The High Art of the Throw-Away

Six Artists Transform the Mundane into the Remarkable in the Nerman Museum’s “Ephemera” Exhibition

Six artists make the most of materials found, discarded, avoided or unappreciated in the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art’s “Ephemera” exhibit, which opened in time to be seen by visitors to the 27th International Sculpture Conference, from Oct. 25 through 28, in Kansas City.

Presented in pairs in three spacious first floor galleries, the artists source wildly different artistic media from the throw-away world of global capitalism or forgotten elements of nature. In their minds and hands, creative reuse is the common practice of transforming discarded materials into beautifully impractical, sometimes startling, art objects.

There is nothing quite like encountering the fleshy, undulating gills of an oversized mushroom cap turned on its side. It was merely the launching pad for New York artist Michelle Segre’s wonderfully wacky sculptural installation “Self-Reflexive Narcissistic Supernova.” The work takes multi-media to another level with its dangling strings of dried mushrooms leading to a yarn-wrapped ovoid armature precariously anchored to a cobblestone. Within its many cavities, stuff hangs from more stuff while a bent metal arm projects defiantly upward, resembling a dung lollipop.

Segre’s other two sculptures in the exhibition similarly could be called summer-camp art on steroids, scaled up for the gallery experience. That’s not a knock on her artwork. It looks as fun to make as it is to puzzle over. “Godzeye” ascends out of its mailbox base in glorious messiness. Its loose weave of plastic and yarn, pierced throughout by wonky wires, confounds the expected symmetry of that God’s eye you made at camp.

“Satellite” further expands on the flat, yarn-wrapped oval form. Within it, sticks hold a dozen irregular cavities open for suspended slabs of acrylic color. A rectangular weaving intersects the center of the oval like a gaudy ghost passing through a wall. Segre’s clever combinations of materials remind us how imperfectly but deeply interconnected nature and culture, life and art, actually are.

Around the shared temporary wall, Miles Neidinger surprised with three recent works — noticeably expanded volumes in candy-apple colors. While still working with his signature medium of metal tubing, these works are airier and less introspective than the knottier, galvanized nest of metal conduit on display in the museum lobby, where it tensely holds the cavernous space like a coiled spring.

I wasn’t totally convinced by Neidinger’s glossy paint choices at first, but they do reinforce his absurd upcycling of ordinary construction materials. The inclusion of junction boxes and connector hardware opens up pleasing new bent forms that are more approachable and downright playful, like Segre’s sculptures. Titles like “Echo, Scatter, Swell” and “Vibrate, Fold, Dilate” suggest the open-ended activations of a synaptic jungle gym.

Displayed in pristine museum vitrines, St. Louis artist Kahlil Robert Irving’s chunky conglomerations of ceramic urban detritus take on a mysterious science-fiction quality. Five mixed-media mash-ups of porcelain, stoneware and glaze, reference decorative tchotchkes from grandma’s china cabinet, disposable food containers or cigarette cartons encoded with design decals, some vintage, others invented.

Are we viewing the artistic aftermath of the Anthropocene epoch? Are these future fossils from the human period of gilded garbage, plastic oceans and collapsed culture? Irving’s “Kaleidoscopic Lucas, Gilded Fossil,” for example, reads like a Dutch vanitas painting; with goopy gold glazes folded into mud, it might mean the bling all ends up in the gutter anyhow. Enjoy them while you can, Irving’s posthuman sculptures may long survive our troubled, materialist epoch.

Brian Jungen, a First Nations artist from British Columbia, deftly appropriates and reconfigures colorful, mass-produced sneakers into equally commodified forms of Northwest coast tribal art, arrayed on the walls around Irving’s sculptures. For handmade works like “Variant #4” that wittily resemble tribal masks, or the more abstract composition “New Mexico,” Jungen exploits the industrial design and color combinations of the fetishized sneaker into key compositional elements. Eager to expose them for all their sweatshop cheapness, the artist slices, twists and turns the coveted footwear inside out. Drooping laces even give a sense of dripping paint. His cantilevered block of compressed sneaker soles, “America’s Most Wanted #2,” not only echoes the museum’s architecture, it makes a nice visual segue to Rena Detrixhe’s nearby rug installation — patterned with dozens of intricate sneaker imprints.

The third pairing of artists achieves the most harmonious dynamic. Susan White and Rena Detrixhe’s respective site-specific installations find their affinity in the use of gleaned natural materials. There is little we think less of than dirt, but Detrixhe goes all in with the abundant iron rich soil that makes up her show-stopping “Red Dirt Rug.” As with the other artists in the show, I sense the intimacy that they have developed with their media.

Detrixhe laboriously sifted through volumes of dirt to create the inch-high rug pile that became the canvas for her meticulous decorative patterning. Visible on the surface of the fine-packed soil are swaths of muted mineral pigments. Part simulated textile and part earthwork, each iteration of rug has its own design vocabulary of sneaker tread combinations. And as for that itinerant insect trail across the work? Call it a passing accident.

White’s pointed gathering “River of Solace, River of Hope” flows 45 feet across two gallery walls, just out of arm’s reach. The antler-like clusters of locust tree thorns, softened by shadows, appear as delicate crosshatched clouds from afar. Upon closer inspection the prickly sharpness of the spines comes into focus. Subtle tints of burnished natural color blend with clinging bits of lichen to enhance the texture of the work. It’s evident that each potentially eye-poking, blood-letting thorn cluster has been carefully handled, nurtured into a sculptural medium. White rendered this daunting natural material into a dimensional and starkly emotive work. The pairing of thorns in White’s “River” to the impressions made in Detrixhe’s “Rug” is like the stylus is to the clay tablet. It all belongs together, however temporary it may be.

The “Ephemera” exhibition resonates with multiple, even contradictory, meanings. It speaks to the transitory nature of site-specific installation, but much of the work is quite durable, and may outlast us all. The exhibit generously provides the sculpture ample space to breathe, while the artist pairings enable interesting conversations to emerge. It’s a fun, balanced show, capable of refreshing our relationship to the sea of mundane stuff around us. What they transform that mundane stuff into is remarkable.

“Ephemera” continues through Jan. 28 at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, 12345 College Blvd., Overland Park. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday, Friday and Saturday; 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. Wednesday and Thursday; and noon to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information 913.469.3000 or www.nermanmuseum.org

All images: Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art / photo by E.G. Schempf

Brian Hearn

Brian Hearn is an art advisor, appraiser, curator and writer interested in all things art, cave painting to contemporary.

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