Sunday, May 05, 2002

'Sprawl' has fun with found objects

By Marilyn Bauer
The Cincinnati Enquirer

        “It's sort of an ephemeral, nonexistent residue of itself,” artist Tom Fruin told The New York Times. He was describing his sold-out exhibition of 19 quilts — each going for as much as $30,000 — made from the discarded plastic drug baggies he found on the streets of New York.

        This slightly subversive idea of recycling found objects into sculpture that comments on itself, is a relatively new trend in contemporary art. From the French verb to cobble together, bricolage has emerged as the darling of 20- and 30-something post modernists who favor thrift store rejects and found objects over traditional materials.

        In Sprawl, the current show at the Contemporary Arts Center, curators Sue Spaid and Andree Marie Hymel have brought together a group of international bricolers, many who have crafted work from debris found on Cincinnati streets.

        This is not an exhibition for the uninitiated — it is far too easy to dismiss. But it is worth our attention if for nothing else than to experience an alternative interpretation of our world.

Recalling the handyman

               Bricolage was legitimized as a trend in the fall of 2000 when New York's Sperone Westwater gallery assembled a show of contemporary sculptors whose work recalled the idea of the handyman, tinkerer or odd-jobs enthusiast. They called the exhibition American Bricolage and provided a historical context (something the CAC show lacks) by drawing on the lineage of Alexander Calder, H.C Westermann (whose work was included in the exhibition) and Robert Rauschenberg.

        “We found there was an aspect of contemporary sculpture that was connected to taking something found in the real world and refashioning it into something else,” says the gallery's director, David Leiber. “It had been in the air for years.”

        But not in the mainstream. “It certainly hadn't been explored,” adds Mr. Leiber. “We showed artists of different generations and the work looked very different. Some pieces had the look of the excessive hobbyist, others were more finished and others were more rustic and jury-rigged.”

        Sprawl's retoolers, the majority of whom consider themselves painters, have popped their work off the wall, appropriating floor space and ceiling corners for their meandering creations.

        There is an assemblage of crushed velvet fabric scraps, a decal of flourishing graffiti, a narrative piece of cutout plastic featuring a clustering of bunion pads and a toy train that travels through an idiosyncratic exurban landscape.

        Some of these pieces translate better than others. Some are of the high-concept, low-communication variety.

        “It's really difficult these days to do a show that really challenges people's expectations of art,” laments Ms. Spaid. “Given that this is not the purpose of this exhibition, it is interesting that it brings up issues familiar to us in art: landscape, composition, narrative, use of materials.”

Floor painting

               Polly Apfelbaum's “floor painting” of arranged pieces of brightly colored synthetic velvet stands out in the oddly transformed landscape of the gallery. The work shimmers between painting and sculpture, and a tension that develops between the precision of the assemblage and a presumed randomness.

        Hand-dyed in hallucinogenic yet hypnotic color, the elongated bulbous forms of fabric are reminiscent of DNA strands or the bodies of insects. The extraordinary texture, achieved through tie-dye techniques, crushing the velvet and subtle folding evokes an almost irresistible urge to touch.

        But the title “Love Boat (The Next Wave)” leaves the viewer stranded. It doesn't translate even when the artist explains: “It's a '70s kind of thing and looking at the '70s and '90s. Love Boat was awful, but they brought it back and now there's this kind of romance and nostalgia.”

        It's a bit of a reach.

Made from "scraps'

               Shipwrecked at the gallery entrance is Ole Jorgen Ness' ""Directly Beneath the Storm” made almost entirely from materials scavenged from the CAC building.

        Large remnants of blue and black carpet at points curled up and battened down with heavy golden string represent a surging sea. Yellow-covered wiring dotted with light bulbs and transparent latex pillows dangles from the skylight. A recording of a thunder storm emanates from an overhead speaker, while below the carpet is littered with a conglomeration of leather-cushioned wooden cubes normally used as seating, a dirty wine glass with the legend Mix 84.1, a paper coffee cup, Ziploc freezer containers, a CAC T-shirt and an industrial ashtray with cigarette butts. And much, much more.

        The dangling wire does make one think of an electrical storm and the curled carpet remnants of waves. But I admit I missed what Ms. Spaid said was a reference to classical 19th-century Norwegian sea paintings.

        At the show's opening I felt assuaged in my confusion after witnessing a fellow gallery-goer sit on one of the wooden cubes oblivious to their significance as art.

A little bit wacky

               German artist Karsten Bott raided Cincinnati thrift stores to gather the cultural artifacts — 2,000 banana boxes worth — that make up “Things on Bridges (One of Each)” that impersonates a march of time in the center of the gallery.

        An electric facial spa, a Christmas decoration, a mug tree and toaster stand in a line that crawls over bridges then loops around itself in a calculated circle. Simultaneously representing the rooms of a house and the stages of life, the piece is bricolage of the first degree.

        “I put a structure on the collection of my archive that defines things other than alphabetically,” the artist told me. “I am humanizing these things. It's like a giant polka.”

        I love the humor in this work, as well as the innovation. Twan Janssen's floor-bound compilation is a grand illusion in acrylic paint. Mr. Janssen doesn't paint; he makes objects out of paint.

        In ""Stage Property #011001, Study for a new Rainbow” an oblong shape of striated color is not the painting it first appears to be. It is acrylic paint applied to glass then peeled off and adhered to a stretched canvas mounted on the wall. Little ribbon medals and leis scattered on the floor are also manifestations of paint.

        “It's meant to be a little bit wacky,” he said.

Pigs in trading

               A collaborative piece by Kathy Chenoweth and Lynn Berman, ""Porkopolis Futures Exchange” ranges over one gallery floor. Television monitors show videos of people making strange hand signals — of course if you happen to be a commodities trader you would know this signing is common on the trading-room floor.

        The refuse of the industry is scattered throughout an unorthodox workplace landscape while the fluctuations of the market are depicted literally with a video showing raw pork chops falling, for example, into a pile to show a drop in price.

        Also included in the show is an enormous assemblage of musical instruments and bric-a-brac by Tomoko Takahashi representative of the Cincinnati music scene replete with earphones to listen to local bands.

        Mick O' Shea's “Wonder and the Palisades” is a little too cute with its toy train and plastic potted plants for social commentary. I wondered if it was a bricolage of a previous piece he has exhibited, “Artworld,” because some of the buildings in the train landscape inexplicably bore the logos of art magazines.

Plastic journey

               Shirley Tse's “Sprawl” is an unrolling of plastic depicting the journey of plastic from raw material to, well, bunion pads. Ms. Tse slices, pinches and twists the material, adding a flip-flop, presumably a metaphor for motion, and a plastic flower. Rolls of flesh-colored plastic stand on end at the side “to remind you that you are looking at a row of plastic,” the artist said. How could you forget?

        Critics who have written on bricolage often reference a response by the artists to the excesses of the early '90s or to a consumer society where things are made to be thrown away.

        I don't know about that, but what I do know is in each of the 14 pieces on display here, there was an element of fun coexisting with a deep frustration. This work is not self-conscious. It is what it is.

        Sprawl, through June 9. Contemporary Arts Center.


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