Once an artist makes the fateful decision to work with found objects, he is doomed -- doomed to a studio filled with crap, doomed to consider trash cans a place to shop and not waste receptacles, doomed to save every sliver of a broken plate, every burned-out fluorescent bulb, every dead TV, every strange mechanical part of unknown purpose or origin. Not only is the artist unable to discard anything, but he actively seeks out new stuff at garage sales, junk stores, flea markets, institutional auctions, Dumpsters, neighborhoods on heavy-trash day. Donald Lipski is such an artist, a man condemned to wander the earth with an albatross of found objects hanging around his neck. He is currently featured in two exhibitions, "A Brief History of Twine," a mid-career survey at the Blaffer Gallery, and "New Works," a collection of sculptures from his Exquisite Copse series at the Barbara Davis Gallery.
The sheer logistical nightmare of working with found objects is illustrated in Lipski's 1998 work Pieces of String Too Short to Save. The sculpture is one of 12 that grew out of Lipski's 1993 installation in the grand lobby of the Brooklyn Museum of Art, where the artist filled the space with the contents of his studio -- a huge pile of raw material, including old fire hoses, stacks of life jackets, an airplane tire, coils of barbed wire, hockey skates. According to Lipski, "These are all the objects in my studio that I never managed to make sculpture of." The exhibition catalog features a photo of the installation in which the amassed objects are piled on the floor like some sloppy estate sale of an elderly hoarder who suffocated under the sheer weight of the stuff he acquired. After the show, Lipski conned a gallery into storing the junk, on the condition that he would create works with it. Five years later he devised a solution and created 12 steel storage cases that he stuffed full of the objects. The debris was transformed and neatly contained within the component cases, like kits for future sculptures.
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On a smaller scale, Gathering Dust is a collection of tiny fidgety sculptures, the kind you make while talking on the phone. Twisted clumps of rubber bands and paper clips, a bobby pin stuck into the end of a cigarette butt, matches woven together. Odd little cast-off fragments worked together. There are more than 3,000 in the entire series, which is ever expanding. The sculptures are pinned to the wall in a lepidopteral fashion, causing the viewer to inspect each one like a rare specimen. It's a clever way to present objects that don't necessarily stand on their own. He uses the same display strategy for his wall piece Texas Instruments (1992), which is composed of larger "Texas-themed" assemblages that the artist created during a stint in Houston. The solution doesn't work as well with these bigger constructions -- screwdrivers wired into triangles and jointed with sphagnum moss, or pipe joints topped with glass telephone insulators. Where Gathering Dust is interesting for its minute obsessiveness, Texas Instruments reads like a collection of dashed-off object combinations, too lame for individual display.
Occasionally witty juxtapositions emerge in Lipski's work, but he isn't big into complex "meanings." Often when he combines objects that evoke strong individual associations, he doesn't follow them through. His work seems to be more successful when he focuses on the visual, using objects sparsely or as components of a larger scheme. His Untitled #91-08 (1991) presents a table thickly and symmetrically wrapped with twine. The elements are simple enough to allow a kind of contemplative beauty to emerge. The Starry Night (1994) is the standout here: One wall of an (easy-to-miss) upstairs gallery is covered with spiraling razor blades sliced into the Sheetrock. Alluding to the swirls of paint in Van Gogh's iconic Starry Night, the work has a clean silver dynamism.
"Donald Lipski: New Work" Through February 10 at Barbara Davis Gallery, 2627 Colquitt. For more information, call (713)520-9200.
"A Brief History of Twine" Through March 18 at the Blaffer Gallery, University of Houston, entrance no. 16 (off Cullen Boulevard). For more information, call (713)743-9530.
Lately Lipski has been moving away from found objects to more fabricated pieces. He beat out Frank Stella -- thank God -- for a commission at Grand Central Station. Working with Jonquil LeMaster, an exhibit designer who constructed the phenomenal artificial trees for "Jungle World" at the Bronx Zoo, Lipski created a giant olive tree that sprouts from the station's ceiling. The branches, spanning 25 feet, were hung with more than 5,000 Austrian chandelier crystals. The effect is one of elegant organic splendor. Continuing the LeMaster collaboration, Lipski has produced a series of tree constructions currently on view at the Barbara Davis Gallery. They are simple, beautiful and intriguing. What appears to be a tree trunk is linked into a seamless perfect circle, twisted into a massive single knot, or hung in an impossibly flexible U shape. The trunks are crafted from polyester resin and "stamped" with a latex cast of actual tree bark. The final piece is exquisitely and convincingly painted. The sculptures are solid, simple and showstopping.
After looking at selections from Lipski's body of work, you still don't have a clear sense of his point of view. The Blaffer exhibition catalog fleshes things out more, with images of larger, site-specific works and essays elaborating on underlying themes. In the end, however, the only unifying concept seems to be his interest in the making of things, in the objects themselves, in stuff. Everything else is incidental.