Visual Arts

Houston’s Junk Is Thorsten Brinkmann's Art at Rice Gallery

Thorsten Brinkmann collects random crap. A lot of artists collect random crap. Few, however, transform their gleanings so deftly and so evocatively. Brinkmann’s junk piles become a skewed world of decaying grandeur, opulence and nostalgia. His visual references run the gamut from the Renaissance to Dada. His photos, sculptures, videos and site-specific installation are on view at Rice Gallery in “The Great Cape Rinderhorn.”

For much of his work, Brinkmann costumes himself to create large photographs that at first glance read as Renaissance-era portraits. Then you realize that the “knight” is wearing a freaking coal bucket on his head, and the decorative plumes are really a grubby mop. His “doublet” incorporates a 1970s table runner, his gauntlet is an old ski glove and he’s clutching a chair leg instead of a sword. But the colors are so rich, the pose so perfect that it’s the illusion that stays with you as an afterimage even though you’ve already ID’d the anachronistic component parts.

The sumptuously patterned wallpaper that covers the gallery creates a similar illusion. Close inspection reveals that it is a photograph of objects arranged to create a pattern over a pink ground, with red/old canes, a white ceramic pipe, fragments of an enamel light fixture, a steak knife with a pearlescent handle, and part of a coat rack. The photograph was then digitally mirrored and repeated to create the wallpaper.

Other Brinkmann photos are hung on the gallery walls; there’s one that looks like an equestrian portrait. A chest of drawers serves as the “horse.” One assumes Brinkmann cut a hole in the top to sit inside it. A moss-green bedspread that looks like a decorative horse blanket surrounds him. Brinkmann holds a red coat rack as a lance. He has an affinity for artist studio videos, Bruce Nauman’s ’60s offerings in particular. But Brinkmann always covers his head in his photos (here with a red-and-white-striped trash can) to eliminate himself as a character. His body becomes just another prop.

You can see the origins of the artist’s work with objects in a 2003-04 video screened in the RG Cubicle Video Space around the corner from the gallery. The video, Gut Ding will es so (approximately “Good things want it this way”), only shows Brinkmann from the neck down, unless he bends into the camera. He physically interacts with his objects: He sits down in a cabinet and flips it backwards; he plays with mini-blinds that open and close as he raises and lowers them, his foot on the pull string. He “swims” in front of the camera on a carpet dolly, slowly inching himself forward by moving his arms and kicking his legs. He snakes his upper body through the open arms of a chair in the kind of stunt my kids would try, likely necessitating a call to the fire department. Brinkmann’s childlike openness and playfulness are on full display as he stands inside a big cardboard box and spins in circles until dizzy.

Rice Gallery is renowned for its site-specific installations, and Brinkmann’s allows you not just to view his world but to interact with it physically yourself. Back in the main gallery, a huge plywood shipping crate rests in the middle of the floor. (A giant fiberglass cow horn, locally sourced at General Supply and Equipment, rests on top.) You can enter it through a low door, not just the kind you duck through — it’s at a height that requires a deep knee bend for those of middling size or full-on crawling for the tall. Inside are rows of comfortable chairs and a video projection of Brinkmann in a Renaissance-esque getup striking various “royal” poses reminiscent of period portraiture. He’s got a dented white trash can on his head that he keeps adjusting as if straightening it. You know you are sitting in a plywood box, but the space feels very cozy, a feeling oddly enhanced by the musty smell of aged, moldering stuff. The ceiling is “paneled” with salvaged kitchen cabinet doors like some ancient palazzo. The walls are covered with layers of vintage and aged wallpaper. (Slopping things with coffee is one of Brinkmann’s patina-generating tactics.) Small Brinkmann photo portraits incorporating things like planters and tennis racket covers as head gear hang on the papered walls.

There is a cabinet in the back of the crate room that opens to reveal an even smaller door. It leads to a winding tunnel papered with striped wallpaper. You must crawl along the carpeted floor (pushing your laptop bag ahead of you if you happen to be reviewing the show) until you get to a room at the end of the tunnel. Here is the source of the 1930s fox-trot you have been hearing: It’s a bedroom that feels like a burrow. The floor is layered with fake “Oriental” rugs; there is a four-poster bed with a cheap tapestry bedspread that fills up most of the room. Opposite the bed is a dresser with a lamp and an old TV that is the source of the fox-trot music you began to hear as you crawled through the tunnel. It’s playing stop-motion video of different objects moving around the floor of the room and on shelves to a 1930s tune that Shazam tells me is Al Bowlly’s “Guilty.” It’s like a Ziegfeld Follies number but with random objects instead of showgirls: A towel bracket, a chain and a dish dance jerkily along in circles and lines.

Metal shelves stand against one wall, featuring an old toaster oven as well as the objects from the video and others, like a cat head ashtray. You wonder if they are going to start moving, keeping you company in the space. Random old clothes and cotton work shirts hang in a partially curtained closet. Next to it is one of those old butt-shaking exercise machines. A mannequin head rests atop it, altered into a Dadaist sculpture reminiscent of Raoul Hausmann, with Brinkmann’s additions of a bottle brush, a basket and a candle snuffer.

Brinkmann scavenged his installation materials here in Houston, but he homed in on dark colors and objects that evoke an early-20th-century Germanic vibe. Next to a record player and near a stack of albums is a gem titled Wir Bleiben Beim Bier, which roughly translates as “We stay with beer.”

Part of the ceiling is dropped — an upholstered panel with three round holes cut in it is suspended from the ceiling. You pop your head up through the holes and see there are various sculptural objects created from things like a mannequin foot, casts of fingers and small lampshades. It has a very surreal vibe. The walls are hung with more Brinkmann photos. It’s like a tiny private museum constructed by the occupant. You feel as if you’re in the lair of some genially mad eccentric, maybe an old art history professor gone off the rails. There is a palpable sense of nostalgia. It feels melancholic to the viewer, but you can imagine the character who lives here is content and safe in his little room of memories.

Someone back in my home state of Arkansas told me about a once well-known architect who just went off the deep end. He became homeless, and his family couldn’t get him back, but this person told me the guy lived in a wonderfully designed hut he had constructed for himself under a bridge in Little Rock. It is no doubt a tragic story, but there is an appealing element of freedom to it; it reminds you of constructing forts when you were a kid, of making your own worlds out of junk your parents didn’t want and that was therefore up for grabs.

The surname Brinkmann, according to a Dutch friend of mine with the same name, referred to people in northern Germany living on the edge of a settlement and also on the edge of society. The worlds Thorsten Brinkmann creates are those of someone at the edges of conventional society, someone who sees the true potential in things cast off by more ordinary citizens, someone happy to be living on the brink.

“Thorsten Brinkmann: The Great Cape Rinderhorn”
Through May 15. Rice Gallery, Sewall Hall, Rice University, 6100 Main, 713-348-5740.
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Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer