Gwen Gerard

at Idao Gallery, through June 1

By Bonita McLaughlin

When I think of Chicago I think of cabs honking, buses belching black soot, the smell of grilled onions and Polish sausage, StreetWise vendors, light breaking through clouds over Lake Michigan, the screeching of the el, glass-wrapped skyscrapers reflecting sunsets and neighboring skyscrapers. And of course there’s the never-ending construction: streets ripped up, buildings torn down, scaffolding, jackhammers, tires peeling out on graveled intersections long unpaved, dust, dust, and more dust.

Gwen Gerard, a French artist who’s lived in Chicago since 1991, makes sculptures out of building materials and junk–scrap wood, metal plates, window screens, paper bags, newspapers, shredded remnants of dirty plastic–that seem to have sprung straight from the city’s construction sites and garbage-strewn vacant lots. But some of her work also contains fragile, ephemeral things–baby teeth, locks of hair, disintegrating bits of old leaves–that speak of tenderness, of a romantic sensibility not usually associated with this gritty town.

Consider Incandescence, a small, boxlike construction that, like many in the show, hangs at eye level, suspended from the ceiling on two long wires. Behind a square piece of glass framed by narrow strips of wood Gerard has sandwiched, from front to back, an X made of two crisscrossed cables, a piece of wrinkled gray plastic attached to a delicate wood scaffolding, a small curl of hair, and finally a translucent envelope mounted on a wire screen. Having traveled through these layers we pause at the photograph inside the envelope, which shows a rural hill with a single straggly tree on the horizon and what looks like a clump of broken weeds or an uprooted tree in the foreground. Blurred by the envelope’s milky paper, the black-and-white image seems a piece of the past, a keepsake from a distant time and place.

Incandescence is like a window that opens not onto a present-day scene but onto memory. New and old, present and past converge here as they do in Gerard’s other constructions, evoking the passage of time. Mingled with the rusted and the torn are shiny silver cables and bolts, clean segments of glass and wire mesh. Transformation at the hands of the elements is implied; I found myself wondering just how long it takes for a plastic bag to go from bright white to tattered gray.

Nearly all of Gerard’s constructions function more as semitransparent containers than as solid, impenetrable sculptures. They’re like reliquaries, but housing secular mementos rather than relics of saints. Sex Nuts Life Rattle, the one freestanding piece in the show, goes the farthest in this direction. A glass-bottomed open box about the size of a toy chest stands on metal legs; the sides, made of rough, unvarnished pine, are held together by wire cables threaded through the legs and crossed inside the box. Though these cables look strong, they also speak of fragility: it seems likely that if you cut one the entire structure would collapse. At the heart of Sex Nuts Life Rattle, suspended on a rod, is a tiny inner box. Turn the handle on the outside of the larger box and the one inside rotates. As its two glass sides come into view, you see what it holds: locks of brown hair and three small baby teeth rattling lightly against the glass. Watching the little box turn round and round is a pleasant but melancholy experience, reminding us of loss even as it evokes long-forgotten memories of jack-in-the-boxes, push toys, and mobiles.

Not all of Gerard’s sculptures contain relics of the human body. In Voyage several layers of rusty-looking frames, cables, glass, and wire mesh lead not to a lock of hair or even a photo but to a square of corroded metal with a mottled brown and yellowish white surface, perhaps a beat-up piece of enamel. Gerard has an eye for these one-of-a-kind junk gems; in this respect her constructions remind me of Robert Nickle’s collages of tire-flattened, pockmarked scraps of litter. Their aims are different, of course: Nickle worked abstractly, looking for a perfect balance of form, texture, and color, while Gerard seems much more interested in unearthing her materials’ emotional resonance. And their projects are admittedly nothing new–Kurt Schwitters’s merz constructions have been inspiring artists to recycle junk for more than 70 years now. But both Nickle and Gerard wake us up to the look and feel of Chicago in ways that are at least as truthful as any picture postcard or conventionally rendered painting.

Gerard sometimes alters her found materials to create surprising effects; things are not always what they seem in her work. The pale insides of the holes drilled at the corners of Voyage’s frames suggest the material isn’t rusted metal after all but wood painted a rust color. And though from a distance Accumulations Poussierreuses, a five-foot-square construction suspended on cables, appears to be fabricated from Cor-Ten steel, from closer up you discover it’s made from bolted-together pieces of rough-textured wood. These support a central open cage filled with what look like stacks of nicked and bent sheets of scrap metal–until you notice the familiar font of the Reader’s classified ads and realize you’re looking at wrinkled newspapers painted a rusty red. Once again we’re confronted by the sense of time passing: what was once up-to-the-minute not only ages but nearly loses its identity altogether.

As I rode the Damen bus home from Gerard’s show, I felt for a moment as though I were inside one of her constructions–that I was an aging collection of memories, teeth, bone, and hair temporarily housed in a rattling box of glass and steel. I thought about ghosts, and how they not only haunt shoe boxes of old letters and photos but even attach themselves to seemingly impersonal detritus like dented window screens and crumpled newspapers. I noticed the big X formed by scaffolding outside a building, and several times saw frayed plastic bags flapping in trees. And I decided that though she’s only been here a few years, Gerard has Chicago down to a T.