Jesse Sugarmann, Art Papers
Jesse Sugarmann at Ditch Projects, Springfield, OR
Originally published in Art Papers

In Street Hassle, 2009, one of five performance-documenting videos in an exhibition of the same name [Ditch Projects, November 7—28, 2009], Eugene, Ore.-based artist Jesse Sugarmann is seen filling plastic shopping bags from the tail pipe of an idle pickup truck. As each bag inflates, he knots it off, tosses it into the truck's bed, and frantically begins the process again. Toward the video's end, a quizzical police officer wanders into the frame and wonders aloud what, exactly, is going on. It's not a bad question, given how Sugarmann's work splinters into myriad directions. Is he lampooning the futility of environmental activism? Riffing on the artistic drive to bottle the ineffable, to give shape to the unseen phenomena of the world? Or does he just really love cars? Without a doubt, this work is born of a deep-seeded obsession with cars and car culture, but Sugarmann sidesteps the fetishistic impulse of a collector with work that not only addresses these questions, but looks far beyond them. In the sheer physicality of automobiles, he activates a potent, if readymade metaphor for mortality, that one-way road toward obsolescence and decay.

In Ditch's main gallery, Sugarmann recasts the enclosed space as garage-cum-tomb by presenting two nearly identical Chevrolet Camaros from the early 1980s. Posed on cinder block "plinths" as if caught mid-jump in a high-speed chase, their marble-white exteriors and "muscular" contours imply a timeless, classical quality, girded by the muscle car's cultural symbolism as virile and masculine. But close inspection undercuts those first impressions; their upholstery is soiled, their bodies dinged and chewed with rust. The skewed symmetry of the cars creates a strange spatial relationship that Sugarmann amplifies, sonically. By leaving the headlamps of both cars shining without a key in the ignition, the interior cabs whine a dull, sustained frequency. As the two tones blend together, creating a queasy non-chord, the emptiness of the cabs snaps into relief: These vehicles are gasping shells, the sounds they emit flat-lined death rattles.

In relation to the weighty presence of the Camaros, Sugarmann's video work further personifies cars as stand-ins for finite human bodies, with exhaust figuring as the kind of expendable life force the word implies. In Snuggle Filter #1, 2009, the artist appears above a vertical pipe pumping thick, black smoke—a consolidated stream of exhaust from eight idle automobiles. As the plume disperses in his face, he feebly stuffs Snuggle-brand dryer sheets into the pipe, as if their fragrance could offset not only the smell of the exhaust, but the host of damaging pollutants invisibly populating the air. It's an absurd gesture, as the artist haplessly combats toxic emissions with similarly toxic dryer sheets. But it also comments on the self-deceiving stories we tell ourselves to dilute the pitch black reality of death. In the nearby Black Snuggle, 2009, in which Sugarmann has sewn these dryer sheets—dyed a sooty black from exhaust—into a foreboding, shroud-like tapestry, the comic quickly turns grim. Though it still emits the sickeningly potent perfume of the dryer sheets, this toxic tapestry radiates a discomfiting and funereal sense of finality. But it's the video Pulsar (Pulsating Star), 2009, that truly drives the point home: After draining a car of all its fluids and safely propping it above the ground, he places a brick on the gas pedal and lets it speed toward its death. Apart from a brutal metal-on-metal revving sound and copious smoke curling from beneath the hood, nothing seems to happen until the final moment, when the car lurches, shudders, and wheezes in an unnervingly human demise.