"Rebecca Ward / Jason Rogenes / Dan Steinhilber"
With piles of Styrofoam, rolls and rolls of electrical tape, hundreds of sheets of cardboard and yards and yards of black plastic, Finesilver Gallery is hosting three separate, site-specific installations in "Rebecca Ward / Jason Rogenes / Dan Steinhilber." It's a fairly epic endeavor for a commercial gallery to have three artists creating involved pieces on-site. The works were installed off and on over a four-week period — Rebecca Ward's electrical tape extravaganza took the longest — with all three artists furiously working in the gallery the week before the show opened.
As a former director of the nonprofit Lawndale Art Center, Finesilver Gallery director Eleanor Williams has been there and done that. She is more than familiar with managing multiple-exhibition spaces as well as the process of installation art, matter-of-factly remarking, "Artists tend to work through the night and become sleep-deprived." But working alongside other artists can be a bonding experience. Of the current show, Williams says, "None of the artists knew each other. Dan is from D.C., Jason is from the New York area and Rebecca is from Austin, but there was a lot of camaraderie and they all hung out together."
Jason Rogenes's work is the most dramatic of the show. Rogenes uses cast-off pieces of EPS — Expanded PolyStyrene, or what those of us not in the know would just call Styrofoam. It's the custom-formed stuff used to securely pack everything from fragile electronics to bottles of wine. But in Rogenes's hands the white Styrofoam shapes become the components of amazing, otherworldly assemblages. Aside from the Styrofoam used to pack wine bottles, the various white geometric forms offer little hint as to what specific products they were originally designed to secure. Rogenes scavenges the stuff from myriad sources. For the Finesilver show, most of the material was obtained from the dumpster of a Tweeters electronics store. Best Buy and Circuit City were not forthcoming.
Rogenes transformed one of Finesilver's three exhibition spaces by covering the walls and floor with a patchwork of angular sheets of cardboard and cutting off two corners of the room. Cohesively addressing and altering the shape of space, the cardboard gives the room an intimate feeling. The gallery's window has been tiled over with oddly shaped pieces of Styrofoam, creating something that looks like a futuristic version of a Louise Nevelson. In the center of the gallery, a giant construction hangs from the ceiling. Lit with fluorescent light from within, it kind of looks like a space station or a satellite. But then you notice it's pointed at the front window, out towards Main Street, like the space-age weapon of some diabolically clever James Bond villain. Is it part of some evil plan to destroy Houston's MetroRail system?
In the center space of Finesilver, Rebecca Ward's work is subtler but equally successful. She has transformed another banal material: rolls of red electrical tape. Ward wove stretched strips of tape back and forth to create a layered grid between four walls, just over viewers' heads. Standing under it and gazing up into the dense network of red tape is like peering into a three-dimensional drawing as Ward moves lines through space. With her amazingly precise execution, the artist does a great job of morphing a simple material into something extraordinary.
Last April, Ward did another strong installation, tape10, at Lawndale Art Center, featuring duct tape in strips and loops. While the idea of moving bands of color through space is the same, Ward is no one-trick pony. Her approach to each of the two spaces is unique. As people said at the time of her Lawndale show, it's hard to believe she just got her studio art bachelor's in 2006.
The least successful work belongs to Dan Steinhilber. Steinhilber has created what looks like a giant garbage bag in a room of the gallery. You have to gather up a curtain of black plastic and crawl in — not in itself a bad idea. Inside the darkened space, a video is projected on the opposite wall. In the video, Styrofoam (is there something in the air?) packing peanuts are blown over and around the furnishings and fixtures of a home with a leaf blower.
Steinhilber had a show at the Contemporary Arts Museum Houston in 2006. The best work in the exhibition was a pile of Styrofoam peanuts in the corner of the gallery corralled by air from a commercial blower. In his video, Steinhilber explores a similar phenomenon, as we see the Styrofoam pellets being blown over a kid's train set, into the toilet and over kitchen counters, as well as over the pancakes on the table. It's a mildly interesting video that gets better when you hear the unpublicized back story. According to Williams, Steinhilber made the video with his young son when his wife was out of town. The mental image of a dad and his kid gleefully turning their home into a disaster area while mom is out of town is pretty amusing. Really, that should just be the premise for the video; having to crawl into a giant plastic bag to watch it seems pretty unnecessary.
In his CAMH show, Steinhilber made a sculpture by stacking a bunch of clear plastic fast food containers. He's using fast food cast-offs again at Finesilver, this time with plastic condiment packets densely packed into multicolored spirals inside trashcan lids. Unfortunately, it just doesn't work; it just feels facile and not well thought out. The pieces are fairly small-scale, which is not a problem in itself, but to really achieve transcendence with this kind of material, he needs a lot more of it and to work on a more epic scale. They feel dinky and make you wonder if he was trying to knock out something small and saleable.
Other individual works include a skewed swing/ladder hybrid hanging from the ceiling that is uninteresting and doesn't seem to have much to do with anything else and a fluorescent light tube shattered on the floor that really doesn't seem to have anything to do with anything else. Apparently Steinhilber had a studio in an old school with tons of burned-out fluorescent lightbulbs and spent a lot of time investigating ways to smash them. If you "buy" the piece, you get instructions on how to smash your own light bulb. Steinhilber always seems to be working with some fragment of an idea that could be great, but he never seems to fully or sufficiently realize it. It's like he keeps stopping after Step 2.
Showing three site-specific installations is pretty ambitious for a commercial gallery in terms of time, not to mention the fact that installations are notoriously difficult to sell. It's nice to see a for-profit enterprise support work that isn't easily saleable and present the kinds of things that usually only get shown in nonprofit venues.
Suzanne Bloom, Ed Hill and their collaborative entity Manual are some bleeding heart liberals. Thank God. In their current show, "Suzanne Bloom, Ed Hill and Manual: WAR and PEACE and QUIET," the husband-and-wife duo address the issue of war, separately and together. Hill, who long ago authored a drawing book but has worked almost exclusively with digital technology, has returned to his roots; he's showing a series of drawings. Wounded Soldier, Iraq (2007) is especially strong; the figure of a prone man with a head wound is viewed from the angle of the feet. Faint grid lines on the paper allude to the mechanics of drawing a foreshortened figure. The figure is drawn in charcoal, but the face, partially obscured by a bandage, and its flesh and blood — literally — is rendered in gouache. The emotional power of the subject is delicately balanced by the clinical act of drawing.
In Graphic Music, Suzanne Bloom is showing some fascinating and really groundbreaking new work with a social and political punch. Animated digital images are linked to sounds, musical and otherwise. Her images — text, figures and objects — are comprised of a series of marks and dots, each acting like a musical note. Images of guns, skulls, a dancer and the words "Have a Nice Day" scroll across the screen of a monitor. The marks trigger sounds when they hit a line of demarcation on the screen. Bloom's compositions include everything from toad mating calls to the marimba to the sounds of gunfire. The images, ideas, words and audio all unite into a pretty amazing gesamtkunstwerk.
In the central room of the gallery, Hill and Bloom, working as Manual, show some of their greatest hits. Images from their epic Videology series (1983-84) are presented. In photographs shot from video, televangelist Jimmy Swaggart rails, the American flag is illuminated, an atomic bomb explodes and a glass of milk is spilt. More than 20 years later, it's still sadly relevant.
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