Sunday, December 13, 2015

Art Escapes Itself

We went to see two shows on Friday, "Modern Living" at the Carnegie in Covington, KY, and "The Art of the Brick" at the Museum Center.  I wanted to witness both in the same day, just for kicks, and also because they seemed, at least from what I'd read, to be coming from similar places:  taking everyday objects and ideas that are normally just taken for granted, and using those ideas and objects as formats to go on humble yet surprising tangents.  The artists and collectives involved in both shows seem to have figured out how to push things in skewed directions, while staying very true to their aesthetic roots and materials.  And both gigs deliver because they luxuriate in the fact that we all love the idea of that kind of alchemy; sometimes that is all visual art can do -- transform what's just sitting around (a cluster of LEGOs, a pile of pizza boxes, and so on) into ideas and images and objects that aren't really communicating anything other than what they are, but then again delivered to us stylishly as something else entirely.

"Modern Living" features works by Amperand, Keith Benjamin, Brush Factory, Taryn Cassella, CVG Made, Grainwell, Colin Klimesh, Matt Lynch, Matthew Metzger, Such + Such, and Chris Vorhees.  Usually group shows with this many people involved can get a little superfluous and precious, all of the work hung together because of a unifying theme that is either too pointed or too abstract or too self-involved.  But "Modern Living" takes the artists' works and combines them in ways that counteract that sense of too much going on just for the sake of  too much going on.  There's a really solid reason for bringing each artist and object into the ensemble; the works work together in ways they couldn't if they weren't juxtaposed this way.  The bottom floor of the Carnegie, a rotunda, is the white-box rendition of the show:  the artists' furniture, wall pieces, crafts, etc, hung with a lot of  care to illicit that art-world flourish, that aesthetic little tug at the heart.  While nothing actually "sticks out" because of the seamless curatorial precision you still can pick out faves.  Mine were Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the center of the space (see below), and Such + Such's wood-sculpture bear-rug hanging on the wall to the right as you come in.  That doesn't really matter though:  "Modern Living" isn't about showcasing artists as much as figuring out how what they do can become an integral part of your life.  The show wants you to "live with" what artists do.

To bring that point home, on the second floor of the Carnegie, the artists and collectives who have work in the rotunda were given spaces to depict 3 different kind of living situations:  each of the three arrangements have a real zany, crafty ambiance without becoming too Wes-Anderson twee.  There's a comfort in the whimsy here, and also a tempered seriousness:  a severe, naked chipboard chair with a cement-block footstool is to die for, a sort of Magritte joke on furniture that also gets at the feeling of sitting in a church pew.  In the dining room vignette are cool makeshift stools made from pickle-buckets, cushioned in stuffed old denim.  In the living is a bird bath constructed from an old satellite dish, as well as a Pee-Wee-Hermanesque log sofa that seems right at home.  All 3 of the installed environments allow each piece to ring true; there's nothing sneaky or ironic I don't think going on, outside of the fact that this is an art gallery pretending to be a superstore.  All these artists are just trying to figure out how to merge what they make with what people might want and use, and vice versa. 

In effect, "Modern Living" is an art show that escapes itself by being completely artful while also focusing on how "Art" sometimes needs to lose the capital "A" so we can see it better.  It's probably one of my favorite shows in the area this year.

As is "The Art of the Brick," the LEGO orgy over at the Museum Center, featuring the point-blank works of Nathan Sawaya, who basically builds stuff out of the primary-colored toy-bricks, using skill and tenacity and a lot of energy to transform classic works of 2-D art into 3-D oddnesses like Wood's "American Gothic" (see below).  He also does original stuff that's not really original outside of the fact that everything is made of LEGOs.  Lots of faceless human figures that seem to have escaped from Power-Point presentations, and yet powerful because of their inception.  Originality isn't the point here; it's ingenuity.  Sawaya is a slave to the brick.  His obsessiveness comes close to the "Outsider Art" trope of "fringe" artists dedicating themselves to materials normally not used for "higher purposes," as well as the kicky self-referential world he's made out of that dedication.  Sawaya also has a great na├»ve sense of his own importance (the wall-text is all about how humanity is this, and creativity is that).  At the core, though, "The Art of the Brick" is about the brick, and making wonderful things out of them.  Sawaya is a master,  The curators of the show understand this and have installed each piece with tender loving care, coated all the walls in black, lit everything like a big-budget movie.  While you walk through, you just let Sawaya's obsession take over.  You ooh and ahh, and for a second you're just amazed by the stupidity and strangeness of the whole endeavor, but also overcome by the process Sawaya created:  each title-card tells you how many LEGOs it took to make each piece.  He's building a LEGO staircase to Heaven. 

Directly below is a cloud he made.  It's beautiful in a way that you can't really describe without stating the obvious, which is what is so fantastic about Sawaya's oeuvre.  Outside of the fact that it was made from toy bricks and it's floating, there's nothing much else to say.  So just enjoy the damn thing.  It's a plastic heavy cloud that took hundreds of white LEGOs to make, and sometimes that's just all you need.       

A cloud in the LEGO show.

Matt Lynch's pizza-box tower at the Carnegie.

"American Gothic" made of LEGOs

Bottom floor at the Carnegie.

More LEGO art history.

Upstairs at the Carnegie.

A LEGO tree.

LEGO dinosaur.
The dining-room arrangement at the Carnegie.