Saturday, July 23, 2005

The Big Picture 41

Of the many delightful quirks that set us humans apart from the animals, besides quality footwear, Fritz Lang films, and anonymous sex, is our compulsion to collect. Everyone you know, even those bizarre and unnatural people who claim, with a self-righteous sniff, to despise clutter and flotsam, is a collector – usually of ostensibly “useful” things such as clothes and wine, but it’s the same impulse.

In my own charming circles, I know people who collect classic country and western vinyl records, unusual cacti, macramé owls (granted, that’s a special taste), and Hammer Horror movies, as well as less tangible, or at least less showy items such as countries visited and beer tastings. If you’re human, you hoard.

A new show at Xpace gallery examines the collecting urge and finds in it an unexpected revelation – that people amass objects not just to fulfil an atavistic desire to nest, but to remake the world they inhabit. Collecting, the exhibition demonstrates, is as much a creative act as it is an acquisitive practice, because when you remove an object from one surrounding and reposition it in your own little world, you have, of course, changed that object by changing its context.

To collect is to re-assemble, argue Julie Jenkinson and Michael Baumgart, the artists behind The Bureau of Productive Arts, and therefore, they ask, why not take the piles of things you’ve assembled and rework them into art? It’s the next logical step, after all.

Julie Jenkinson explains the duo’s magpie approach as one borne out of both curiosity and a desire to recreate a childlike state of play.

“Michael and I started working toward this show about six years ago, when we started collecting found pieces, magical little surprises from the street. For instance, one piece of sculpture is made from found wood, discarded string and metal, and stuff I found in the garbage. We spend quite a bit of time going to flee markets and junk yards, and then we turn the stuff we’ve found into something it is not, or was not, and give it a new life.”

“There’s a really beautiful tension created when you transform a found object, a tension between what it was and what it has become. Familiarity and strangeness inhabit the same object.”

Plus, adds Baumgart, it’s great fun.

“Part of what we’re doing is redirecting people’s attention to how things look when you stop for a moment and look at them as if you’ve never seen them before, like when you flip an object over and look at the underside, which maybe you never paid attention to before.”

“We want people to come in and be delighted and surprised and inspired, and hopefully as excited about the work as we are. After having all this stuff around for six years, it’s thrilling, and sort of terrifying, to be finally showing it all, getting it out to the public.”

Not to mention getting it all out of their studio, which, if the massive amount of work in Productive Arts is an indication, must be about the size of Heather Reisman’s solarium.

There’s everything in Productive Arts from bracelets made of pansy-shaped kennel tags from Baltimore, to spooky, manipulated early 20th century family portraits, to a giant bench made from a junked 300 year old hemlock beam, to Jenkinson’s wonderfully feral, itchy charcoal drawings of wild animals.

“We were worried at first that we put too much stuff in,” Baumgart says, “but then we figured there was no such thing as too much, at least in this case.”

“And,” Jenkinson admits, “it’s not even half of what we have at home.”


I’m the kind of guy who finds changing a battery about as easy as learning Sanskrit, so imagine my surprise when I not only liked, but actually understood (well, kind of) the technology-driven work on display at Interaccess Gallery.

Pulse is a survey of new work by recent art school grads with a yen for new technologies - which sounds more frightening than it is, because these students have not only learned how to make things chirp and blink using memory cards, fire wires and other gizmos I don’t pretend to comprehend, but also, and more important, they’ve learned how to entertain viewers who don’t happen to have Wired subscriptions.

Ryan Pierce creates a green and throbbing virtual garden with a low steel frame and a moving video projector that casts images of plants and grass directly onto the gallery floor. Rob King turns his personal electronic correspondence into an ever-shifting, black lined diagram that looks like a Paul-Émile Borduas painting come to life. Pearl Chen programs nets of little chartreuse lights to flash in pretty, alluring waves, and has written a tiny pocket book showing you how to do the same (not that I got past the first page, but I’m immune to pedagogy). And if you still need more science fair fun, wander over to Adam Brandejs’s creepy “Gen Pets” sculpture, a mock commercial display selling freakish monkey/cat hybrid pets from the future. But be careful, the horrid (and heartbreaking) creatures are prone to disturbing fits and shrieks.

Accessible but still loaded with enough techno gimcracks to satisfy even the nerdiest customer, Pulse is more fun, and much less preachy, than previous exhibitions concerned with technology’s impact on human and natural environments. It might even get your kids to put down that g-d Gameboy.


I wanted to like Geoffrey Pugen’s slick multimedia exhibition Aerobia! , but something kept me from being fully engaged - a nagging sensation that I was looking at some very old ideas dressed up in smart new designer threads.

Aerobia! is a series of mock documents portraying a cult-like organization that promises its adherents well being by teaching them to find their “inner animal”. To sell the concept, Pugen has created a series of handsome advertisements depicting half human/half animal cultists and an attractive infomercial narrated by a pretty male host. All very interesting, at least on its shiny surface.

The problem with this work is that while the show purports to explore the rough and wild animal-human dynamic, it looks as clean, cool and urban as an expensive billboard selling overpriced sneakers. The graphics are clearly more important than the subject, and whatever Darwinian exploration Pugen is engaged in is lost in the sterile production values. Shouldn’t an exhibition about finding one’s inner beast be a bit scruffy, carry a whiff of the barnyard?

Furthermore, the icy, hyper-current fashion rag look of the show can’t overcome the fact that Pugen is Photoshopping dated and well-worn themes – namely, H.G. Wells’s classic The Island of Dr. Moreau, written almost a hundred and ten years ago.

Oh well, at least the models are sexy (but that’s just my inner bonobo monkey talking).

Julie Jenkinson and Michael Baumgart
The Bureau of Productive Arts
Xpace 303 Augusta Avenue Until July 31

Interaccess 9 Ossington Avenue Until August 6

Geoffrey Pugen
Angell Gallery 809 Queen Street West Until August 6