(note: all the quotes are taken from Smitty Regula's writing.)
If the story is good...
In his New Works currently on view at Gallery 1724, Smitty Regula is showing a series of reproductions that he made of shrines previously made between 1953 and 1983 by Joseph Buttle (1920-1983). According to the official story, Joseph Buttle, a door-to-door salesman, created ShrineCo. in 1953. "Following the design revolution of appliances of the 1950's," his shrines were meant to ease the worship process at home, the same way an appliance was meant to reduce the load of house chores. The Portable Instant Automatic Sacrifice "burned its offering at the touch of a button" while the Worship Accelerator allowed its user to reduce the time spent worshipping without altering the quality of the worship. There was also the 40 Gallon Praise Tank, the Instant Shrine (just add water), the Praise Wheel with Automatic Protruding Strobe, the Oscillating Transistor Praise Wheel, etc., each of which had its own worshipping purpose. The Portable Instant Automatic Sacrifice on view at Gallery 1724 is said to be the original one made by Buttle that Regula would have won in an auction. The show is complete with an Homage to Buttle, made by Regula, the Infinite Loop shrine made by Icky and Feaser ("Joseph's envious distant second cousins who sought to be a part of ShrineCo" but who got rejected), and a Portable Diagnostic Multi-Shrine Calibrator, which allowed Buttle to service any of his shrines.
At the opening, a little man in a suit and tie introduced himself as Joseph Buttle, handing out his card to every visitor... but Joseph Buttle is said to have died in 1983. Who was this man then? An impostor?
The beginnings are far fetched: shrines as appliances short-circuit the personal stamina found in homemade shrines (although one could argue that Buttle's shrines were also made "to suit" their owners' worshipping particularities). Add to this the idea of presenting replicas of such shrines and we are looking at a dubious situation, let alone the presence of Joseph Buttle... But dismissing this experience as a farce would be foregoing a meaningful commentary about authenticity, religion, consumerism, storytelling, and plain simple clean fun.
The question of authenticity is not fully exposed yet. We learn that Joseph Buttle never existed, at least in our "reality," and we further learn that Smitty Regula is a pseudonym for Drew Bettge. Oddly enough, as we plunge into ShrineCo's universe, this Drew Bettge appears to be less real than Joseph Buttle, towards whom the whole attention is geared. Bettge is invisible in the work and Regula's trace as one who pays an homage to Joseph Buttle could not be more humble and removed from the heat of the lights.
The viewer understands quickly that the narrative is just as important as the shrines. They are intertwined in such a way that one gives life to the other. Without the story, the shrines would solely be beautiful functional sculptures pleasant to look at and fun to interact with. Being made of appliance parts (water heater tanks, irons, coffee machine, etc.), they surely refer to appliances. At the push of a button, fake snow comes flying on your head, a horn plays, or coffee brews... But without the story, the shrines would lack an overall cohesion. The story gives them the status of artifacts. They become consumer goods that testify for a past that never existed. Yet, this past is given a semblance of truth through the physical reality of the shrines. The installation itself plays a role in this process. The walls of Gallery 1724 are not the typical white gallery walls but slats of wood, referring a house rather than a gallery. The signs describing the shrines are printed on plain paper, glued to construction paper. Other signs encouraging the visitors to push buttons are simply handwritten with a marker on pieces of torn cardboard boxes. What some would call "neglect" in the presentation brings the shrines outside of a traditional understanding of fine art. As viewers, we found ourselves in front of a similar situation as if looking at Duchamp's Fountain: but instead of seeking the "art" in an urinal, we are trying to forget the "art" of the shrines to see them as consumer goods, because it is as such that they fully gain a meaning and engage in our delight.
In the midst of falsehood, we still have the tendency to believe the story because it is a good explanation for the presence of the shrines today in a gallery. It functions like a myth: although imaginary, it contains a certain truth. The narrative is entertaining, humorous. Yet, even with its intricate exaggeration and its caricatured characters it is still believable. The story of the businessman with a novel idea, the ups and downs of the trade, the obsession with consumer goods and religion, all are parts of a collective imaginary, an American myth. The attention paid to details, and a tone as objective as possible tend to mislead the viewer into thinking that the story unfolding before his eyes is based on reality. If the story is good...