Girl Machine: August 2007

Reprinted from WashingtonPost.com

At Area Galleries, Singularly Focus Groups

By Mark Jenkins
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, August 24, 2007; WE21

At local art galleries, August is the month for group shows,often grouped thematically. One of the current exhibitions,Project 4’s “Useless,” offers an interesting angle on thegaps between the aesthetic and the practical, and thesingular and the mass-produced. Indirectly, it also providesa possible way at looking at some of the other groupdisplays in town.

For much of human history, the very notion of “Useless” would have been inexplicable. All art had apurpose, whether it was to be decorative, glorify God or simply flatter a patron. But as art became pure self-expression, and then increasingly conceptual, a divide developed between the artist and a world awash inconsumer products. In a sense, all modern art became useless.

In “Useless,” artists pay rueful tribute to architecture and industrial design by making objects that look as ifthey ought to be purposeful but aren’t. Pull David Ruy and Karel Klein’s “Wallpaper Furniture” off the walland it could almost be a sled. Its red tendrils have the sleekness of an object that’s meant to move but ashape that’s designed for, well, nothing practical.

Some of the pieces emulate, alter or parody real things, often furniture. A bed frame hangs by threads, as ifsnared by a giant spider; three molded plastic forms in shades of black and gray seem to almost be seats;and decorative “books” in a stack feature mirrored covers and spines. The show’s exemplary entry, MarkWentzel’s “Xlounge,” bloats a leather Eames chair and ottoman until they lose their relaxation factor. A cator perhaps a kid could perch here, but an adult would find no comfort.

Benjamin Jurgensen’s “From Nothing to Less Than Something” (which could have been the show’s title) is ayellow pump attached to a lime-green tricycle. The bright colors suggest plastic, the ultimate consumermaterial, but this toy of a toy has to settle for being painted wood. Almost a century after Marcel Duchampfirst exhibited his “ready-mades” — everyday items transformed simply by being placed in a gallery — highart is still a little in awe of the manufactured object.

“Useless” includes Cory Ingram’s packaging and poster for a macho fragrance called “Crude,” which seemsto contain crude oil. At Honfleur Gallery, “Girl Machine” explores femininity, although not with fictionalproducts.

The items in the installation that give the show its name are all real and mostly pink. Katie Cercone assembled a bed, a mannequin and a refrigerator stuffed with “girlish” items: cupcakes and Q-tips, icecream and gum, pink toilet paper and pink baby bottles. In two smaller collages, “Lovely Me Banner” and”My Last Night in Bulimia,” she employs musical talismans (Madonna and Jane Fonda’s workout oncassette; Crosby, Stills & Nash in a pink eight-track shell) and ready-made virgin-or-whore images:the Virgin Mary, Hello Kitty and voluptuous nudes.

The latter juxtaposition is predictable, and none of Cercone’s work is startling. But it’s constructed with energy and wit, is packed with associations and demonstrates how girls — and, by implication, boys, too –assemble their identities from merchandised images.Those worn Bambi sheets on the bed, for example, areprobably genuine artifacts from Cercone’s childhood.

The show, which closes this weekend, includes works by Holly Andres and Jeanette May that also conjurethe formative influence of girlhood. Andres’s high-definition glossy photographs depict a grim little girl insettings that evoke the artist’s upbringing, and May places photos of real women’s faces at the center ofdrawings of such super-heroines as Wonder Woman and Batwoman.

Baby bottles are also on display in “Introductions3,” Irvine Contemporary’s exhibition of art by recentgraduates from top art schools throughout the country. Akemi Maegawa makes porcelain bottles with part ofan image on each one; when lined up as intended, they reveal the silhouette of a telescopic rifle. Like all thework in the show, “Baby Bottles With Gun” is beautifully made. But its link between birth and death seemsglib. More evocative is the D.C. artist’s “Wrapping Project — New Studio,” a table full of commonplaceitems, each endowed with mystery by being wrapped in felt. The piece reduces such simple objects ashammers to their essential shapes by covering them; the things become their own Platonic forms, yetunderneath they’re just stuff from any hardware store.

The diverse show includes photographs, paintings, video, sculpture and constructions by 10 additional youngartists. Much of the work seems a little too art-schooled, but the level of craftsmanship is consistently high.

Everything is two-dimensional in “sub-text,” a first-rate photographic show at Randall Scott Gallery. YetMexican photographer Alejandra Laviada’s “Juarez #56,” a suite of 16 photos, is a fantasia of workadayobjects. Shot in an abandoned office building, the images depict marred walls and shopworn junk, all ofwhich could hardly be more ordinary. Yet Laviada is not simply an observer.

She’s a choreographer of the obsolete, stacking battered chairs and pale-yellow telephones and scatteringfluorescent tubes like pickup sticks.

Complete transformation is not her goal; all these things are easily identifiable. But she does findunexpected radiance in the industrial hues of coiled wires and battered brooms. Laviada’s photographs offera different definition of “useless” — formerly useful things that are now outmoded — only to find new use intheir factory-made beauty.

The exhibit also includes Victor Cobo’s sumptuously gritty images of San Francisco lowlifes, LindseyMcCracken’s otherworldly views of the nexus between nature and man (and man’s trash), and twoapproaches to female identity, by Sarah Wilner and Caitlin Phillips.

USELESS Through Sept. 8 at Project 4, 903 U St. NW. 202-232-4340.http://www.project4gallery.com.

GIRL MACHINE Through Saturday at Honfleur Gallery, 1241 Good Hope Rd. SE. 202-889-5000.http://www.honfleurgallery.com.

INTRODUCTIONS3 Through Sept. 8 at Irvine Contemporary, 1412 14th St NW. 202-332-8767.http://www.irvinecontemporary.com.