Emily Roysdon, a thoughtful multimedia and performance artist working in New York, has curated Ecstatic Resistance, a lively and often heartfelt exhibit at Grand Arts. It features an international group of artists and performers including Matthew Lutz-Kinoy, Jeanine Oleson, Ulrike Ottinger, Dean Spade, Craig Willse and Ian White. According to the daunting exhibit statement (almost certainly composed by Roysdon, judging by her contributions to the annual queer and feminist art journal LTTR), Ecstatic Resistance "is about the limits of representation and legibility — the limits of the intelligible and strategies that undermine hegemonic oppositions." So, there's that.
Roysdon's sole noncuratorial contribution is an elegant silkscreen and chine-collé print, which shares the exhibit's title. The piece displays her attachment to vocabulary with a tidy bubble diagram depicting the show's premise in words — impossible, for instance, bounded by imaginary. It contains nodes for telling, unspeakable, communicability and other words that suggest Roysdon's thoughtfulness but fail to connect — to one another or to the viewer. Her reluctance to clearly articulate her premise, both here and in the statement, forms a barrier to entry and clouds her intentions. Nonetheless, this is an accessible and often emotional group exhibit. In an irony-inflected age, there are moments and pieces in Ecstatic Resistance so earnest that they shock.
In the atrium, Roysdon's piece is overwhelmed by its proximity to A.L. Steiner's "Positive Reinforcement," a confrontational wall-sized installation of candid photos and slide projections of body parts and expressionless nude subjects. Its accompanying soundtrack, audible only through headphones wired to the wall, features well-known Kansas City musicians and artists, including Cody Critcheloe, Peggy Noland and Jaimie Warren. The point of the piece isn't seduction but complete disclosure, to disgorge more information, perhaps, than you expect. The formidable scale of a wall of vaginas and penises is demanding, to say the least. Especially next to Roysdon's cerebral blueprint for the exhibit, the unflinching earthiness of "Positive Reinforcement" is startling.
As if in response comes Sharon Hayes' "Parole: 3 of 7," an installation of three video pieces filmed in Istanbul, Chicago and London, in which people on the street recite declarations of love from a script. The complexities of love seldom figure in contemporary art, so finding a piece such as Hayes' in the context of a gallery exhibit is kind of like encountering a giraffe in a church. These cold readings by ordinary people have an unstudied honesty that serves the piece's emotional theme; some of the longer readings, more manifesto than declaration, resonate hypnotically, even as they delve into fraught issues of power and gender. The fusion of the pleasure principle and politics comes across more plainly than Steiner's provocation.
The collective of Los Angeles artists called My Barbarian, consisting of Malik Gaines, Jade Gordon and Alexandro Segade, is known primarily for its performance art; here, the three artists contribute their first fabricated object, assembled at the Grand Arts studio. Titled "Broke People's Baroque Peoples' Theater," it is a miniature wooden theater stage, symmetrically ornate but assembled with unfinished wood, presumably the building material of broke people. Penciled outlines are obvious along its curlicues of jigsawed ornamentation, and the unsanded surfaces reveal plywood grain. The stage frames a video screen displaying My Barbarian members in Elizabethan costume, singing and performing for an unseen audience. The piece's aesthetic of hasty assembly, of getting to the point via the most direct route, reflects the emotional urgency at the core of Ecstatic Resistance.
Grand Arts' side gallery, a favored space for film projects, features Israeli filmmaker Yael Bartana's moving short film "Mary Koszmary." (The title roughly translates as "Dreams and Nightmares.") In the film, a young Polish sociologist named Slawomir Sierakowski stands in the ruins of an abandoned Warsaw stadium and delivers an impassioned, almost pleading political address calling for the return of Jews to Poland. Sierakowski envisions this reconciliation as a potential corrective for the ascent of the Polish right wing since 2005; as he speaks, children in school uniforms stencil the phrase "3,000,000 JEWS CAN CHANGE THE LIVES OF 40,000,000 POLES" on the pitch. Here is a political vision, passionately illustrated, heartbreaking in its optimism. Bartana knows that it's impossible; after all, Sierakowski's voice echoes across an empty and weed-choked stadium. As a result, the childlike Utopianism of "Mary Koszmary" isn't laughable but wonderful and incredibly sad. Ecstatic Resistance is a pretty good exhibit title, but at the show's core are artists resisting ecstasy in favor of sincerity.