at Tough Gallery, through March 20

Charles Wiesen’s art is full of hand mirrors and coat hangers and mail-order furniture, old kitchen utensils, wooden trays, and little pieces of string. Much of his stuff seems to have been foraged from wholesale outlets, thrift shops, and the depths of closets. It’s art, but it isn’t “fine.” It works best when you fondle it, which Wiesen encourages viewers to do. “Please handle . . . use the work,” says one handout. The familiarity of his objects and the touching they require make his current show feel less like an art exhibit than a trip to a remarkable garage sale.

Seasoned salegoers always check maps and addresses before they leave home–who wants to arrive late and miss the good stuff? Tough Gallery is located on a dead-end stretch of Sangamon Street, in a nether zone between Greektown, River North, and Fulton Market where it’s easy to lose your bearings. Trucks and trains rumble through the area on dilapidated roads and railways whose poor condition is evidence of Chicago’s waning industrial might. Located in a high-ceilinged basement, Tough’s starkly elegant gallery space is almost chilly–an unlikely setting for Wiesen’s warm and humorous human-scale treasures.

One piece, an old hand mirror hanging with its back to the viewer, hides the word “onto,” which is painted on the wall behind. As we handle the mirror and watch the light play on its beveled glass, we’re left to wonder if the painted word is the artwork or if its mirror image is–or whether the joke is on us. Recollect is a particle-board bench with a space for “storage” that’s taken up by a plastic garment case full of torn bits of Wie- sen’s old drawings. Sifting through them feels like secretly rummaging through someone else’s closet–these scraps of the artist’s past invite us to investigate, yet the pile can’t satisfy our hunger to know what the pictures were about.

One person’s junk is another person’s treasure. An old white enamel pitcher becomes a precious thing when Wiesen sandblasts the outside to a silvery sheen, leaving the inside white, and mounts it as sculpture (Pitcher; ______) on the wall. He adds a piece of wit by leaving a bit of white on the exterior in the form of a giant semicolon–some kind of pun on the notion of “artistic statement.” On a nearby wall a wood serving tray, scuffed from use, becomes an abstract picture when hung vertically like a painting, its surface labeled “pain’t.”

Sometimes our treasures turn out to be duds. All too often a bargain frenzy induces us to lug home something we just can’t afford. Wiesen’s Too Handsome to Hide!, a mail-order mahogany wastebasket with gold embellishments that looks like an antique, pokes fun at such blunders. It’s slick. It’s shiny. It would look great in the den. Wiesen hospitably provides the item’s original order number (559004) and retail price ($145) in case you’d like to create a matching pair.

Active browsers will have the most fun. I Heard a Dog Bark and Never Thought to Look is a blond-wood corner table that Wiesen designed. When you pull out the table’s single drawer, its contents tumble to the floor. Don’t worry, you didn’t break it. Just pick up the plastic letters that spell the silly title and put them back for the next viewer.

After foragers get their goodies home, the objects begin to function as trophies–and fodder for all sorts of tall tales. Anticipating this, Wiesen provides viewers with a kind of soapbox. Upon entering the gallery viewers find a piece of paper that reads “Located in the gallery is a platform from which you may describe.” Sure enough, a low, flat, eight-by-eight-foot platform in the corner of the exhibition space bears telltale boot marks. By integrating “sculpture” and “performance” (the work seems to require our active participation) and “art” and “audience” (aren’t we part of the object when we climb on top of it?), Wiesen seems to make active viewers artists too.

Might “shopping” be dangerous? MINE is a series of small lead disks placed around the gallery floor, each etched with the message “mine.” Viewers are left to wonder if they’re stepping on someone else’s precious property or being warned of some subterranean danger. Both notions have some metaphoric truth: Wiesen claims a kind of artistic ownership of the whole exhibit with these little lead devices, and also reminds us that our interactions with all of his objects are potentially explosive–our hands and interpretations can greatly alter this art. “Look and touch,” he offers. “But do so with care.”

We go to garage sales because they provide experiences we can’t get in department stores, namely the chance to peek into other people’s worlds and to give new life to things that would otherwise be cast aside. We go to art exhibits for similar reasons: we like to believe that artworks embody the “personal vision” of their makers, that the objects tell us secrets about the mind that made them. And we know that posterity sometimes transforms the most unlikely things into “cultural treasures.”

By framing mundane objects as sculpture Wiesen encourages us to look at them with a bit more care. But by demanding that we handle and manipulate his roomful of stuff, he also turns the gallery into a kind of playroom and makes us think of artworks as so many pricey, grown-up toys.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photo/courtesy Tough.