, another three dogs all wearing Superman outfits are stuck behind tin prison bars, along with another witch-clad woman, all trapped under the clear Plexiglas on which the heedless elephant continues its day. The cumulative effect is like a portrait comprised from the compressed detritus of an adolescent bedroom, a palimpsest formed by mashing together stuffed animals, a few bits of dress-up, a Natural History museum postcard and a soft porn poster. Beneath the swaggering bright colours and forced-smile characters in Shultis’s work, however, is a more hazy core, a sensibility different from the accumulated braingunk and open tabs of a late night internet rabbit hole, feeling more like the reassembled remains from that formerly great American pastime, mall dragging.
The New York Times run an on-going series, ‘Letter of Recommendation’, on ‘overlooked or underappreciated’ things. One last year was a tribute to closed and abandoned malls, or more accurately a paean to YouTube videos about dead malls; an armchair appreciation of the fading tiled hallways left by the systematic closure of once-ubiquitous shopping centres across the US. (Though it should be noted that the mall, and its mentality of decentred centralisation, is still thriving and growing internationally.) The most striking part of the piece, though, is a quote lifted from Anne Carson’s poem ‘The Glass Essay’ (1994): ‘I can feel that other day running underneath this one/ like an old videotape’. What first comes to my mind are images of scratchy, static-haloed ghosts, sitting for a moment in a mall food court, or appearing hesitantly loitering next to oversized potted palms in a pointless atrium. What comes next is the fuller implication of the lines: of the traces of a place and a material that are never shaken off, no matter how they are dressed up, cut up or repurposed. It’s the faint chorus of the songs you tried to overdub on the cassette tape, heard only in the brief pause between the new songs; the ketchup stain left on the grouting of the now community museum; the heartbreak and family irks of Carson’s original poem echoing through the newspaper’s cursory nostalgia for malls. Malls were always uneasy places, anyway, haunted by the city streets they wanted to be, air-conditioned islands where parents were happy to abandon pre-teens for a day.
What’s commonly cited as the death chime for malls, as the reason for this American redistribution of the space of the mall, is online retail. All those odds and ends that might’ve ended up at the mall – wide-eyed teddy bear key rings with names stitched on their bellies, SUPER DAD coffee mugs, novelty T-shirts (‘vegetarian: Native American for bad hunter’) – are still there, instead organised into pallets in warehouses or cardboard boxes in someone’s garage, and sent out as millions of jpegs, tat and knick knacks still imbued with the manically cheery and casually determined commercialism of the mall. The internet reeks of mall, hosting all of its ghosts in just another dead-end hangout corner; it’s is just the mall to the nth degree, exploded, expanded and stitched back together in invisible hallways.
Shultis’s assemblages are no doubt the products of combing through this commercial wasteland: the over elaborate costumes and unloved stuffed animals and once-used inflatable lawn decorations, pressed up and held together with buoyant colours. It doesn’t hide this, with everything in a peculiar kind of one to one relationship: shoes in the sculpture-paintings are made from shoes; the dogs are made from dog toys, and so on. Everything is what it appears to be, while still managing to feel like a souped-up and hyper-pepped ghost of itself. In each of the ‘Elephant in the Room’ series, scantily clad ladies done up as caricature witches kiss or seem ready to pounce on an expectant man-dog, while different cartoonish elephants preside over each layered canvas, most of them bearing the marks of colour-by-numbers illustrations, only partially filled in. It feels brash, in your face, but still indirect: each of these characters in the series feels heavily allegorical. But even though there are obviously many elephants in this virtual room, what the elephant is is anyone’s guess. We’re left instead haunted by the manic ghosts of misogyny, materialism, politics, you choose from the wide array of OTT broken castles of this moment, wandering the marooned memory palace of the dead mall.
Text by: Chris Fite-Wassilak
Michael Shultis Born: 1987, USA. Lives and Works in New Haven, Connecticut. Education MFA Candidate, Yale School of Art, Painting/Printmaking, New Haven, Connecticut. BFA Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania. Selected Solo Exhibitions 2016 All American. Diane Rosenstein, Los Angeles. 2012 American Plastic. STLCC at Florissant Valley, St. Louis. Selected Group Exhibitions 2018 All You Can See. Rizzuto Gallery, Palermo. 2017 All My Life (Curated by Jonathan Dedecker). YUI Gallery, New York. 2015 The New New. Diane Rosenstein, Los Angeles. Bronx Calling: The Third AIM Biennial. Bronx Museum of the Arts, New York. 35 Years of AIM. Illumination Foundation, New York. The Pafa Show (Curated by Katherine Bradford). Morris-Warren Gallery, New York. 2014 Select Fair. Philip Bloom Gallery, Miami. Art Broken. Kavachnina Contemporary, Miami. 2013 Aaron Fowler x Michael Shultis. Thierry Goldberg Gallery, New York. Neo Bathaus. Non Fiction Gallery, Savannah. 2012 ECC Ausstellung. European Creative City, Berlin. Benefit V.12. Inliquid, Philadelphia. ASE. Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, Philadelphia. It’s A Small Small World. Family Matters, New York. 2011 Western Lands. Little Berlin, Philadelphia. 2009 Summer Group Show. Open Mind Space, Albuquerque. Varsity Art XII. Art St. Louis, St. Louis. Awards and Residencies 2012 The Henry Scheidt Memorial Travel Scholarship 2010 The Hannah Shickley Memorial Scholarship 2009 Ox-Bow, SAIC Summer Program, Saugatuck, Michigan.
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