at Tough Gallery, through July 13
at Belloc Lowndes Fine Art,
through August 10
By Fred Camper
Charles Wiesen’s 17 sculptures at Tough are easy to miss: while some are finely crafted, few are visually striking. Five white window shades hung on a white wall, a wastebasket placed near a corner on the floor–most could be passed over in a glance. But there’s something funny, both humorous and peculiar, about almost all of them. Black and White With Gray Stain is a triangular board set into a corner of the room like a built-in shelf; a circular stain of the kind a wet glass leaves mars its smooth black surface. Just messy enough to look like a real defacement, it recalled for me the embarrassment of unwittingly damaging someone’s furniture with a coasterless glass. But its placement in a gallery gives this everyday mistake an importance and permanence that are humorously incongruous.
Poking fun at the way the typical gallery or museum setting confers preciousness on objects is hardly a new theme in modern art, but Wiesen handles it with an unsettling, quirky creativity. There’s always one more detail than is needed for a simple statement of his idea in these seemingly minimal works–a detail that somehow comes at the theme from an unexpected direction. Imaginary is a rectangular board on the wall. Painted white, it makes a joke about single-color paintings by artists from Yves Klein to Robert Rauschenberg: somehow it seems flatter and emptier than the earlier work, hardly worth looking at on its own. But Wiesen also encases it in a zippered piece of cheap, flimsy-looking clear vinyl, recalling furniture covers. The zipper at the bottom made me think of clothing zippers, adding an odd eroticism–yet think of how fetishized the precious, expensive artwork has become, protected under glass or behind barriers. (In the Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Negotiating Rapture” exhibit, the viewer can’t even get close enough to really see the magnificent almost all black Ad Reinhardts.) Yet unzipping Wiesen’s vinyl wouldn’t help–there isn’t much to see inside. I recall the first time I saw a home with furniture under plastic and, looking at the chintzy decor, wondered why anyone thought it worth protecting. In Imaginary Wiesen creates a resonant parallel between our interest in protecting faux art and the way art museums, trying to protect a work, tend to destroy our ability to see it. Using his vinyl to protect something so slight, he mocks all pretenses of preciousness.
Wiesen, 43, a Chicago artist who supports himself doing scenic painting and carpentry for theater, TV commercials, and trade-show exhibits, is interested in exploring the “cognitive perceptual thing that occurs to the viewer looking at the work.” This too is hardly a new concept, but Wiesen manages to make each encounter an adventure. We first see Erasure as an elegantly ethereal painting of a cloud in delicate shades of gray sitting on a wall shelf. But it has a wooden handle at its top: a painting with a valise grip? Lift it and it’s surprisingly heavy; flip it and you’ll see the other side is a chalkboard with a white “cloud” at its center, a chalk residue. Wiesen here likens 19th-century romantic paintings of transcendentally beautiful nature, such as Turner’s, to the random residue left by erased text; his comparison is complicated by the fact that art that looks as if it’s been done on chalkboard is itself now almost a cliche.
Erasure asks the viewer to handle it, to flip it over and become a participant in its creation. And by inviting the viewer to choose between an apparently straightforward traditional picture of clouds and the cloud of erased chalk, Wiesen not only allows a choice between different centuries and styles, he creates an unsettling parallel between intended artistic effects and random effects. He apparently wishes to redefine art as merely another facet of daily life. On a wide, white wall he’s placed a tall, dark magnetic stripe, a conscious reference to Barnett Newman’s “zips”–stripes Newman painted on wide color fields to capture, as he put it, the “chaos of ecstasy.” Wiesen rejects the transcendence of Newman’s stripes, presenting a different invitation to chaos: viewers are encouraged to place objects on his strip–when I saw it, a tiny drill bit, a safety pin, and a pair of scissors, among other things–and to move them about as if they were objects on a coffee table. Even Wiesen’s title, Here 2, has a casual immediacy opposed to such Newman titles as Abraham and Onement.
The question of functionality, another major theme, parallels Wiesen’s ironic approach to aesthetic preciousness. Great artworks have often been used in daily life–to cook with, to wear, to pray to–especially in non-Western cultures. The concept of artwork as aesthetic object, while not strictly a modern invention, hasn’t always been dominant. Many of Wiesen’s works take the form of functional objects; of these some are actually functional, but most are more or less useless. Excluded Middle consists of two night tables (owned by a Chicagoan who uses them by her bed) exhibited a bed’s-width apart–a little joke on the defunctionalizing effect of an exhibit. Failed Extension is wonderfully useless, a white wooden rectangle on the wall with an electrical cord dangling from one corner and coiled on the floor, a plug at its end. Not only is there no place to plug it in–one cannot imagine that anything would happen if it were plugged in. Where kinetic sculpture moves and flashes lights and makes noises, this rectangle presents an utterly blank face.
