One of my favorite phrases of criticism originates from veteran painter and film critic Manny Farber, who frequently referred to Hollywood film directors as "termites." Farber's point was that, like those burrowing bugs, a talented Hollywood director manages to make a personal, artistic imprint despite the layers of casting, script, costume and sets that surround his decisions. Farber was specifically discussing filmmakers, but his words speak true to visual artists as well. The creative haven for termite artists, no matter what their medium, lies underground, away from the institutions and bureaucracies that often muddle artists' efforts. The extra effort required to experience termite artwork is frequently worthwhile, the experiences often phenomenal.
Conceptual artist Rachel Rampleman probably never thought of herself as a termite artist, but she qualifies in the best and truest sense of the phrase. She works mostly outside established funding circles, supporting the majority of her projects with her own money. Outside of her participation in the October 2002 group show Beauty and the Beholder at downtown's Weston Art Gallery, her work has been installed at raw venues like the cavernous Mockbee Building (formerly SSNOVA) and Semantics Gallery, a storefront space in the nearby Brighton neighborhood.
Rampleman's latest installation, American Vacation, on view at Semantics through Nov. 29, is also her most satirical work.
A re-creation of a faux travel agency, Megalomedia Fabrication Vacation International Inc.!
(MFVI), American Vacation greets the viewer with a promotional video, office chairs, coffee table and potted plants — everything you'd expect from a travel office. Large promotional banners display past vacation photos: a tanned family at a sunny beach and grinning husband and wife hunters, their children close by, posing alongside the carcass of a freshly killed deer.
Promotional handouts describe the mission of Rampleman's agency. MFVI re-creates favorite past vacation moments or fabricates fantasy vacation moments through digital photography. A visitor can create a dream vacation without leaving Semantics.
The east wall of the gallery is lined with framed photos of customers who, at least by the look of their images in various vacation shots, appear to be happy and satisfied. The back gallery room functions as the photo studio, complete with a painted "blue screen" and racks of kitschy wardrobe to help customers dress for the fantasy trip.
The skill, technique and craftsmanship necessary to create American Vacation is clear, but they all take a backseat to the verve, the laughs and the comedy inherent to the piece.
It's a weekday morning in mid-November, and Rampleman has the gallery to herself. She grins, lights cigarettes and speaks about MFVI with the passion of the small business owner she pretends to be.
Rampleman is puckish in appearance, with a wiry figure and short crimson red hair pulled into Pippi Longstocking-inspired ponytails. She smiles and laughs frequently, enjoying American Vacation's humor as much as the visitors who participate in the piece.
As was the case with her Weston Gallery work, Look! — a collection of Internet photos of dolls for auction on eBay — Rampleman uses computer tools to break down the walls of visual art. She's thoroughly modern in her technique, and her work feels fresh, lively and original as a result. American Vacation is perfectly playful, intentionally funny, un-stuffed art that's worlds away from classic painting and sculpture.
Rampleman is also in sync with the spirit of David Dillon, artist and operator of Semantics, a fixture in the gritty Brighton neighborhood for the past five years. Semantics is ground zero for artist termites like Rampleman, and the space and her work perfectly fit the phrase.
Later in the week, I return with my 5-year-old son for our own photo, a re-creation of a past beach vacation interrupted by a hurricane. We pose in the back room, re-creating looks of shock and awe to the best of our abilities. Everyone breaks up laughing, and I can't remember the last time I laughed so joyfully at an arts installation.
Rampleman says coworkers have told her American Vacation is more carnival stunt than artwork. Why can't it be a little bit of both?