Tuesday, December 8, 2009

R. Mutt Redux?

R. Mutt Redux?

By Tom Wachunas

Oh what a tangled web we weave when first we practice to…conceive. As in birthing ideas, not babies. Besides, I don’t know nothin’ ‘bout birthin’ no babies. But birthing ideas? Surely. All the time. Good ones? Maybe a few.

The mischievous Frenchman, Marcel Duchamp, fathered many ideas, too. None, though, was more outrageous in its day than the scandalous brainchild he loosed upon the art world in 1917 - his infamous “Fountain,” a common ceramic urinal signed R. Mutt. The popular understanding of Duchamp’s defense of his “work” rests largely on his statement that, to paraphrase, it’s art because the artist said so. This understanding, in and of itself, fails to satisfactorily address the more complicated metaphysical and esthetic issues raised when presenting “found objects” as art – issues that Duchamp did in fact address, though somewhat obliquely on many occasions, throughout his lifetime. Still, long after the arrival of Duchamp’s “readymades,” a considerable number of artists seem to be continually inspired to justify their work – no matter how insipid- on the basis of the sacrosanct “I said so” argument.

I’ve always harbored a suspicion that Duchamp opened his Pandora’s Box with the sole intention of letting other artists, and/or critics and philosophers, identify and tame (or re-capture) the myriad wild spirits he unleashed. He didn’t make his way into the history books so much as laugh his way there. Maybe, just maybe, that was his true art – to keep the rest of us, lest we take ourselves and our art too seriously, guessing and humble.

The current show at the Canton Museum of Art (CMA), called “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” is comprised of work by 13 artists who work with a variety of raw materials, including found “junk.” The exhibit was curated by Canton’s own Pat Buckohr, who made such a public splash with all those downtown animals – goofy sidewalk sentinels made from recycled metal rings.

Interestingly enough, those works possess a careless, throw-away quality and are perhaps best considered as anomalies when compared to other more artistically elegant and substantive works I’ve seen by him. Indeed, M.J.Albacete, CMA executive director, told me recently that he and Buckohr have regularly discussed the contemporary art scene in Canton. Albacete noted, “He (Buckohr) is an exceptionally talented artist whose roots are embedded in the historic traditions. So, when we decided to do a cutting-edge exhibition of creativity based on recycled materials, Pat was our first and only choice. He took to the project with enthusiasm, and his selection of artists covers a wide swath across Midwest USA. His selections are stupendous, making this the most impressive show of its type ever to grace the galleries of the CMA. Knowing Pat’s capabilities as an artist and a curator, I’d like to see him receive a major commission for a downtown sculpture much as he really deserves…say $20,000 or $25,000?” That, friends, is what can easily be called a glowing and well-earned endorsement.

Interesting, too, are Buckohr’s motives for organizing this show. In his statement he cites a “lack of academic acceptance” for his beloved medium of recycled materials, and, if I read him correctly, academia’s perception that recycled materials are somehow antithetical to edifying art. Such a blanket assessment is, it seems to me, a tad ironic and overstated, and perhaps the subject of a separate discussion. Certainly, if not for academia, we wouldn’t be acknowledging Duchamp’s influence on contemporary found-object art in this context (as Buckohr does in his statement) at all.

Putting aside such precipitate musings, it’s time to lighten up. Whatever anxieties Mr. Buckohr may have had in pursuing this endeavor, he can put to rest. Even the most rigorous academic traditionalists would be hard-pressed to call this show anything other than a resounding success - a grand affirmation that art made from recycled junk need not be junky.

The work that greets viewers entering the main gallery is literally a soaring example of just how beautiful “junk art” can be. “Reestimate” is a startlingly realistic eagle by Paula J.Jensen. Made from scrap steel with piercing copper eyes, the majestic bird is poised in flight above us as it negotiates a precarious landing on the too- thin tip of a writhing branch. Breathtaking.

This show occupies a varied landscape of conceptual approaches from playful to profound, and a considerably broad terrain between the two. Daniel Horne’s “King and Queen” presents the life-size royal couple of welded scrap steel as whimsical, kinetic skeletons who invite viewers to gently push various parts of their anatomies and enjoy their moving parts. Kyle Fokken’s mixed media “Uptet (Babylon Gunship)” and its more “modern” counterpart, “Ship of Fools,” are both solidly constructed, fascinating war machines in miniature. “Uptet” looks like a creature from a science fiction story, and would be a downright hilarious apparition were it not for its clearly deadly function. Nonetheless, both works are riveting in every sense of the word.

Joseph Carl Close possesses an utterly unique artistic vision that ranks him among Canton’s – indeed this region’s - most exciting artists. And most mysterious. Here, his monumental (approximately 11’ tall) “Tower” exudes a kind of lonely, even dark heroism. Who, or what are the “figures” that seem poised on the brink of either joining or disintegrating? It’s a masterpiece of intricately layered textures and images all entwined in an uncanny duality of serenity and looming threat – a guardian, perhaps, of vaguely familiar histories, or memories just out of reach.

One arguable legacy of Duchamp has been the perception of the art milieu as a democracy of ideas, which in turn can fuel esthetic anarchy – an “anything can be art,” and “anyone can be an artist” sensibility. If we regard art as a melding of intent and context, then perhaps this statement by Duchamp can at least define some, albeit vague, parameters: “Art may be bad, good, or indifferent, but, whatever adjective is used, we must call it art, and bad art is still art in the same way as a bad emotion is still an emotion.”

Be assured that the art in this exhibition is neither indifferent nor bad. In fact, for sheer craftsmanship, delights for the eyes, and engaging conceptual content, it’s marvelously entertaining. Why? Well (wink-wink, nudge-nudge)…because I said so.

Photo: “Tower,” by Joseph Carl Close, 2009, wood, steel, glass, oil. On view in “Something from Nothing: Contemporary Recycled Sculpture from America’s Rustbelt,” through March 7, 2010, at the Canton Museum of Art. www.cantonart.org

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