Steve Backhus: Moves Delray with the Casket Gallery Project

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By Ellen Thistle The Pineapple Contributing Writer

His artwork is filled with noise. It’s the sound of his fingernails scratching paint off of walls. It’s the loud boom of staple guns. It’s the tap-tap-tapping of metal balls against the inside of spray paint cans being shaken. It is the collective silence of onlookers, moved as a whole. Artist Steve Backhus has been known to tag graffiti on art gallery walls, while pretending to be a cat. One time, he recruited people to make a series of messes in an art gallery. He then came behind them, dressed as a janitor, and “cleaned”— creating images from garbage and sweeping rhythmically. And at the age of 32, he has just completed an opus. It comes in three stages; it occurs across time. And it is the physical manifestation of a poem, called White Walls. It’s The Casket Gallery Project. And it’s complicated, so try to keep up.

Stage I    

The box is the size of a casket, standing upright, and open. The walls inside are smooth and white, and framed artwork hangs at eye-level. The artist stands inside, absolutely still. He is wearing a white painter’s suit. He is covered in plaster, molded and held in place, pondering art, in this coffin-sized gallery. From outside the gallery, the structural components are visible: wooden beams, drywall, pipes, and electrical conduits. Slowly, the artist in the box begins to move. It’s small movements at first—a turn of the head, the extension of an arm. The plaster encasing him cracks and falls to the floor. White chips and dust collect at his feet. Softly, he begins to speak. The words come in rhythms. They’ve got a beat. He is performing a poem called White Walls. He wrote it: Consider the unsightly infrastructure, Its surface so superfluously superficial A strategic semblance where we hang conquered cultural acquisitions 

Graffiti artists tag the outside walls. They write in skewed block letters. Their movements are fluid like anemones. Like a reborn tin-man, he gradually comes to life, inside the box—creaking and grinding to eventual smooth motion, growing louder, rhymes cascading out of his mouth. He has transformed from object to life form. The artist sheds his suit. He steps out of the box and walks away, leaving a trail of white plaster chips on the floor behind him.

Stage II comes later.    

The casket gallery is lying on the floor. The suit, still caked with plaster, lies inside, and a beam of light shines out, illuminating a dark room. An audience fills the room. They take slips of paper and write down something they would like to purge from their lives—addiction, debt, a toxic relationship, a bad attitude. They throw the papers into the casket gallery. The artist makes a contribution of his own: white flower, white sugar, and white rice. He charges people to Refute that same old superior status story, the soft sugary serve to our subconscious. It’s all nonsense. The rice, the sugar, the flour it’s all processed to disempower.  He throws the concoction into the casket gallery. He stuffs the suit with it.

Stage III    

The casket gallery is outside. It rests on a plot of nutritive wheatgrass. The suit lies nearby. It is stuffed with the pieces of paper the audience poured into the coffin before— the scraps on which they wrote things they would like to expel from their lives. Filled with all that paper, the suit looks like there’s still a body inside. A girl juices the wheatgrass, and hands out shots of juice to people who stroll by.

Then, unexpectedly, it begins to rain. The flour concoction that has collected in piles inside the gallery and the suit turns doughy in the rain—expanding and congealing. Inside the suit, the pieces of paper begin to disintegrate. The ink of people’s confessions runs down in cloudy rivulets. Their vices—the things they want to expunge—disappear.

It begs the question he asks in White Walls: Museums need art, but does art need museums? Because just like that, in the warm Florida rain, there is a moment of unplanned absolution. To understand The Casket Gallery Project, you must listen. Insight lies in the poem. White Walls is The Project’s beating heart. The poem examines the very definition of art. What is the relationship between art inside the gallery and art outside the gallery? Those pieces of art in galleries—works created by dead titans of the art world—what makes them different from street art created by some kid, tagged on the side of a run-down building? As Backhus points out in the poem, Sometimes it seems like we are so obsessed with treating art and people like objects to possess Who wants to be possessed under the power of the procurer? 

Once you realize all this, it’s clear that the casket gallery is about more than the definition of art. It’s about privilege. It’s about race. It’s about examining different sides of the same coin and exploring the world of paradox. Its truth is found in the contrast of smooth, white gallery walls, to crude structural components, and in the difference between the institutional and the holistic. And yet, despite the wrestling of this conflict, there is catharsis at the end. Like the living statue who slowly breaks free from the plaster mold holding him in place, The Casket Gallery Project is like witnessing Steve Backhus emerge from a cocoon—like all of his stages as an artist have been preparing him for this, that this is the result of years of incubation. His craft has crossed over from “Isn’t that neat?” into “Oh my god.” Which is not to imply that he is holed up in his studio all day. In fact, he is the artistic director of the Milagro Center, one of Delray Beach’s most successful non-profit organizations. The Milagro Center provides after-school art education, and academic support, to our city’s youth. Steve shows kids the power of expression through art. He challenges them to stretch beyond their limitations. It’s a great fit for a man who grew up in Philadelphia in the 1980s, surrounded and fascinated by street art and hip- hop, who found inspiration in unlikely places and attributes at least a portion of his success to the dedication of teachers. At the heart of it, he is reaching as many people as possible, creating an experience that is visual, that is aural, that is visceral and interactive. And he inspires people to challenge the root of their perceptions: to question, examine, and to Sweat it out, Let it out. Just like the poem commands. To learn more about Steve Backhus, visit www.stevebackhus.com