Flying Objects: "Jac Leirner" at Gallery Sonja Roesch

Petty theft plays an integral part in many of Brazilian artist Jac Leirner's works. For Corpus Delicti, a project for Documenta IX in Kassel, Germany, the peripatetic artist systematically snagged ashtrays from the armrests of about every airline she flew. Then she chained them all together, as if trying to prevent re-theft, and displayed them with the ticket stubs and boarding passes from her flights. The result was something of a travelogue, documenting her far-flung carriers and destinations, but what was especially striking about the piece was the dogged patience and determination required to execute it.

A small portion of that 1992 project is on view at Gallery Sonja Roesch in the exhibition "Jac Leirner." Corpus Delicti (1992/2006) includes ashtrays, laminated boarding passes and pilfered airline cutlery, all linked together into an oddball charm bracelet. The piece makes the artist seem part magpie, part obsessive-­compulsive.

Corpus Delicti (sickness bags) (1992) is part of the same series. Leirner neatly filled 20 airline barf bags with blocks of Styrofoam and strung them all together; they hang from the ceiling in a curving line of multicolored rectangles. From a distance, the bags read as formal elements, but up close you see that the collection has been carefully scavenged from a variety of air carriers — among them Turkish Airlines, Olympic Airways, Swissair, Lufthansa and Varig, the Brazilian airline. (The original version of the piece had around a hundred or so bags.) They're more artifacts from the artist's globe-­trotting lifestyle, but there's a weird feeling of common humanity in all these different companies from different countries making provisions for vomiting travelers. And while the ashtrays speak to a bratty kleptomania, the accumulation of airsickness bags seems much more about OCD.

The feeling of OCD is overpowering in Leirner's nicotine-related works. She started smoking at age 11 and only recently gave it up (she's in her late forties). During her smoking years, cigarette packaging provided her with a constant and daily source of material. In previous works, she has collected and strung together hundreds of neatly flattened packages of Marlboro Reds; she also collected the tiny gold plastic strings used to open the packs and clustered them into dense tangled masses. Leirner's Lung (1987), on view in the Roesch exhibition, is from the cigarette series. It's a small, rectangular Plexiglas box that hangs unobtrusively on the wall. Its transparency makes it look clean and delicate. Closer inspection reveals that what's inside are fragile cellophane husks from the artist's cigarette packs. According to gallery owner Sonja Roesch, there are 12 inside, representing what would have been a week's worth of nicotine for Leirner. The pristine object vies with the viewer's mental image of blackened lungs. Leirner's cigarette pack works are exacting records of addiction, with the damage elegantly implied.

For All the one hundreds (1998), Leirner stitched devalued Brazilian currency to­gether into a small, open-centered square. When she created the work, the notes had become so worthless, people essentially treated the bills like scratch pads and covered them with doodles. The woman on the notes, poet Cecilia Meireles, has ballpoint pen lipstick, glasses, mustaches and fangs drawn on her face. Leirner obsessively collected the marked notes and carefully arranged and stitched them together. But this piece lacks the obsessive and conceptual impact of Leirner's larger currency works, which strung thousands of bills together into sculptures.

Probably the least successful work in the show is Names (1987), for which plastic grocery store bags were padded, stitched together and hung straight down from the ceiling. Formally, the work isn't especially interesting, and neither is the collection of grocery bags. It's an underwhelming example from a larger series featuring entire rooms covered with plastic bags.

A lone bag piece works especially well; it's the much more recent Void 3 (2007), a black plastic store bag with a plastic handle. Leirner stitched polyester batting inside it and then cut out the center, leaving a wonky square frame and removing any information from the bag. It's hung on the wall, ironically encased in a plastic box like a precious artifact. Its purpose, to carry goods and to advertise, is neatly subverted.

Leirner has said she tries "to find a place for things that don't have place," and her show offers a bite-size sample of her works. While some of the pieces on view at Gallery Sonja Roesch may lack the power of the artist's more epic projects, Leirner's very particular sensibilities shine through. She has an amazing talent for methodically collecting — or swiping — daily life's debris and transforming it into art.

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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer