Product Placement

Every day you feed yourself, groom yourself and maintain your possessions with the contents of plastic containers -- your shampoo bottle, stick of deodorant, tub of margarine, jug of detergent. Their forms are the result of countless product-design man-hours and are structured for specific functions and maximum consumer appeal. Their colors are as much about psychology as they are about aesthetics. Delicate pastels for women's deodorant, navy and forest green for men's. Artist Brooke Stroud works with the detritus of consumer culture, reorganizing it with the clean line and pure color sensibilities of a minimalist; his Recent Work exhibition at Inman Gallery is both composed of, and derived from, product packaging, treating these castoffs with the scrutiny normally accorded precious artifacts.

The centerpiece of the show is a six-foot by four-foot rectangular platform dotted with a gloriously colored array of circular shapes. It looks like some sort of giant pointillist painting until closer inspection reveals the shapes to be plastic bottle tops. To amass his material, Stroud collected lids from a dozen people over a three-year period. As a result, he has inadvertently created a group portrait of the people and families involved, in the same way you glean information about a person standing in a checkout line based on the things he's buying. We are what we consume.

Looking at the bottle tops, you realize how many products and brands you can effortlessly identify simply by color and shape. The discovery is more than a little unsettling as you contemplate the insidious nature of marketing. Think about all those facts at school you agonizingly tried to commit to memory. Today, you have no idea where Gabon is, let alone its shape and contours, but you know that light blue plastic oval is a Secret Solid Anti-perspirant lid. You pass your consumer quiz with flying colors, without even knowing you studied.

The beauty of the objects themselves is paramount, but collaboration is a subtext of Stroud's work. I.V. Pillow (2000) is a plastic bag stuffed full with multicolored plastic fragments collected by a nurse who was also donating bottle tops. Of her own volition, she organized her unit to collect IV drug tops, 4,832 to be exact. We know the count because they organized a contest to guess the number. The pieces seem oddly multicolored for something that isn't a retail product. The color system came about 15 or so years ago to reduce the incidence of hospital error. Previously all drugs -- even the same drug in vastly different concentrations -- would be identically packaged because it was cheaper for pharmaceutical companies. The introduction of colored tops provided quick identification and significantly reduced complications and accidental deaths. The densely packed pillow-shaped bag alludes to sleep or comfort, which can be brought on by drugs, but it is at odds with the idea of needles in veins.

The bag also acts as a medical archive of sorts; each lid identified a drug that was fed into the veins of a patient. Was the person healed or did he die in spite of chemicals that flowed into him? Each brightly colored plastic fragment is a relic from a patient's experience. The bag has a compelling solidity as an object, but a part of you wants Stroud to split it open and spill the discs out into some dazzling multicolored arrangement. Maybe that's the lurking potential.

EK1, Train Landscape and Nightswim (all 2000) are two-colored rectangular grids made from stacked plastic baby-wipe boxes that the manufacturer formed in the shape of giant Legos. The grids recall Stroud's earlier series of bicolored paintings or look like a condensed version of Donald Judd's sleek minimalist boxes. There is a clean, slick modularity to the pieces, but they don't seem as satisfying as the bottle-top landscape. It may have something to do with the scale or configuration. The freestanding 22-inch floor piece works fairly well, but the two wall-dependent works placed on platforms on the floor are less effective. I wanted to see them larger or maybe even hung like paintings.

The quest to acquire baby-wipe boxes was part scavenger hunt, part performance art. Stroud couldn't convince friends to part with their old containers, since their kids were as enamored with the structural potential as Stroud. So the artist called Chubs, the manufacturer, and tried to get the boxes donated. Chubs said it had been bought out by Playtex, which had stopped producing the boxes in bright yellow, red, green and blue. From now on, all baby wipes would come in baby duck yellow boxes. Horrified, Stroud went to every conceivable grocery and discount store in pursuit of the last of the multicolored boxes. After being asked for the nth time why he needed so many wipes, he started replying, "They're for my church's day care." Stroud laboriously scrubbed the labels off the boxes and thoughtfully bagged and distributed the contents to his friends with infants. Recalling the experience and the sickly, permeating perfume of baby wipes, the artist shudders and remarks, "My house smelled like a baby's butt for a month."

Stroud says his work comes from "paying attention to what's around me," which includes his neighborhood. A car once plowed into the Sonic Drive-in by Stroud's house and caught on fire; the blaze melted a menu, leaving behind a deformed red plastic frame. Stroud convinced the manager to save it for him; the deformed menu, in turn, inspired Coconut/Lime Meltdown (2000). Two painted panels -- one chemical green and the other chemical blue -- are framed in a drippy baroque plastic that's colored a lurid orange-red. Formally, the piece has a punch-in-the-gut fluorescence.

In the end, the exhibition has a sense of exploration, as Stroud follows the thread of previous ideas and meanders into new territory. Playing on the aesthetics of consumer culture but somehow linking the works back to specific consumers is an intriguing part of the exhibition, but the artist seems wary of overemphasizing that element. As Stroud plucks debris from the rising river of consumerism that surrounds us, he finds a kind of elegance in the happy, bright and shiny plastic that contains, dispenses and promotes the solutions to our multifarious needs.

KEEP THE HOUSTON PRESS FREE... Since we started the Houston Press, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Houston, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Kelly Klaasmeyer
Contact: Kelly Klaasmeyer