January 26, 2005

Living in a Material World

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“Material Matters,” one of the new exhibits in the Johnson Museum, is a sort of visual poetry in the Carrollesque/Jabberwocky tradition: you feel the rhythm and it makes complete aesthetic sense until you take a step back and realize that you are reading an uninformed, illogical alphabetical brew. In this instance, it takes a moment after the first glance to realize that you are indeed looking at a bunch of meticulously arranged junk. Just as Jabberwocky elucidates the machine that is grammar, “Material Matters” sheds light on the machine of art-making and display.

The exhibition assembles pieces from the United States, Mexico, Brazil, Japan, Britain and Pakistan. Each work is simultaneously alien and familiar, spectacular and mundane, art and garbage. The media used in all of the installation pieces (many of which are site-specific) would otherwise be found in a trashcan, a box in the attic, or even inside a vacuum bag. Among the materials used are straws, a Happy Meal paper bag, pipe cleaners, carpet fluff and a lot of party balloons.

The art objects appear to be a clever retort to that gargantuan question: what is art? Each piece is a highly conscious creation, aware not only of its artificiality, but also its uselessness on one level, and colossal relevance on the other. The substances from which each artwork is created — substances that would be banal and extraneous in everyday life — are as essential to the display as the display itself.

A number of the works in the exhibit bring to the distinguished museum space commercialism and mass consumerism by using and exposing brand name products. Tom Friedman, for instance, uses corners of cardboard boxes to construct his sculpture, presenting a different kind of self-portrait. He is neither his face, nor even his occupation; he is a product of Keebler snacks, Forster plastic forks, Lipton tee. Irish Spring soap and Mr. Coffee filters.

Yuken Teruya’s installment employs the common subject of the four seasons in traditional Japanese art. The artist takes four paper bags (one of which is from a bank, the other, a fast-food place) and meticulously carves out an image of a tree, and hangs it inside the bag in a diorama display. The artist’s artificial re-creation of the natural source of the paper bags brings into mind the cost of consumerism. Teruya brings forth the material memory of paper.

Cheyney Thompson, most transparently, raises the subject of appraising the value art with two works entitled “Table of Tragedy” and “Table of Doubt.” The first is a folding table with photographs of newsstands, cash registers, posters, and gallery showings piled on top; the second display is similarly a table with a fake jewelry, a gold Pok