Making Connections

Mark Lombardi finds art in the ties that bind

Lombardi's work may intend to educate, but what it teaches us is a helplessness tinged with frustration. Thankfully, the artist as model citizen has undertaken the burden of inquiry for us, doing what we should be doing (finding out exactly where our money goes) but don't always have time to do. Like the boy with his finger in the dike, he holds off the information deluge. We need only understand that one of us -- an ordinary person -- has a grasp on the situation, so that we can go blithely on.

Until the next bailout.

At the recent Annual Warehouse Crawl, the presentation by DiverseWorks -- a group show of Dallas artists who use found objects -- caused the most excitement. That was a surprise, as found object art is hardly new, and seems like a deathly boring thing on which to prop a show. It can no longer be said, as it once was, that found objects "challenge the appropriate subject or materials of art"; it's been far too long a while since artists have been expected to locate their materials in an art supply store for anyone to take that statement seriously. If the California assemblagists, with their romantic sensibility, invented the junk aesthetic, then Texas artists seized on it with a regrettable vengeance, as if the worn, the forgotten, the discarded and the patinaed somehow increased the meaning of a work of art. "Reconstructedness," originally mounted at Gray Matters in Dallas, may not be completely mired in this mentality, but it's not completely free of it either.

The mild furor over "Reconstructedness" was largely due to the preferential placement given the droll work of Ludwig Schwarz -- seeing that first certainly raised my expectations for the show. One of Schwarz's pieces, Art Is for the People, is a video taken from an episode of Beverly Hills 90210 featuring an artist character (caricature?) who's a onetime boyfriend of one of the female stars. Schwarz has looped and jump cut the video so that lines from the artist such as "Try to understand, Kelly, the price I've had to pay to concentrate on my art," and the ex-girlfriend's response, "You're not an artist, you're a whore," repeat themselves until the distortion of the unappreciated, unremunerated and idealistic artist into a desperate, depraved and arrogant TV portrait reverberates tauntingly in the viewer's head. Schwarz's other barely manipulated works -- stacks of red and blue coffee cans, a playful assemblage of two airplane-serving bottles of Jack Daniel's with the dregs of spirits still in them and a bright, wall-mounted arrangement of flattened boxes for products such as beer, frozen snacks and a Nicorette patch -- suggest that art lies in the looking rather than in the making.

Schwarz's almost offhand objects are related to Marcel Duchamp's famous Readymades, in which Duchamp simply placed an object, such as a urinal, or a configuration of objects in a gallery. One way of looking at the Readymade, which was introduced during a time when factory-made objects were beginning to supplant art as the subject of popular appreciation -- fairs presenting new products attracted gigantic audiences -- is that rather than represent something, the Readymade asserted the presence of the unrepresentable, i.e. the market itself. At the time of the Readymades, the formal qualities of a urinal were remarkable in their similarity to fine art; today, it is in the utter banality of product design that Schwarz finds his humor. By arranging and rearranging the market's vocabulary (product presentation), Schwarz makes the market his medium. He isn't just presenting examples of his own habits of consumption, he's "painting" with them, much as the Art Guys "paint" with pills or suitcases or bubble gum.

A bricolage by artist Dottie Allen represents "Reconstructedness"'s other extreme, exemplifying everything that's disagreeable about found object art. Allen collects photos, letters, grocery lists, drawings, police blotters and other paraphernalia and then attempts to collate them into narrative portraits. But the items she chooses, while interesting in and of themselves, don't gel -- they too obviously don't belong to the same person, and they fail to illuminate each other. In her piece The Little Princess, for instance, we see a wrapper from a bouquet of flowers that's dated 1992, accompanied by a letter from someone who would "rather be in TDC" than wherever she is and a fifties-era photograph of a family and car. Worse, Allen gives many of her objects a "fetish finish" by framing them, in some cases photographing and hand-tinting them as well. By providing this veneer of hazy color, Allen is trying to make her objects look more like art, in contrast to Schwarz, who assumes that art can look like objects.

The rest of the exhibit is a scattershot affair, with video works by curator Michael Henderson, manipulated photo tableaux by Robin Dru Germany and installations by Anitra Blayton. Only in the work of Gray Matters founder David Szafranski, who stretches plaid shirts like canvas, does the found object play an essential role. Many of these artists' pieces, with the possible exception of Henderson's A Film About the Sky, which simultaneously projects footage of the sky and shows a video of still photographs of the sky, are disappointingly similar to other works in their chosen style or subject. Blayton's book of descriptions of the politically or economically oppressed around the world, for example, reads like much other didactic "victim art."

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