Jesse Stecklow lifts his knees and presses them up against the seat in front of him when he rides the bus, allowing the slow ride to serve as a space for reflection.
The 2014 design media arts alumnus said he places a meditative value on public transportation – and urban life as a whole – which he aimed to showcase in his exhibit “Staging Grounds.” Stecklow’s exhibition opened at the M + B gallery April 7 and runs until May 12. While each piece in the exhibition can stand alone, Stecklow said they all work together within the gallery space to reveal the hidden moving parts of cities.
Growing up, Stecklow lived in Boston, London and Paris, where he noticed that each city’s residents used their central bus stations regularly. Upon his arrival in Los Angeles, however, he found public transportation didn’t have the same function as in other locations.
“The bus system in LA doesn’t have the same kind of efficacy,” he said. “And that got me thinking that if this is not the fastest or easiest way for me to get around – but it’s the only way for me to get around – what other aspects of this experience can be useful or interesting?”
Stecklow said he then decided to create a narrative from the communal space he found in the public, confined spaces of buses. Stecklow said he finds it unfortunate that many people think of public transportation as a vehicle for those without access to cars.
“Describing the bus as this shared space allows you to interact with people from all different types of neighborhoods and areas and backgrounds that you may not come into contact with in the comfort of your privacy,” he said.
Stecklow said his pieces on display interact with observers and the surrounding space to represent an exposure to unfamiliar environments. One installation serves as a cage viewers can open to read pieces of texts he wrote about his grandfather. For the work, Stecklow drew inspiration from artists such as Stanley Brouwn, who is known for his text-based work, he said.
Stacie Vos, who attended the exhibition’s opening reception, said Stecklow’s sophisticated use of text in the show was particularly intriguing. She also said Stecklow’s use of lighting and arrangement opened up the space.
Because Stecklow began his artistic career with photography, he said he wasn’t used to playing with scale. He usually fills space with sound or a piece of text that runs across the length of the wall, but he decided to see if he could invoke a more spacious environment without changing the artwork’s physicality.
He also played with light by using what he refers to as “metronome lights,” which oscillate between a warm and cold bulb. He placed one of the lights in the bathroom of M+B in order to underscore its artistic value, highlighting the way familiar urban entities can have a variety of purposes, he said.
Other pieces within the exhibit interact with the space in more physical ways. Stecklow designed objects he calls “air-samplers,” which he placed throughout the venue. The air-samplers, which he previously incorporated in past exhibits, have vents on their surfaces that collect information from the air within the gallery they occupy. Once they leave the space, he will send them to a lab that sends him a list of materials that were detected. The “air-samplers” communicate that objects have histories that start long before they arrive in front of us, he said.
Despite its intentionality, some audience members were left confused by the exhibition. Jason Riffe, a Los Angeles-based art collector, said he had a hard time comprehending the meaning behind each aspect of the exhibition.
“It’s a gold-guilded trainwreck,” Riffe said. “It’s beautiful and it has intention, but it’s not clearly communicated.”
Although Stecklow does believe explanatory literature should accompany most art, he went into this exhibit with the idea of being more generous with the viewer by giving them tools to parse out their own understanding, he said.
“I’m still learning how to make things self-evident without being overly didactic,” he said. “But I hope there’s enough entry points created within the work that, even if not all arrive at the same conclusions or the conclusions I arrived at, there are multiple ways for them to keep thinking through an object.”