Paul Kittelson has a glorious history of using food as sculptural inspiration. He's created giant kernels of popcorn from Styrofoam, a ten-foot-tall carrot out of sandwiched slices of metal, a potato chip mobile from Hydrocal and wire, and a Paul Bunyan-esque slice of toast from short cylinders of metal stacked on their sides.
It's pasta that dominates the artist's current show, "Paul Kittelson: Bending Venus" at Barbara Davis Gallery, but he's also thrown in some Twizzlers and slices of Swiss cheese for good measure. And this time, instead of hefty chunks of metal or even light but rigid Styrofoam, Kittelson is using floppy, rubbery silicone. He employs it in a couple of ways: to cast objects and to extrude it in spaghettilike strands to create "homemade" pasta.
The art-supply-store version of silicone can be pretty pricey. (It's often used to create inner molds for sculptural casting.) But Kittelson is one of those classic resourceful Texas sculptors: He uses the shit from the hardware store -- pretty much the same thing, just a whole lot cheaper.
Long, swirling strands of silicone become a rug of "spaghetti" that lies on the floor in lacy loops, complete with fringe. Rug (2004) is a wonderfully silly piece that looks like somebody accidentally dropped pasta on the floor and just went with it. Its meandering, snaking lines are almost like a three-dimensional drawing on the gallery's floor.
For Sister (2004), Kittelson uses the silicone as yarn. He initially tried to talk his sister into teaching him to knit the piece, but she told him it would be easier if she just did it herself. The result is shiny, plasticlike strands that look like wet pasta (or maybe tapeworms?) loosely interwoven with stray strands springing out all over. They hang from a wooden knitting needle on the wall, like a craft project begun and abandoned.
Hanging next to it is Grid (2004), for which Kittelson used other strands of silicone spaghetti to make a loose grid tacked to the wall -- the quintessential minimalist grid made flaccid.
Looking around the show, you imagine Kittelson thinking, "What else can I do with this stuff?" He used it to outline the highways and byways of Houston in a wall "map" dotted with colored pins. The 610 Loop is outlined in silicone masquerading as pasta. Other pieces are silly plays on the idea of spaghetti. Kittelson has a ball of spaghetti dangling from a fork protruding from the wall. And in another piece, it cascades out of the holes of a strainer.
But in one of the best pieces in the show, Kittelson uses real pasta. The artist tackled the ornate mirrored fireplace wall, a feature/side effect of the gallery's Warwick Hotel penthouse location. The fireplace is divided by pilasters into three sections. In the center one, Kittelson glued dried pasta onto the mirror to create impressive -- and impressively ridiculous -- ornate Victorian designs. Using elbow macaroni, shells, wagon wheels, bow ties, rotini, etc., Kittelson created an urn spilling bountiful foliage. Long pieces of linguine were used to make a quilted diamond pattern over the other panels. It's a completely crackpot, over-the-top manifestation of macaroni art.
Kittelson strays from the pasta theme in Ripcord (2004), which uses cast pieces of licorice in red and black silicone. He coiled them into a flat oval of black and red stripes that hangs on the wall. It makes for an appealingly weird intermingling -- junk food meets early Frank Stella meets the braided rug.
Other works are less successful. There's Pillow (2004), a big slab of silicone masquerading as ravioli, with actual crocheted lace edging, and Swiss Motif (2004), which features a hanging panel of silicone "Swiss cheese" slices with decorative patterns cut into them. The works don't have a lot of visual appeal, and the combination of Victoriana and food just doesn't click here.
You run into problems with Kittelson's work when you try to make it all fit neatly together conceptually. There are the Victorian patterns crafted from macaroni on the mirrors, which create an odd sense of craftsy overachievement. There are the direct plays on spaghetti using forks and strainers. Then there are the art references in the grid of spaghetti and the oval of licorice. He's also got the Victoriana thing going on in several pieces, but you can't quite make the lace trim around giant ravioli work. Where does the map of Houston made out of spaghetti fit in? While many of the pieces work fine individually, viewing them all together becomes frustrating.
Part of me wants him to edit down the show to a nice tight group of works that all hang together conceptually. But another part of me likes just seeing somebody experiment and throw it all out there. Kittelson has taken an idea -- making fake spaghetti out of silicone -- and then come up with a laundry list of different things to do with it. Some of them work significantly better than others, but there's a sense of "Screw 'em, I'm showing it all" in Kittelson's exhibitions. He'll often show a couple of really standout pieces that are diluted by his less successful experiments. But in a way, it's a refreshing change from the self-conscious and labored hipness of artists who are too afraid to take chances. Kittelson's work is driven by his love for materials -- and, apparently, food. He's willing to share every goofy experiment, whether he really ought to or not.
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