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Project Crate House

Forget the usual construction materials. Two German artists built a dream home out of plastic boxes.

If you were one of those kids with a deep and abiding love of Legos, you are going to be terribly envious of Wolfgang Winter and Berthold Hörbelt's Kastenhaus ("crate house") in the courtyard of Rice University Art Gallery. The German artists constructed a whole building from plastic crates, using them like prototypes for giant Lego blocks. This, this, is what you could have built if only Lego had made those damn things big enough to suit your eight-year-old architectural aspirations. The structure taps into that part of you that thinks you could build the house of your dreams if only Home Depot carried building materials that came in modular plastic bricks that snapped easily together.

With their first solo exhibition in the United States, "Kastenhaus," Hörbelt and Winter display an interest in and a knack for recycling -- transforming the everyday into something beautifully useful or just beautiful. The crates they use are ubiquitous in Germany; people haul glass bottles of water home in them and then use the plastic boxes to haul the empties back for recycling. They are an assistant to recycling and here are being recycled themselves to create a public structure. During the day, light filters beautifully through openings in the crates and hits the floor, which is covered with transparent strips of PVC plastic in red and orange tints. At night the Kastenhaus is lit from within and glows like a lantern. The building is a wonderfully inviting structure. Little upholstered crates have been thoughtfully included to provide seating.

Earlier versions of the crate house served as information booths at the 1997 Sculpture Project Münster. There is, however, a slight difference in America: The crates don't have the same everyday-object resonance that they have in Germany. You get the gist of their purpose, but they feel unfamiliar. They come in Euro-institutional colors of mint-green and brown and are taller and narrower than American milk crates. The Kastenhaus is no less appealing for this, but we miss out on the nuances of a familiar object.

Affordable housing: The Kastenhaus recycles everyday objects into something useful - and beautiful.
Deron Neblett
Affordable housing: The Kastenhaus recycles everyday objects into something useful - and beautiful.

Inside Sewall Hall a tunnel bisects the Rice Gallery and is itself bisected by the glass gallery wall. The artists created their video Tunnel from a series of still digital images they snapped of people walking through downtown Houston's tunnels, later reassembling them sequentially to create the feeling of jerky stop-motion animation. You step into the entrance of the pegboard construction, and the glass gallery wall immediately cuts you off from the far end of the tunnel where the video is projected. Your only option is to watch the video through the glass, so that your own reflection is intermingled with the projected figures, somewhat integrating you into the piece. You wind up not really caring whether you are integrated, because the way the video is assembled is more interesting than the video itself. It feels more banal itself than about the banal.

The four resin sculptures from the Same Same Madonna series are much more visually and conceptually intriguing. Light passes through the vaguely figural forms cast in clear resin tinted in lavender and amber tones. The figures are reminiscent of a slightly lurching, more gestural Henry Moore sculpture. The series is cast from a silicone-rubber mold made from a 1950s Madonna figure in a Frankfurt monastery. If the artists had wanted an exact duplication of the form, they would have had to create a plaster outer shell around the silicone mold to fix the shape. The artists instead chose to use the silicone mold without any outer support, so that the shape is stretched and slightly different each time the resin is poured. The resulting forms have a human quality that hovers between clumsy and elegant in a wonderfully indeterminate way.

In addition to the on-site construction of Kastenhaus and Tunnel, many of the resin pieces were newly cast for the show. Monument to a Dayis created from a stack of sports pages torn from multiple copies of the September 14, 2000, edition of the Houston Chronicle. The end result is a green-blue-tinted slab that stands vertically like a monolith, although its original intent apparently was to serve as a horizontal block bench. Fissures in the sculpture exude the acrid chemical smell of acrylic resin.

Making stuff on site with a deadline is a little riskier than shipping it in. Sometimes things don't turn out the way they were intended, necessitating a little creative spin control. Such quick thinking can be found in one of the gallery's information sheets. Concerning Monument to a Day, it says: "As the resin dried, cracks formed in the bench, symbolizing, to the artists, the energy encased within. Though intended as a bench, the artists chose to turn the object on its side, presenting it not as a functional object but rather as an autonomous sculpture." Translation: Somebody put too much catalyst in the resin. The thing cracked when it hardened, but the artists decided it still worked. What was to be a solid blocklike bench of entombed sports pages became an ominously cracked monolith. The cracks don't necessarily fit within the artists' clean aesthetic, but as a piece, it could be more intriguing than its originally intended form.

There are appealing elements in the show, but you walk away wanting something more -- more from the video, more work in the Spartan installation. Or maybe you just want the work that's there to be pushed more. The examination of "art's intersection with daily life" could be, well, livelier. There are hints of an incipient, though not fully realized, monumentality in the artists' work. The Kastenhaus comes closest to fulfilling this idea. It has vibrant artistic/ architectural potential, and it was at its best during the opening as a lively public structure, with a crowd wandering around drinking beer and eating free ice cream to a wonderfully schlocky traditional German band.

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