“Material Witness” at the Alice F. and Harris K. Weston Art Gallery is the thinking artist’s art exhibition. Independent curator Matt Distel’s smart grouping of multi-disciplinary artists, whose only ostensible common thread is consistent consideration of media, raises thoughtful questions about locations in space and time without providing any easy answers. Eight artists contribute to “Material Witness” (including two duos: CS13 founders, Philip Spangler and Aaron Walker; and Design 99’s life/work partners, Gina Reichert & Mitch Cope,) and the works range from 3-D installation to digital photography. Although there is much to “get” out of the exhibition, if the medium is (at the very least) a large part of the message, then the message of “Material Witness” is that thinking about art’s creation is a crucial step in any artistic practice.
Spangler & Walker’s Open Source Project Space (prototype) (2011) modular cube is the first piece one encounters within the Weston’s upper gallery, and the group’s use of materials (cardboard, plywood, & paper) points to an economy of means necessary for artists working in such a DIY-vein. The “nomadic alternative gallery” space is intended as a mobile and multi-functioning pop-up venue for “creative endeavors independent from capital gain.” Inspired by Bay-Area Architect, Ken Isaacs, Spangler’s & Walker’s portable steel-frame 8 ft. X 8 ft. structure touches upon utopian ideals as well as utilitarian functions. As the two artists are founding members of the now-displaced CS13 artist collective, it seems only natural that they would be wrestling with ideas of how to create an economically sustainable arts space, and this piece (as the “prototype” in the title implies,) is no doubt only the proverbial tip of their conceptual iceberg.
Matthew Flegle’s sculptures, Bewilderness (2010) & Sorrow (2011) also inhabit the Upper Gallery at the Weston and touch on ideas of space as well as construction. Flegle’s Bewilderness is a thirteen-foot tall “moose” comprised of sculpted polystyrene, drywall studs, & concrete. Three of the animal’s feet are weighed down with concrete castings of conical cylinders that immediately reminded me of Alexander McQueen’s Armadillo Shoes, and one back leg from the knee down is comprised of drywall stud cemented in a drywall bucket. The heaviness of the animal’s feet are a striking foil to the nearly translucent carved ears of the mythological beast, and a sharply-pointed curved horn with flat end completely obscures its eyes. Behind the animal lies a curved wall of exposed drywall with a geometric niche that—if viewers are adventurous enough to peak behind the wall—is revealed to be another horn that echoes the one covering the eyes of the aforementioned animal. Both of Flegle’s pieces in “Material Witness” include surrealistic depictions of animals and intimation to the spaces beneath or behind. This suggestion of place is perhaps the “Witness” eluded to in the exhibition’s title, and location (in time and space) seems important to many of the artist’s praxis.
Two of Peter Haberkorn’s six pieces in “Material Witness,” Pool House Flurries and All in Good Time: Margaux and Felix Taking a Walk in the Nuclear Winter (2011) are situated in the lower gallery entryway: under the stairs and at the foot of them, respectively. In Pool House, Haberkorn employs a found small-scale deteriorated children’s clubhouse and fills it with feathers and fans. There is a kind of enchantment and whimsy about the scale and content of Pool House, and it is a striking contrast to the darkness and weight of All in Good Time. According to the artist, “one is a future nightmare, the other a childhood dream or fantasy.” Although it is not difficult to discern which is which, the viewer remains physically detached from the action behind doors and windows.
Distel refers to Haberkorn’s work as large-scale collages, and the rest of his works within the exhibition probably fit that description more than the first two because they are less installation-based. Haberkorn also points to the significance of locations and time: not just metaphorically, as in his aforementioned installation sites, but also quite literally in naming other pieces Upstate New York 1880, and Dusseldorf (2011). Each object therein retains some significance from its found history, and Haberkorn underscores that history while resignifying possible meanings with new context.
