Dan Peterman: Plastic Economies

at the Museum of Contemporary Art, through September 12

Derek Webster

at Intuit, through October 2

Recycling–or in some cases not recycling–is the subject of Dan Peterman’s seven large installations at the Museum of Contemporary Art. A midcareer retrospective, the show confirms that this internationally recognized Chicago conceptual artist is an original voice adept at fostering greater awareness of how we use our material resources.

Ground Cover is made of “post-consumer recycled plastic,” according to the wall label, which includes Peterman’s statement that “in our society, plastic generally implies a way of thinking in which all things are disposable.” The piece consists of pastel tiles arranged in a regular pattern on the gallery floor plus two stacks of additional tiles. Peterman’s alternative to our throwaway ethos changes what he calls the “flow” of materials in our society.

Villa Deponie is made of plastic recycled from athletic shoes. It takes the form of a single-room house open at one end because one wall is lying on the floor; inside are benches grouped around a lamp. It’s actually rather comfortable to sit inside, as visitors are invited to do, but I found it a little creepy. The speckled walls are red, blue, and yellow, but black dominates, making the interior somber, even funereal. Though made of recycled materials, neither Ground Cover nor Villa Deponie seems to be of practical use, but perhaps that’s part of the point.

Two small sculptures, each titled Rathole, demonstrate that Peterman’s interests go beyond recycling. He made concrete casts of rat burrows in his garden, then left the soil and other debris on the casts when he pulled them out of the ground. These pieces are displayed upside down on the floor, which calls attention to the bottom of the holes, where the rats live, instead of the top, which is what humans usually see. Peterman’s memorializing embrace of the “homes” of these despised creatures calls attention to an aspect of the urban environment we don’t usually consider in sympathetic terms.

I appreciate the ways Peterman engages with the same things that many traditional artists, attempting to render their materials invisible, try to efface. But I’ve never been completely satisfied by the work. Its elegance largely comes from the way Peterman articulates his ideas–he himself attributes any “aesthetic attraction” in his work to “a conceptual relationship that’s compelling.” Pure visual beauty might distract from that, but there may also be a puritanical strain underlying

Peterman’s social critiques. The newest piece here, Recent Recipes, isn’t appealing to look at. A sprawling affair whose subject is institutional food preparation, it’s made up of tables and shelves stacked with bags, boxes, and buckets of such materials as “High Gloss White RTU Fondant Icing” whose expiration dates have all passed. On one table, red powder sits in a large dish at the center of dozens of paper cups holding a creamy substance sprinkled with the powder; red has rarely looked so unappetizing. Moreover the food’s institutional smell isn’t pleasant. Here the materials flow from box or barrel to our mouths and bellies.

Fresh fruit is displayed in The Top of the Truck That Hit the Bridge (Seasonal Fruit Stand), though it’s not available for consumption. For this piece Peterman refashioned the aluminum top of a wrecked truck into a round kiosk and bowls, which here contain apples. Holes in the kiosk’s upper panels and rounded flaps above each bowl suggest an attempt at a pleasing design but are hardly expressive of anything more. All the metal has jagged edges–even the rims of the fruit bowls. Is this meant to reflect on the impossibility of making something entirely good out of industrial waste? Peterman says the metal’s “lack of polish” reflects his cutting process–and that the museum prohibits eating in its galleries.

More practical attempts at social change are represented, however modestly, by three outdoor pieces, all titled Standard Kiosk and made from trash containers. Two are in Humboldt Park, and the third stands in the plaza in front of the museum, where it serves as a free bike-repair facility. “You’re helping somebody out–it’s a beautiful thing,” said mechanic Adam Clark. And Nico West was thrilled to be using “top-notch repair equipment” to do something he loves. They’re supposed to be paid–but two months into the project neither Clark nor West had received any money, and Peterman didn’t know their hourly rate.

Peterman said he hasn’t yet met the two bike-repair people I spoke with, and neither had been offered free admission to the museum or a copy of the exhibition catalog. In Europe for much of this run, the artist said, “In ideal circumstances I’d be sitting on the project more.” He chuckled over bicyclists’ frugality when I told him these workers had waited until the museum’s free Tuesday evenings to attend the show they’re part of. But it seems likely that both of them, working as bike messengers, have to be frugal–a reality that Peterman’s implied alternative economy doesn’t acknowledge.

“I make art out of junk,” Derek Webster says. “I think they call that recycling now.” Born in Honduras and raised there and in Belize, he came to Chicago in 1964 and worked as a janitor until he retired at 65 a few years ago. When he and his wife purchased a home in 1978, he wanted to put in a garden but was afraid his poodle would wreck it. He didn’t want just an ordinary fence, so he decorated it with small sculptures, including tiny windmills. These were his first artworks. Ninety of his pieces, mostly human figures but also animals and objects, are now on view at Intuit. And though it’s not surprising that Webster’s art would be shown at a center for outsider art and that MFA holder Peterman would be exhibiting at the MCA, it’s a shame this splitting off of artistic communities exists.

Webster’s exuberant work is characterized by glorious excess. In Untitled (Fancy Lady With Purse), a twisted piece of wood serves as a long, thin, curvy body with a dynamic tilt that wouldn’t be much out of place in a fashion magazine. But on the goofy face of the “lady” is a pair of sunglasses set askew, and her oversize purse, to which Webster has added paint and various objects, is more odd than chic. Untitled (Totem With Queen Elizabeth Stamps) tops it by offering three figures arranged vertically. Bottle caps, beads, and costume jewelry festoon the piece, and each lady has distinctively arranged arms that end in lightbulb bases for hands.

Webster’s figures are less representations of people than beings in themselves. “I consider them my friends,” he says. “I talk to them. I will hold one and hug one.” His birds and animals are equally vital. The wings of Untitled (Blond Bird), outlined with plastic caps, project proudly into space, as do the brightly colored materials covering its surface. A large lid from a mayonnaise jar punctuates one extremity, sitting next to paint applied by Webster, who apparently finds product designs as worthy as his own marks.

The twisted, top-heavy shape of Untitled (Derek’s Dog), also made from a piece of wood, has true iconic power. Bent over, the creature looks decidedly human, peering out from beneath a hat, necklaces around its neck. One might argue that Webster’s recycling gives his work some of the conceptual elements of Peterman’s. But the incantatory visual power of Webster’s best pieces provides a dimension Peterman’s work lacks.