Liz Atlas

at Artemisia Gallery, through

September 28

Ben Diller: Pathways,

Medallions, Transformations

at ARC Gallery, through

September 28

By Fred Camper

Liz Atlas combines found objects with an oddly appealing mixture of elegance and humor. In the simplest of her nine sculptures at Artemisia, Ripple, a small, curvy piece of wood supports a wavy wooden strip on the left and a longish twig mounted vertically on the right. The wavy wood, apparently a machine-made ornamental edging, has a jagged, repetitive toothlike pattern that’s in stark contrast with the twig’s organic unpredictability. As one’s eye passes back and forth between the elements, the wavy teeth begin to seem just a little, well, goofy.

Atlas’s titles often signal humor. Spring Walker is a single large twig with two upside-down-Y forks that suggests a figure, its two legs walking forward, the unadorned upper branch perhaps a swinging arm. One of the “legs” leads into a metal disk while the other, a metal spring around part of it, leads to a wooden wheel of a “foot,” angled forward in about the same direction as the “arm.” So while one leg ends in a round metal “shoe,” the other ends in a wheel. The simple organic perfection of the twig offers a strong contrast to the perfectly repetitive coils of the spring, while the wheel parodies the whole ethos of sculptural projection into space. Abstract forms that taper off into emptiness, the way the uppermost branch ends in this work, often seem designed to seize the territory around them, magnifying the artwork’s transcendent power; by placing the end of another of her twigs in a mass-manufactured wheel, Atlas turns this idea into a joke: this sculpture will not stride forward but advance on rollers.

Many of Atlas’s works suggest birds to her; some also seem to explicitly recall the great master of heroic abstraction Constantin Brancusi, whose influence she acknowledges. The ascending form of Bridal Perch–a series of circular elements leading to a metal rod pointing up–perhaps owes a debt to Brancusi’s Bird in Space. But the shape also suggests a wedding cake: the work is organized as a series of concentric disks growing smaller as they go up; a kitchen stool near the bottom is painted white with circular green stripes. Even more suggestive, the rod on top ends not in a point, projecting off into eternity, but in a multibladed dough blender. Transcendence is not only denied–the ascent is redirected into an object representing women’s work, work that might actually produce a wedding cake.

Atlas has long avoided identifying herself as a feminist. “I wanted to be viewed as an artist without a gender prefix,” she has written. She told me that she “wanted the work to not at all reflect the fact that I was a woman. For a long time my work was very macho–I would never have feminine imagery. For a while I stayed away from curves of any sort.” But in her recent work she’s realized “I don’t have to be a macho sculptor to avoid being identified as a woman….Now I can give expression to both sides, which frees me to draw on all the available materials around me.” She goes on to wonder if there are “male sculptors using kitchen utensils…and if not, why not? Can’t writers successfully take on the voice of the opposite sex as well as their own?”

Born and raised in the New York City area, Atlas, 47, now lives in Chicago. She acknowledges a wide range of often-contradictory influences: jazz, Miro, abstract expressionist Franz Kline, Russian constructivists Tatlin and Malevich. In adolescence she discovered the aesthetic of influential critic Clement Greenberg, who looked at work “only in terms of the formal elements and removing any emotive associations,” as she puts it. Later she was impressed by pre-Aztec cultures while living in Mexico, admiring the way Olmec art could “say something in very few lines” yet be powerful emotionally. When she moved here in the 70s, she found that “Chicago was the perfect place for me to come”: a counter to the formalist aesthetic of New York. “The emotive aspects of Chicago art certainly had a positive influence on me.” Then she spent a decade in Los Angeles, and moved back to Chicago only two years ago. Her current exhibit represents a new direction. “I started picking up materials around the house, at garage sales–just playing, introducing lots of different materials.”

Atlas’s playful combinations of formal elegance and truly goofy humor sometimes suggest a gender interpretation only to deflate it. A white pleated lamp shade in Shades of White is topped by a series of metal disks and cylinders that “culminates” in a plumbing joint from which a spiral of copper wire ascends. A simple lamp shade has rarely seemed more elegant, perhaps because of its association with the rougher geometrical forms above it; but its skirtlike pleats are also absurdly decorative by contrast, almost baroque. An oversimplified reading might see “male” metal forms sitting atop the “female” household object, but the hand-shaped spiral at the top is made up of irregular curves and angles. The perfection of geometrical forms in transcendent abstract art is what leads the viewer to some idealized vision, but the bends in this spiral recall a child’s drawing or a cartoon more than Brancusi. “My work is grounded in life–purposely imperfect,” Atlas writes. “We are complex, full of conflict, incongruent combinations, male and female. I want that to come through in the work.”

