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Riverside art exhibit looks at rich and poor divide

"Temporarily Embarrassed #3," Production still, 2011
UC Riverside Sweeney Art Gallery and Culver Center of the Arts

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Say "squash" and "racket," and you're talking about an Ivy League gentlemen's game. Say "racket and squash," and you're talking about how thousands of homeowners got caught up in the foreclosure crisis. Say "Jeff & Gordon," and you're talking about two artists in Riverside who've mixed squash and rackets and foreclosures into a clever video exhibit.

Visitors to UC Riverside's Sweeney Gallery settle into a section of tiered bleachers dragged in just for the exhibition. They watch a giant video projection of a couple of clean-cut, collegiate dudes in crisp white athletic gear battling it out on a squash court. The players occasionally pause to catch their breath, and offer the odd insight.

"Americans do not see themselves as oppressed proletariats," says one, panting. "But as temporarily embarrassed millionaires."

The game resumes.

On the opposite walls are video tableaus of the same guys, still in their squash outfits, doing chores at foreclosed houses. They mow the weed-choked grass of a bungalow in Riverside. On a browning lawn of another home, they inflate a ridiculously huge, garishly colored Halloween decoration.

"Re-enacting all these things you do with your house or in front of your house, whether it's washing your car, having a barbeque," says artist Jeff Foye. "It's the pride of ownership."

Foye is one half of Jeff & Gordon, the team behind the "Play Against" exhibit at UC Riverside's Sweeney Gallery and Culver Center of the Arts. They're also the not very good squash players in the video. Gordon Winiemko is the other half.

"These pieces also exemplify the desire of the 99 to be the one percent," says Winiemko.

"Right," Jeff Foye follows up. "Here we are maybe wearing the clothes or adopting the role of the one-percenters."

The two L.A.-based artists bandy their answers back and forth as if locked in a brisk game of squash.

"And the fact that we're doing this at foreclosed homes is, we're trying to carry on as if everything is just fine," adds Winiemko. "We're just temporarily embarrassed, you know?"

The work illustrates what many believe is the widening gulf between rich and poor. The exhibit program calls "Play Against" an "ironic juxtaposition" between the upper crust game of squash and the harsh economic reality faced by many middle- and lower-income Americans.

"Squash is being used as a metaphor!" exclaims Winiemko clapping his hands. "There you go! It signifies in different ways."

"But it has this egalitarian rule to it. You can call a 'let.'" explains Foye, referring to a rule in squash.

"If your opponent is in your way, you don't crash through them; you call a 'let.' So we're going to be very competitive, but there's no brutalism in the sport," says Foye. "It's about pushing your opponent but still maintaining your decorum."

Missing from the exhibit are the real losers: people who lost homes to foreclosure. They were to be cast in a video, the casualties of the housing crisis standing as a group in solidarity. Winiemko and Foye reached out to various community organizations to recruit people. There were no takers.

"It's very hard to get people who've been affected by foreclosure to come forward," says Foye.

"There's this whole air of shame that surrounds it."

But there is an accidental component to this collision of art and real life that did happen; the Culver Center's sleek glass exterior walls open out into Riverside’s downtown plaza. On view now is the very real diorama of Occupy Riverside; an evolving exhibition of public protest and street theater that appears to be held over indefinitely.

Last month, a choir of Occupy protestors interrupted the weekly foreclosure auction on the steps of the nearby county courthouse singing, "Mrs. Auctioneer! All the people here! Are asking you to hold all the sales right now!"

That bit of street theater ended peacefully. But this month, when Riverside police tried to clear out the Occupy camp demonstrators resisted by linking arms and forming a human chain around their belongings.

"The fact that Occupy Riverside is happening right outside the door, it's ..." says Winiemko, pausing.

Foye jumps right in.

"Is it a gift? Do we wanna say it’s a gift?" he laughs.

"We're really happy that people are so pissed off that we get this nice synergy! We're really happy that worked out for us!" jokes Winiemko.

"You know," says Winiemko. "The fact that Occupy Riverside is right out there is a demonstration that it’s really time to look at these issues."

"I don't think we’re judging our success or failure on the social good we achieve," adds Foye. "Where I think the people out there are really aiming for some very real social good."

The video screens for "Jeff & Gordon Play Against" go black in December – but the conversation continues. The Culver Center of the Arts along with UC Riverside researchers will host a series of forums on the lasting effects of Southern California's housing crisis through next year.