A Day in the Life
The accoutrements of daily life are the most fascinating and revealing discoveries of an ancient civilization. Knowing how people spent their time, what they ate and the mundane objects they surrounded themselves with is much more interesting than lists of rulers or accounts of battles. Two current exhibitions, "Daily Life" at ArtScan Gallery/ Rudolf Projects and "Bill Davenport: The Modern Blacksmith" at Inman Gallery, feature works that won't wait for history. These artists address the objects, activities and environments that surround us now. They hold up a mirror to the everyday life of 21st-century Western society.
You can't get much more quotidian than toilet paper. John Salvest has preserved for all eternity this humble yet essential item by meticulously casting three different brands in aluminum and painting them convincingly. Even the "quilting" is preserved. Salvest's immortalizing of the commonplace one-ups, or rather one-downs, Jasper Johns's bronzed Ballatine beer cans. In a similar vein, Conrad Bakker has carved a wooden sculpture of duct tape, the essential component of every home-repair rig job, and nestled it on a pink pillow -- a carefully crafted tribute to the cult of the makeshift.
Thedra Cullar-Ledford's McNuggets (2001) is an obsessive, Claes Oldenburgesque soft sculpture. Beanbags, shaped and painted to look like the McDonald's snack, form a mini Mayan pyramid, raising the chopped and fried chicken shapes to monumental significance. If only they had a greasy, crunchy surface.
Taking handfuls of consumer culture debris -- old Happy Meal toys, key chains, sunglasses -- Jonathan Rosenstein creates wall-based conglomerations of crap. These are meteors composed of all the stuff on the floor of your car, in the junk drawer, under your kid's bed. The densely packed objects have a visceral effect that makes you want to scream. The sculptures are only about 20 by 20 inches, but if Rosenstein can fit that much junk into that tiny space, think how much is left out there.
Domestic environments are the focus of several works. Debbie Riddle's moody black-and-white photographs show us abandoned and semi-demolished rooms overlaid with ghostly images of other structures. These decaying spaces were once home to people's lives, and the scenes of domestic deterioration feel like fractured, half-remembered memories. A photograph from Laura Letinsky's Venus Inferred series shows another room -- an incomplete figure in the background, lying on a bed, partially obscured by the blurred shoulder of someone in the foreground. It's a single frame plucked out of a life. As with Riddle's work, the viewer struggles to construct the rest of the story.
David Fulton has removed key elements of these stories, namely the people themselves. He interrupts the everyday images of found photographs by strategically removing the subject and neatly rejoining the remaining halves. A memorial card bearing a soldier's image is reduced to the shape created by the ends of two shoulders, and the honoree's name is condensed beyond recognition. The things that surround us continue on, long after we have stepped out of the picture.
Working with the most prosaic of art materials, the crayon, Keith Hollingsworth creates opulent and thickly textured still lifes of food -- in direct contrast to Chas Bowie's photographs of depressing leftovers. In Bowie's world, a crumple of plastic wrap is pulled back to reveal a dish of spaghetti sauce with green olives plopped in the middle. A can of Parmesan cheese lurks in the background.
Ernesto Pujol's photographs from his 1999 Whiteness series explore the everyday quality of evil. Pujol has arranged white-cast baby shoes in front of white plates with an unusual manufacturer's mark, a swastika. Yes, the Third Reich made dinnerware. Their involvement in so ordinary an activity is supremely unsettling in the context of their other activities.
At Inman Gallery, we learn Bill Davenport has been spending his days doggedly creating a series of trompe l'oeil images of books with painterly abstract backgrounds. As Davenport points out, most of art-making is figuring out what you're going to do; the rest of the time is spent doing it. The quicker the thing is finished, the sooner you have to conceive of something else to do. Davenport solves this problem by coming up with a good idea that takes a ridiculously long time to execute.
The books depicted are from Davenport's own collection. He's read them all, from Don Martin Steps Out to The Art of Driftwood and Dried Arrangements to the selected poems of William Carlos Williams. There is no secret meaning behind the book juxtapositions, at least none Davenport intended. The viewer is left to construct his own convoluted connections. Most of the books have a vintage-paperback, used-bookstore feel. A devotee of secondhand stores, Davenport has an extensive thrift-store painting collection as well as an impressive array of macramé owls. His high-low interests, love of kitsch and hobbyist aesthetic permeate his art.
Davenport works in acrylic specifically because it is the "medium of hobbyists." Unlike oil, acrylic dries too fast to allow itself to be scraped back. The evidence of tortuous painting and repainting is revealed by thickly layered sections of the plastic pigment. The lettering on the spines is not quite at the right angle, and some of the images are a little off. But if his execution were facile, the paintings would not be nearly as interesting. In fact, the slight off-ness engenders a genial response. You identify with the effort.
This body of work has to be satisfying for Davenport on several levels. He gets to make abstract paintings while losing himself in obsessively detailed rendering. Plus he has a reason to dig through all of his old books.
It's not a bad way to spend a day.
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