Failed Extension also enunciates a personal, psychological theme not at first apparent amid the art-world jokes. More than half the works set up some form of real or imagined flow, then arrest it. (A Duchamp title, Network of Stoppages, kept running through my head as a potential title for this exhibit.) The energy that might run through the plug has nowhere to go; the top of a wastebasket is covered with clear, rigid plastic; there are no windows behind the window shades. This theme of arrested movement is at its most complex in the show’s two best pieces.
A Solo Dance is a white rectangle, rather tall and only eight inches wide, hanging on a wall in its own small room; its hook is visible above it, and indented handgrips on the sides invite one to lift it off. “Dancing” around the room with this blank white slab seems a bit pointless–until one notices that the other side is mirrored. Still, the dancer can see the mirror and its reflections of the room only by holding the slab at an odd angle, and can’t see himself except at a more oblique angle. The work invites one to participate with one’s whole body but almost mocks the solo dancer’s aloneness, offering him nothing unless he works at it. But if one visits this room with others, they can readily see the moving reflections invisible to the dancer. Wiesen doesn’t just argue that the artwork is nothing without the viewer; he suggests that the lone viewer needs friends for a more complete experience.
This idea is extended in Conversation Seat, white cushions in a ring surrounding a horizontal mirror filling the center and a bit below the cushions. In this “conversation pit” the mirror, which is paradoxically empty and solid, forces the potential conversants to sit with their backs to one another, or to twist around uncomfortably. There’s an almost creepy authoritarianism here, as if the artwork were now dominating and defining its viewers–the mirror image of participatory works like Here 2. But the show also includes a much more comfortable seat and an open, functional wastebasket. The constant shifts required of the viewer from one piece to another sets each work in stark relief: the whole of the exhibit is greater than the sum of its parts. And the contradictory points of view suggest that Wiesen sees, with postmodern eyes, various relationships between viewer and artwork as equally valid.
Steve Dilworth’s ten elegant nature-based sculptures at Belloc Lowndes seem at least half a world apart from Wiesen’s work–and Dilworth does live half a world away, on the treeless, windswept Isle of Harris off the Scottish coast. Like Wiesen, Dilworth often makes paradoxical objects that invite the viewer to participate in creating meaning; but in contrast to Wiesen’s egalitarianism, Dilworth shows a worshipful reverence toward his bird shapes and carved rocks. Dilworth’s carved whale’s tooth, containing a vial of the “north wind,” restores to nature a respect usually lacking in our culture. Sperm Whale Tooth is carved into an arrowlike form with gill-like flaps projecting from the sides; it suggests a fish swimming. A wall label informs the viewer that a tiny glass vial of air is sealed inside, but it can’t be seen and can’t be removed without destroying the work. In this respect Dilworth partakes of an idea common to builders of medieval cathedrals, who constructed elaborate architectural details too high for any human to see, “for the greater glory of God.”
A number of Dilworth’s other sculptures also have objects sealed permanently within. Cormorant With Dolphin Vertebrae is a cormorant-size construction of oak and fishing line built around a cormorant skeleton. Like most of his pieces, this one has a luminous, surprising elegance utterly belying the materials: almost all his pieces begin as detritus he finds on Harris’s beaches, from driftwood to rope to animal parts. By building a cormorant shape out of wood and rope and sealing a bird skeleton inside, he constructs a shrinelike answer to postmodernism’s algebra of equivalences. For Dilworth, nature is not just another TV channel but the very basis of existence whose forms an artist can do no better than emulate. The concealed pieces of nature at the literal heart of his works mirror the idea that nature lies at the core of human existence.
But I was put off by what seemed the overly symmetrical elegance of some pieces. His wood and stone are finished with great care and assembled with such precision that the works border on overly perfect. The wood and rope of Cormorant With Dolphin Vertebrae, though full of irregularities, lack the organic randomness of, say, bird feathers. But other elements in this piece and others add depth and mystery. Dolphin vertebrae march up the cormorant’s back and neck, where its backbone would be; attached to the wood, they pair the enclosed bird form with a kind of “exploded” biology-textbook view. Stormwater also suggests the force of the natural world: though Dilworth sculpted its curved stone, the “seawater taken during a storm” concealed inside reminds us that stones are constantly shaped by water.
One of the small works, Sand Eel Box, is the most complex. Shaped a bit like a football, its ribbed wooden exterior reveals a network of dead sand eels within–providing the organic disorder I sometimes missed elsewhere. Thin bands carved from a whale’s tooth run along each of the four exterior edges, perhaps Dilworth’s way of reminding us that this work is similar in shape and size to an actual whale’s tooth. By scaling his works to the natural objects they incorporate, Dilworth suggests an aesthetic modesty that’s the distant parallel of Wiesen’s participatory forms. But for Dilworth, the reason for modesty is not that anything goes; it’s that the totality of the natural world is something larger than us all.
Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Reproductions of: “Conversation Seat” by Charles Wiesen;”Cormorant with Dolphin Vertebrae” by Steve Dilworth.