Intentional gender confusion is a significant source of the humor in Atlas’s sculptures. The lamp shade rises to heavier, more “male” metal only to end in the wonderfully dopey spiral. Aris Douches is full of such “gender fucks.” Atlas found a gray metal vacuum-cleaner part that reminded her of the winged patch airline pilots wear and placed it at the center. Hanging under it on the left is a dirty paintbrush, on the right an elegant gold-colored shower head. Here Atlas seems to juxtapose the “heroic,” phallic paintbrush historically associated with male artists with a “feminine” household object–except that it’s the shower head, hanging long and coming to a bulbous end, that looks phallic, while the paintbrush with its forest of hairs looks more like a vulva.

Nor does Atlas’s humor end with gender stereotypes in Avis Douches. Above the “wings,” suspended from a metal bar, is a tiny cross section of a wooden branch, the bark still on. This wooden disk recalls the giant cross sections of trees displayed in museums and national forests, though its tiny size spoofs the heroic conquest of nature suggested by such displays. Hanging just a fraction of an inch above the wings, it’s also a joke on a cliche of modern monumental sculpture, which often pretends to defy gravity, balancing on a single point or suspended without visible support. But here the gravity-defying element is a miniature. Atlas doesn’t simply make fun of her own work but chides the grand aspirations of modernism, whose flights of fancy in her sculptures always seem to culminate in comic episodes. But there’s a serious point here as well: Atlas seeks to redeem mundane materials like kitchen implements. After all, Brancusi’s “pure” art was made possible by the labor and tools of the butchers and grocers who supplied him with cheese and sausage, on which he famously always dined.

Ben Diller, a 27-year-old 1992 BFA graduate of the Cleveland Institute of Art who currently lives in New York, also includes found objects in his art. But his seven works at ARC couldn’t look more unlike Atlas’s: his are big, blustery constructions whose brightly painted colors provide a macho contrast with Atlas’s restrained washes and use of the untreated colors of metal and wood. Though it looks as if Diller enjoyed making these huge, assertive forms, like Atlas he also pokes fun at his own work and at heroic aspirations in general.

Medals of Honor consists of five constructions of wood, metal, plaster, and other materials mounted on the wall, all of them humorously much larger than wearable badges or medals. One is shaped like a prize ribbon one might win at a fair, a circle fringed with sunflowerlike petals above hanging fabric. The “petals” project aggressively into space, but the disk is painted in irregular, dirty splotches of gray and tan. Another looks like a police badge, but at the center is a diagram of a baseball-like board game. Via Hard Work is composed of a diamond-shaped construction sign bearing the title, a pair of rather ridiculous wings sprouting from above it, and a huge staff like a barber’s pole narrowing to end in a little wheel (the humorously debunking effect recalls the wheel in Atlas’s Spring Walker).

Diller makes his dual vision clearer in Globetrotter. A gigantic leg, very wide in the thigh but narrowing so that it fits into a shoe, is covered with fabric painted in brightly colored bands. Behind them on the wall is a warped-looking wood panel with a collage of maps of cities–Florence, Athens, Madrid–of the sort a recent art-school graduate might visit. A few of the maps bear heavy black footprints. The work suggests someone simultaneously proud of his travels and embarrassed by some sort of “ugly American” persona. It also mocks the way a grand tour reduces cities to maps with specific points of interest to be visited and suggests that tourist’s “footprints”–their influence on these famous cities–are heavier than they should be.

While Diller doesn’t balance the macho and self-parodic elements of his work as subtly as Atlas does her elegance and humor, his large-scale jokes suggest a simultaneous attraction to and critique of the monumental tradition in American art from Pollock to Rauschenberg. This is perhaps clearest in Totemic Shelf Life. A giant circular shape at the top is surrounded by pointed “petals”; a bright yellow phallic cone protrudes from its center. Mounted on the wall below are progressively smaller black shelves. The higher and wider ones contain a variety of found objects and a sheaf of small Diller paintings (which he encourages viewers to leaf through) while the lower shelves support single objects: a padlock, for example, and a bulbous piece of rough wood Diller shaped himself and painted light blue.

The blue wood’s apparent mixture of intentionality and randomness gives it an odd beauty; positioned at the opposite end of the work from the ridiculous phallic cone, it begins to command attention by contrast. Soon I began to see it as a kind of hidden icon–a representation of the minimum level of form, color, and design necessary for apparent detritus to become an aesthetic object. In its rejection of the grand, Diller’s Totemic Shelf Life shows a kinship with Atlas’s Shades of White, whose simple copper spiral curls dizzily into nothingness.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): “Spring Walker” by Liz Atlas/ “Via Hard Work” by Ben Diller.