George A. Magalios
It is a rare event when an artist fuses disparate media into one cohesive concept and exhibition. It is rarer still when that exhibition engages the politics and history of a people without being ironic, pseudo-clever, or pedantic. Such was the moment for William Earl Kofmehl III at his Lombard-Freid show and performances that took place from December, 2007 to January, 2008. A disclaimer: The artist and I both attended Carnegie Mellon University from 1998 to 2001.
The title of the show, “Lesson 43: Queue”, as well as the publicity photo of the artist posing in a mock formal group portrait with his father and two brothers-in-law, each of whom played key roles in the opening night performance, give clues to the cryptic and varied nature of Kofmehl’s work. To begin with, the artist opened the exhibition with a customary consecration of sorts: a performance that maps out the world, or in this case, the region and conceptual context for the sculptural and video elements: Central America and learning. The performance consisted of a variety of simultaneously-occuring gestures and actions including a lecture on language by the artist’s red-bearded father and the washing of the artists long red-hair by one of the brothers-in-law.
The works, ranging from cast bronze fish, bird, and boomerang wall pieces to rayon embroidery to video, were installed in an environment-like settingthat included a black wall with windows that partitioned the gallery into two spaces: the open public space and the interior closed private space in which the performance took place. The viewers were sealed off from the action but were afforded views through the windows thus creating a voyeuristic element that conjured up a number of colonial and subject-object oppositions whose relationship to the sculptural works in the gallery is equally paradigmatic.
The private performance space served as a fictional nativist studio wherein the “products” were fabricated and exhibited complete with spotlighting for easy consumption – another echo of the production-consumption dynamic between the United States and Central American countries
Perhaps the key semiotic component of “Lesson 43: Queue” is “Quetzal In Space,” a 2007 rayon embroidery made up of a depiction of the planet earth on a black ground accompanied by a boomerang, a coyote, a quetzal, an owl, and an American flag, all overly-large and ominously hovering over the blue and green planet. The work functions as a cipher to the mysterious gestures and cryptic analogies played out between the elements of the exhibition and makes a playful, somewhat faux innocent testimony on the history of white colonialism in Central America, the poaching and fetishization of wildlife such as the quetzal, and the more recent tortured history of American involvement in the region. Ironically – intentional or not – the work embodies these tensions in that it was commissioned by the artist for local women who excel at the art of embroidery, thus duplicating or raising to the second power, the dynamic between wealthy and more powerful outsider and nativist exoticism.
Whatever the geo-political and ramifications of the work, William Earl Kofmehl III proves his deftness at the playful and mysterious manipulation of complex issues all while demonstrating his manual and psychic dexterity as a sculptor and performer. His range of media (video, performance, sculpture, embroidery, and photography) and his range of materials (bronze, fabric, marble and wood) testify to the scope of the artist’s ambitions and multitudinous approaches to his work. These abilities testify to the uniqueness of his project as an artist and the sophistication of his contributions to contemporary art, a fact particularly impressive considering his young age: 27 at the time of the exhibition.