Oakland-based, (Cincinnati ex-pat) Terry Berlier’s Perfect Lovers (2011) is an homage to Felix Gonzalez-Torres’ Untitled (Perfect Lovers) (1991), a piece about the measurement of time on a body, and likewise Berlier’s hanging plywood sculpture lends a physicality to space and time with an economy of means. Consisting of concentric boney-shaped circles that equally resemble a spine or ribcage of some long-lost dinosaur or the tree rings of a very large tree, split into two equal halves, hanging on its side from the ceiling. The 104 jigsawed, routerd, and hand-sanded rings were actually cut from only two pieces of five-pile plywood, and they mirror each other like a stack of cards on either side, growing largest on each end.
Design 99 and Chris Vorhees share the East gallery on the lower level, and the pairing of their work (as well as that of the previously mentioned artists in the upper gallery and lower West gallery) exemplifies the consideration the curator put into juxtaposing the work of such disparate artists. Detroit-based (Cincinnati natives) Cope & Reichert present five of their videos within a geometric “Razzle Dazzle” black, grey, and white installation paint scheme used by the United States Navy during WWI & WWII to confuse enemy submarines. The artists employ strategies to “activate and occupy” space—again more allusions to location as an important component of “Material Witness”—in their neighborhood of Detroit.
Working in homes that have been abandoned or are otherwise derelict, videos such as How to Renovate a House/Neighborhood: In 10 Easy Steps (2011), demonstrate how Cope & Reichert create sculptures out of found objects, engage likeminded artists in their labor, and otherwise repurpose the undervalued homes and vacant lots in their community. Using only the construction materials one would find in boarded up houses (plywood, screws, paint, etc.) they create “Sculptural Security Systems” to deter would-be ne’er-do-wells. Epitomizing the fine line between pragmatic and whimsical, Design 99 erects totem pole sculptures out of mattresses and other found objects to discourage the dumping of trash in their neighborhood.
Vorhees’ pieces likewise employ clever deception and attention to construction techniques. The professional furniture/cabinetmaker’s interests intersect with Design 99 in the ways he explores the labor involved in consumer product creation, and how affordability and design can be separated by the employment of technology. Equally influenced by Eames and molded plywood skateboards, Vorhees’ work is perhaps the most reticent of all the pieces in “Material Witness,” but prepping the viewers with previous artists who address the same kinds of conceptual and material concerns, imbues it with new layers of meaning. Although his approach can be equally pragmatic, the end result is typically more fanciful.
For example, floor lamp (2011) is a newer medium for Vorhees, as he typically works with wood, and its slick polyester resin puddle of neon orange with attached LED lights, could easily be a quirky floor lamp featured in some high-priced home catalogue. Another piece, 2 X 12 (2011), which appears to be a solid steam-bent two by twelve piece of pine board, is actually yellow pine veneer on top of layered/bendable plywood, molded into the shape of a form that described the curve of the artist’s back as he sat against a wall. Vorhees’ sofa server (2007) is a steam-bent maple construction of a serving tray based upon the picture on an empty box he found. The $3.99 sticker on the box provoked Vorhees to see how he might recreate the object and how much it might cost [nearly $2,000], therein highlighting the artist’s interest in defining the gap between what people want and what they can afford. Thus one might argue that in doing so, Vorhees also points to an abstracted location in space and time: one that can be defined as the gulf between aesthetically-pleasing singular objects and affordable mass-produced commercial products.
“Material Witness” is an example of the kind of art exhibition that appeals to artists and curators alike: one that poses more questions than suggests answers. Location, the function of the artist within a community, and the recording of a human life against a broader gauge of time are all observable and (somewhat) consistent notions raised by the participating artists. The thoughtful pairing of artists within each gallery space emphasizes the connections between each as well as the cerebral quality of the artwork. Although many of the artists have little to nothing in common, their overlap in themes and emphasis on conscientious process allows the viewer to draw lines between each and consider different layers of meaning. Quiet exhibitions like this remind us that much of art’s creation begins within the inner recesses of the mind—and that the reexamination of materials might allow artists to transcend those limits.
“Material Witness” is on view at the Weston Art Gallery in the Aronoff Center for the Arts until February 26, 2012.
— Maria Seda-Reeder