Lost in the Found Print
Art - Reviews
Written by Steve Banks   
Tuesday, 15 November 2005 18:00
Art that incorporates found objects is a tricky path to navigate. Any of us can find a shovel. Most of us can find a shovel and put it on our wall. Where it crosses that line and shifts toward becoming art is in the act of declaring it to be art.

Arguably the granddaddy of this concept was the enigmatic French-born artist Marcel DuChamp (1887-1968). Some notable examples of his found objects were the pieces Fountain (a urinal) and In Advance of a Broken Arm (a shovel). If you think that putting a shovel on the wall and proclaiming it to be art sounds a little dubious nowadays, you should have been around for the initial tsunami of critical outcries back in the early 20th Century. To Duchamp, it was that act of declaration that was important, not necessarily the piece itself.

Two MidCoast Fine Arts shows – one just closed at Bucktown in downtown Davenport, and the other up through November at the Mississippi Valley Welcome Center in LeClaire – are rooted in this ground-breaking concept but grow into something far more spectacular.

O’Melia, Mart, Rathje, and Mahar at Bucktown

All of the artists in the Bucktown show (Jeanne O’Melia, Eric Mart, Lisa Mahar, and Terry Rathje) started with the found object, but worked it into something else. They went beyond declaration and moved boldly into reconstruction and re-identification. Some of these objects retained their original identity (a gear remains a gear when you look at it), while others blended their identities into a new object (you see a collection of gears and sheet metal as a flower and not as a collection of gears and sheet metal – at least initially). A captivating found-object/mixed-media show will acknowledge the fine line between these two camps and then dance all over it. This show was no exception.

It was difficult not to be drawn toward Eric Mart’s work when I first entered the Bucktown gallery. It is big. It is bold. Some of his pieces have the enticing look of roughly sculpted red clay.

His large flower piece, called Organik Iron, is a mix of pitted farming implements, rusty gears, and wilted metal cutouts. This piece also showcased that delicate degree of identifiability between the easily recognizable farming implements and the more anonymous cutouts, gizmos, and gadgets that permeate the work but do not betray their original purpose. They lose most of their identity to become the flower. I enjoyed the dichotomy found in a unique object representing a vigorous organic form thoughtfully cobbled together with mass-produced machine parts. It has a lightness and whimsy in its twisting form that contradicts the realities of its materials. It is a flower made from the things that might be used to plant it or mow it down.

Jeanne O’Melia had only one work in the show, but it got its job done well. The piece, Another Brush Off, is an energetic and dynamic little dancing figure assembled from an old brush, tarnished copper tubing, metal tidbits, and different colors and thicknesses of wire. It is reminiscent of when the kids put the hat on Frosty the Snowman for the first time. Kind of magic, but without the singing. This piece is an excellent example of how an object’s original identity still plays a contributing role to the work, but when the pieces are put together, a new gestalt entity emerges. The brush and the metal become a dancing figure.

Lisa Mahar explored transformation in a different sense than most of the other work in the show. When you look at one of her painted tables, it is obviously a painted table. That crucial transformation is the painting on the table. It is remarkable to be able to infuse a table with personality by merely applying paint to its surface. It is an entirely different and extraordinary type of transformation.

The piece Mermaids is a table that has a sharp graphic quality with a smart and punchy color scheme (pink, blue, green, aqua, and flesh tones). The curved legs on this thigh-high piece are formed by playful mermaids. The round top is divided into four wedges with an opposing mermaid/merman motif along one axis and a dialogue between cartoonish (in the good sense of the word) seahorses fleeing from some lime-green multi-mouthed-nasty and a repeating scale/texture motif. It is more than a table; it is an entire story.

Terry Rathje may be able to move the most fluidly along the spectrum of recognizability with his found objects. He can be anywhere from definitely using a sign or some type of cutout to such a transformation of material(s) that it leaves no clue to its original identity.

This battle played out in his piece Photoscenic. Initially, we have a fairly standard desert landscape with cacti, scrub brush, and a rock formation. This whole landscape is stitched together from old license plates and signs. Not only has Rathje made a landscape that pays homage to travel by utilizing re-purposed road-trip-culture items; he succeeds at defying expectations about how a representation of a landscape should be constructed.

