Dean Moss at The Kitchen
Art isn’t always easy. In fact, I find that most art that I consider valuable isn’t easy at all; it bothers me, nags at me, leaves me unsure and full of questions. I’m rather Greenberg-ian that way: I find easily digested art to be kitschy.
I had a hard time digesting Dean Moss’s johnbrown at The Kitchen after seeing it last Friday evening. I just didn’t know what to make of it: its disparate titled sections; its black female teenage stagehands; its massive projections of abolitionists John Brown and Frederick Douglass. The work was punctuated by titles on the upper left corner of the theater wall; each was a section of Brown’s Provisional Constitution outlining his plans for a new government post-invasion. It gave the work a sense of underlying, invisible logic, as if Moss was somehow channeling Brown to present an imagined reality of abolitionism.
The piece began with a simple, stunning solo by Cassie Mey. She moved as if on the edge of a precipice, breath held, her balletic adagio so painfully slow that I found it deeply uncomfortable to watch, yet I couldn’t look away. I had that feeling of awkward, self-inflicted torture many times in the piece—an intriguing malaise that muddled my enjoyment of the work.
In one of the most effecting sections of the evening titled “irregularities,” Moss and performer Kacie Chang manipulated large foam board rectangles, mirrored on one side, white on the other. They turned, threw, and whipped these pseudo-mirrors around as projected footage of historic black entertainers and later their own naked bodies washed over them. It was hypnotizing to see these dancer-ninjas discovering their bodies through the past, to see them grapple with their physicality in a sort of past-present feedback loop.
The past often fused with the present in johnbrown. Seen in a massive projection of video footage, Okwui Okpokwasili‘s Frederick Douglass and Asher’s John Brown spoke in offbeat contemporary jargon, decidedly not a 19th-century lexicon. At one point, performer Julia Cumming sang an indie love song downstage, looking much the Brooklyn ingenue as the young stagehands sat with rapt attention—they were like high school groupies, except we were watching them perform too. Later, these young women threw deflated red bouncy balls around the space, letting them land with a thud evoking a childhood nightmare. It was social and personal history collaged altogether.
After a rather violent battle involving smaller mirror-boards and a section where Mey, Chang, and Sari Nordman spread brown goop on their underwear-clad bodies and large pieces of confetti fell and stuck onto them, the work ended with a more sentimental tone than before. The young stagehands cleaned up the space a bit and sat in a circle at the center. They laughed and chatted in whispers, like at a slumber party when everyone is supposed to be sleeping. Their interactions were genuine, and I could have listened to the rise and fall of their voices much longer, but the lights slowly began to fade.
Are these young girls the voices of John Brown’s legacy? Is Moss passing the torch to them through performance? I’m not really sure, and I like it that way.