“The Crowd as Chorus“ by Brooks Turner
We typically encounter history as a record: individuals and events organized in an ordered chain of cause and effect, wherein valiant leaders and violent authoritarians galvanize and exploit the masses to alter the march of history. But crowds are not merely inert matter shaped by anointed individuals; crowds have their own ontology, purpose, ideology, and ethics beyond any individual participant. In The Motion of the Crowd: Gregory Rick and Ryan Fontaine in Conversation, these two artists and long-time friends reframe history through the eyes of the crowd, not merely by depicting the actions of a crowd, but rather by reflecting the rhythmic multiplicity of collectivity through differing approaches to image, process, and materiality. Together, Rick and Fontaine make the crowd into the Chorus of Classical Greek theater, personifying the multiplicity of collectivity.
In scale and complexity, Rick’s paintings overwhelm and absorb us as viewers. Each piece is a portal into an intervening world formed through the simultaneity of history and current events, made all the more immersive by the cacophonous sound emanating from Fontaine’s kinetic sculpture Vibration of the Crowd. A timer triggers bright LED work lamps to illuminate a spinning silicone appendage suspended in the air by the weight of kettlebells, the sound of which is picked up by a contact mic and piped through an amplifier. And then it stops; on-off-on-off, it repeats cyclically, chaotic but ordered, immersive and disorienting. There is a kind of satisfaction in becoming subsumed by the crowd, an anonymous tool of the will of a group: dancing with strangers at a concert, expressing anger in unison while marching in protest, even standing in line at the State Fair, colloquially known as “the great Minnesota get together.” But there is danger in the power of this feeling of belonging.
In The Fall, a white figure in Roman robes holds aloft an ax, recalling the Roman fasces without its bundled sticks, as if commenting on the way fascism exploits populism—the ax always comes to bear on the sticks. Just below, a baby wearing an SS uniform raises their arms in Nixon’s infamous Vs for victory pose, while above, the faded slogan “Keep America Great!” spans the canvas. America follows the example set by Rome and the Third Reich. No empire is built by a single man, as much as we’d like to believe otherwise. Those complicit in the rise of Naziism in Germany are often excused as victims of herd mentality, psychologically manipulated into supporting Hitler’s violence. Without a doubt, Nazi propaganda was designed to exploit the German people through an all-absorbing mythology of white supremacy. And yet, there is a way in which a crowd has a decentralized intentionality, a will not carried or led by a single entity, but rather dispersed through, like migrating birds, swirling and twisting in massive patterns, forming hyperobjects that act as one. Extracting oneself may not change the motion of the crowd, but it doesn’t absolve participation.
Rick’s canvases probe this relationship between individual and crowd through historical and contemporary narratives. In making John Brown and Crispus Attucks Walk into the Forest, Rick contemplated the performative allyship of yard signs and social media posts, juxtaposing this posturing groupthink with revolutionary abolitionists John Brown and Crispus Attucks. Brown marches as a giant in the center of this monumental painting, lit up by a military helicopter, recalling The Bolshevik by Boris Kustodiev in which a giant revolutionary represents the multitudinous strength of a unified proletariat. Attucks appears smaller in the lower left corner, joining the chaos of other, unrecognizable faces repeating at varying scales. Two faces with white pointed hoods reference the ku klux klan, which designed their uniform to thwart individual identification, leveraging anonymity in their racist tactics of violence and exclusion. This characterization of individual, anonymity, and the crowd is inverted in Bury My Heart at 38th and Chicago, where Derek Chauvin becomes a symbol for white supremacist state violence, while a small group of anonymous figures collectively struggle against the monolith of systemic racism. Bitch I Need a Hug appears to me the most chaotic and discordant, while still expressing rhythm. Crowds organize horizontally rather than hierarchically, even when instigated by an individual. This horizontality often appears chaotic, disorganized, and yet it acts with a kind of singularity through syncopation: E pluribus unum, out of many, one.
There is immediate imagistic similarity between Rick’s painted figures and Fontaine’s cast fragments of bodies, but Fontaine’s commentary on crowds comes more through his language of abstraction. Paintings, such as 295 Red Cadmium Lines, Bird’s Eye Grid, Claw Grid, and Shiver, establish a relationship to order despite imperfections in geometry. In the context of Rick’s crowds, they recall city plans, the public infrastructure which organizes the movements of people. Order, which we experience acutely and abstractly in grids, is often expressed as a fascist goal: the Nazis had Zucht und Ordnung; Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, Rudy Giullani, and Donal Trump had Law and Order. In this way, the uniform of policemen represents the grid more than the crowd. Even as he draws the grid, Fontaine disrupts and counters order. Neon greens meet crimson reds and electric blues, scattering our eyes through visual vibrato as we try to take in the work. This clash of vibrancies reflects the polarities in the shape of a crowd, like juxtaposing the burning of the 3rd precinct in Minneapolis with the storming of the Capitol on January 6th, 2021. Both are instances in which a crowd became a decentralized mass with its own intentionality, albeit diametrical in their expression of ideology.
The pedestrian quality of the grid is extended through the materiality of concrete and grass, which Fontaine used to create the figurative Pentagram: Classical Back with Nipples, Sunny Boy, and Flourishing Islands. In the latter, concrete toruses set into a sea of vibrant orange epoxy shape islands of grass—an abstract representation of what Fontaine has described as the island-like experience of being in his home-studio-gallery while the Minneapolis Uprising unfolded around him. There is an irony to this title as the grass is dead, not flourishing, spray painted green to appear healthy—perhaps a depiction of our broader socio-political landscape made to appear flourishing when in fact it is deeply unhealthy.
The crowd is a community as much as the riot is the language of the unheard. In this visual conversation between friends, I encounter an aesthetics of populism and the state, history narrating tragedy, and a kernel of hope sprouting in the interstices of violence, calling for horizontality over hierarchy.