Unfortunately, by the time you read this, the show will have closed and a new one will be in its place. There was truly some compelling work in this show made by some most excellent artists (all friends of mine). Keep your eyes peeled because these works and these artists will surface again soon.

Reisberg, Garnant, and Willits at the Mississippi Valley Welcome Center

The show out at the Midcoast Fine Arts Gallery at the Mississippi Valley Welcome Center is still going in full-force. The intimate space overlooking the river lends itself well to the photographic works of Jim Reisberg and to the sculpture and mixed-media works of Kristin Garnant and Skip Willits. The re-presentation and re-working of the found object plays an important role in many of these works, as well. In many cases their identity is not lost because they have become unrecognizable, but because the artist has removed them from their original context and placed them into an entirely new setting juxtaposed against new elements.

An excellent example of this change in context is a cozy piece from Garnant and Willits entitled Far from Home. The action of the work is set within a small, old, five-inch deep wooden box laid on its side (not unlike an old drawer). At the back of the box, on a sheet of thin paper, are several dense columns of faint Chinese characters that help to thrust forward the subtle tintype photograph of two young lads sitting in a wooden rowboat all dressed-up for some unknown adventure. An old metal aspirin container overflowing with small, jagged shards of pitted glass rests on the base of the box directly below the boys. Instantly, this grouping establishes a curious dialogue between the boys, the text, and the “treasure chest” of glass.

All of these items are recognizable, but their re-combination and re-presentation with each other adds a new layer of meaning to their identity. Neither the aspirin container nor the glass alone suggest this change, but when the glass is put inside the container, a new possibility emerges. The old tintype carries a sense of historical integrity and mystery. Although we do not specifically know who the boys were or why they were documented on that particular day, the fact that they did exist and were important enough for someone to document them lends more gravity to that particular image.

Its historical vagueness allows it to meld into its new dialogue; it is only part of the visual conversation. An old photograph of a recognizable historical figure performing a specific action would not allow itself to fully assume a new identity. By carefully selecting various items to be grouped within these dialogue-rich “shadowbox”-like constructions, Garnant and Willits are able to cultivate a rich and intimate viewing experience.

Whereas Willits’ and Garnant’s box assemblages have a complex and melancholy appeal, their metal sculptures are succinct and eloquent and perky. There is almost a visual shorthand quality involved in which the superfluous extras are stripped away, and a leaner, concise form remains. The quirky and dynamic piece Three Figures on a Stick establishes a fun rhythm between the elongated metal figures. The bodies are essentially simplified stick figures with large oval faces/masks that provide the bulk of their playful personality. The figures crescendo and decrescendo to allow the center figure to anchor the piece without dominating it.

Jim Riesberg’s works are predominantly crisp and contrast-y black-and-white images that are infused with very selective and highly charged uses of color. In the piece Twilight Tailight [sic], Riesberg plays with the relationship between weathered landscape and discarded machine. There is a lonesome and craggy tree, laid bare by the onset of fall, with a luminous orange sphere behind it dominating the composition. The sphere, which is actually an old headlight, is presented as the moon rising behind an old tree. What makes this image resonate, though, is the extra detail from the vehicle that Riesberg permits to be seen. The orange circle is only one of three circles that make it into the image. The partial circle behind the moon establishes a strong diagonal movement within the composition that intensifies the relationship between the tree and the moon. The other circle, which is partially behind the base of the tree, not only serves visually as a hill but completes the movement and rhythm established by the other two circles.

Riesberg builds rich and layered work. Many of his photographs have their roots in discarded machinery, vehicles, tools, lumber, and other texturally-rich, memory-laden found objects. Riesberg utilizes an object’s recognizability, but often he re-combines it for a new visual purpose. Its old identity is merely a starting point into a world that is brimming with new discoveries almost entirely comprising old things. He meticulously builds his images from several components to form fairly dense compositions that, due to his empathy for the objects he incorporates as well as the image-making process, creates some exceptionally airy and mood-rich pieces.

One of the most delightful aspects of photography is its ability to capture beautiful textures and rich details. From the rough to the pitted to the splintery and the cracked, all of Riesberg’s surfaces sing with delightful textures.

Yet they are all smooth. For another thing that photography does well is to deceive our expectations. Riesberg plays off the textural bonanza of his old and discarded objects and dynamic compositions by contrasting them with sharp printing, clean new matting, and smooth framing for an amazing duality of texture.
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