A full crowd had gathered, elbow to elbow, skirting around the many playful Michael Mahalchick works spread throughout the space. It was one of the first pleasant nights of the year and almost everyone was wearing a smile as they sipped white wine from the gallery bar. This carefree, easy-going attitude would soon come in handy as the artist entered the space from the rear of the gallery, commanding the attention from the crowd by thanking everyone for being present.
Mahalchick began by guiding us all through a series of deep breathing exercises, instructing us to breathe deeper and deeper with each passing round of measured breaths. Once the artist felt the room was sufficiently calm and relaxed, he directed our attention to a work that had been hanging over his right shoulder. The wall work was what appeared to be a found blanket stretched over 36 by 42-inch stretcher bars. It depicted the tranquil scene of a golf course on a sunny day; trees, grass, and sand traps extending all the way to a far away body of water in the distance.
From here Mahalchick guided us through a visualization exercise. After all closing our eyes, we were instructed to choose four objects from what we could remember within the gallery and place them strategically within the blanket landscape. Mahalchick walked us through the sunny environment, past each object until finally recognizing the form of someone we once knew far off in the distance. As we drew closer to the recognizable figure, we were instructed that it was someone we had once deeply admired, even possibly loved. As we drew still closer, we were told that soft music began to rise and float through the air, and it did.
Collectively opening our eyes as we realized we really could hear music, we came back to reality to find that Mahalchick had disappeared. The opening phrases of The Cure’s “Pictures of You” was slowly rising from concealed speakers in the rear of the gallery. The artist soon emerged again completely transformed, hair fully tussled, white face paint hastily applied with deep, dark eye make-up, and sloppy red lipstick. We were suddenly in the presence of Robert Smith himself.
Videographer/editor Nick Rymer. Footage Courtesy of Louis B. James.
He belted out the lyrics to the song, giving a compelling live performance in an earnest voice that occasionally quivered over what may have been honestly palpable nerves. Stooping at one point near the end of the tune, Robert straightened back up with a children’s record player and album in hand. He then set up shop where he had made his way to a free electric socket near the front window of the gallery. Without saying a word, Smith plugged in the device, set the record, and dropped the needle. The crowd looked around with anticipation as the fuzzy crackle of the first sounds from the vinyl floated through the room, wondering what unpredictable sonic element was in store for us next.
It turned out to be a children’s movement and calisthenics record from some forgotten time just beyond the scope of memory (for myself anyway). A space naturally cleared for Smith in the crowd as he performed every movement described by the jovial, old-timey exercise instructor. The artist swung his hands to their full wingspan, did deep waist bends, and jumped as high as he could from the ground, sending moderate reverberations through the feet of the more than slightly amused crowd. We shared grins of astonishment and unbridled joy, each one of us immediately relating to some ridiculous childhood memory or another.
By time the needle found the end of the record, Mahalchick/Smith had worked up a healthy sweat, working hard and deserving the healthy round of applause we all afforded him as the piece came to an end. Though the message of the work was slow to reveal itself, and many may have been tempted to dismiss it as performance for performance sake, I feel that the real meat of the work came in sharing a playful experience with friends and strangers. It was an experience that reminded one of their youth and that we should all pay tribute to those who came before us. Not a single person walked out of Louis B. James without a smile that night, and I think maybe that, in and of itself, was the most sizeable triumph of the work.
By Matthew Hassell