February 3, 2009

Building and Designing Intimacy

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Two fifth-year architects have teamed up to display their very different artworks in Sibley’s Hartell gallery. Both artists explore the way their objects interact with the viewer’s body: physically and culturally provoking the viewer to imagine the contours of what one chooses to embrace and what one chooses to give up. Like the image of Rubin’s face/vase (replaced by the artists’ profiles), which they display on their lone curatorial placard, absence always hugs and contains the material as its unacknowledged background.
Gabriel Hohag’s oeuvre deals with organic materials shaped in a process that emphasizes the delicate, hand-crafted care that went into their creation. Hohag’s largest scale piece in the exhibit is a sculptural undulation made of lightweight wood and heavy iron rods and bolts. At first glance, the iron rods seem to be supporting the wood’s curvature; upon closer inspection; however, the rods that pierce straight lines through the sinuous waves are revealed to be suspended by the wood. The wood is also made even lighter and more pliant by the fact that notches have been carved out of its side; again, a closer look shows that these notches go all the way through the wood, hollowing half the wood out into an airy nothingness.
Several sculptures have been carved out of bars of Ivory soap, including one of praying hands and another of a crouching torso. The human figures made from soap recealls how in Fight Club, human fat was boiled down to make soap, giving an elegiac sense to the pieces.
These pieces are juxtaposed to smoothly-finished, miniature vases and dishware made out of wood. One small wooden sculpture, much like an olive dish, has been created in fragments that are exquisitely held together by strands of wire projecting from inside the wood, which allow for a slight negative space between the contours. This creates a balletic moving focal point of jags and curves, unfinished wood and emptiness.
Across from this piece, a crumbled soap sculpture sits in little shards — as if it were a microcosm of Roman ruins. The pieces, however, are displayed from pedestals that jut out from the ground, making them difficult to get close to. The intimacy of the works themselves are thus in a dialogue with the promenade through the space, as if deliberately deconstructing the viewer’s urge to touch their inviting surfaces. The hand tools themselves are also on display, as well, in a handcrafted wooden tool box. The curatorial arrangement thus plays between intention and accident, history and the here-and-now, the thing made and the act of making.
Chris Loenberg approaches the same themes from a very different aesthetic angle. His work is characterized by utilizing high-tech media to achieve a low-fi, art brut aesthetic. One small piece, situated in an out of the way corner, consists of a few hunks of rusty scrap metal welded together. Tangled within these defining slabs, an eviscerated alarm clock flashes the wrong time, a tangle of PVC pipe weaves in and out, spangled with a spray-painted neon rainbow, and strobe lights in the primary colors flash to the fuzzy disco thump. It looks a little cute, a little damaged.
The thingamabob asks for attention, while at the same time remaining a half-hidden wallflower: the illegitimate love child of Rube Goldberg and RadioShack suffering from a bad hangover the morning after an amazing party. A jerry-rigged clamp sticking out the back keeps the whole gizmo from utterly falling apart. The piece remains simultaneously in the act of disintegrating and rebuilding, a continual work-in-progress.
Loenberg noted that his mangled ragbag of light-blipping, ghetto-blasting spare parts in the corner was related to the installation in the center of the room, which is actually a room unto itself. Four walls of light scrim surround the viewer in a small space, upon which are projected two looping video projections. The images flash iconic clips of mass culture, including shots of President Clinton, Jimmy Hendrix, the Boston Red Sox and old silent movies. But rather than overwhelming the viewer with an aleatoric seizure-inducing sensorium, the womb-like enclosure feels almost comforting, especially since focusing on only two screens is second-nature to many of us who make a daily habit of eclectic, electronic multi-tasking. Nonetheless, the effect of the installation is to reflect back to us, in a more refined way, the engulfing media fish-tank we continually breathe and swim through.
Also focusing on the detritus of consumer culture, one wall of the exhibit displays a series of documentary-style photographs that focus on the ubiquitous disposable plastic Solo cup used for binge drinking and beer pong. The photos have been digitally reprocessed to appear as if they had been reproduced on a photocopier, the grainy, faded out quality of a reproduction of a simulacrum of a copy, etc. etc., giving the sense that we’ve all done this same party one-too-many times before. Then again, without some degree of iteration, “parties” as such couldn’t be formed — they’d be more like disjointed, alienating, isolated happenings. There is also an emerging environmental consciousness in these photos since many of the stills reveal the natural world colliding with this ugly, crumpled artifact —making the viewers realize it’s not only us getting “wasted.”
Intimacy, the exhibit seems to suggest, is always a negotiation between parties in a generalized negative space of indifference. Ironically, the very attention lavished on hand-crafted details can make the finished products appear indifferent to the viewer’s childish sense of tactile grabiness.
We are less likely to reach out to fragile, polished objects; they therefore may seem cold, Modern, even off-putting. Meanwhile, sloppy-looking postmodern techno-hi-jinks may invite our participation more, conscripting us to finish its half-formed matrix.

Intimate Indifference is showing at Hartell Gallery in Sibley Hall through Friday.