Most of the work in Mike Brieger’s show “Slavery Days,” which opened at the Durango Arts Center on Friday, was expectedly dark and unsettling, full of sepias and black and whites, ghostly washes and crude sculptures (crude on a couple levels). There were heavy reminders and depictions of ugly eras in human history – Anne Frank, Emmett Till, slavery, bondage, Jim Crow – but also the strength, perseverance and beauty that can arise from the human spirit.
But amid all of this challenging work and all the red dots affixed to the wall was something odd and out of place, a beacon of sorts, something that did not belong with the rest. In the middle of the floor, mingling with the public was a conspicuous wheeled chair (not a wheelchair, mind you). Someone had taken a shopping cart and refabricated it into something else, a seat on wheels, a recliner almost, with armrests and a gently sloped leg and foot rest. People pushed it around, they pushed it out of their way, some got in and took a load off. Art openings can be strenuous.
The chair did not have a placard, much less a title. It was not cordoned off in a corner with a price tag. It was just out in the middle of everything, unannounced and unacknowledged. Everyone I spoke to about the chair wasn’t sure what it was supposed to be, who had brought it and for what purpose.
After a while, I could almost hear Brieger grinning. It had to be a joke, a visual joke if nothing else. Of course, it was.
The piece was about pure fun; when you see it, you want to get in and have someone push you around, get going down an incline and then try to figure out how to stop. It added a quirky, oddball lightness to an otherwise haunting but beautiful show.
I don’t know Mike well, but what I do know of him is totally in line with the lighthearted shopping cart recliner as comic relief. When we met, he struck me as intense and driven, with gears constantly churning in his mind unlike those of anyone else, yearning to get something inside his head out into the world.
But along with this impression was another one. He also struck me as a generous and grateful guy, humble yet assertive in a punk rock kind of way, willing to hold out his middle finger when the time called for it, but in a fun, mischievous, unpredictable way. Hence, the shopping cart recliner.
It wasn’t the most dynamic piece in Mike’s show, and not the most original. It didn’t have a red dot anywhere near it because I don’t think it was for sale. But it was my favorite piece in the show.
It reminded me that we all have a lightness and darkness inside of us. Sometimes that darkness dominates and sometimes it’s the lightness shining brightest. It’s all there to certain extents and varying degrees at different moments.
When things get too dark, too intense, when we get consumed by the past or fretful about the future, I say find the shopping cart recliner, wherever it is for each of us. Take a seat, look for the light. Someone might even come along and push you around, both of you laughing and hooting, while the rest of the people in the gallery are left frantically muttering about how you’re heading right for them before they have to duck for cover.
David Holub is the editor for DGO. firstname.lastname@example.org.