Solid, Liquid, and In Between: The Frag Sculptures of Joe Bussell

Joe Bussell – Frags installation view, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas

Joe Bussell: Frags at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art continues the institution’s forward-facing practice of bringing the art of our time into conversation with the ideas and challenges of the same. Former Museum Director and Chief Curator Bruce Hartman has selected 21 of more than 50 works in the Frag series by Joe Bussell, who holds a BFA in painting from the University of Kansas and MFAs in both painting and ceramics from Washington University, St. Louis. Both traditions are boldly present in this body of new work that is formally dynamic, emotionally complex, strangely compelling, rich in ideas and allusions to modernism, postmodernism, the culture wars, and the histories of sculpture and painting.

While as a people we continue to stand under the hulking form of COVID-19, a terror so large that its shadow looms over our daily lives, how might we approach, experience and understand the dark beauty of the Frag sculptures by Joe Bussell? Bussell has shown a willingness and an ability to use expressive abstraction as a profoundly emotional form, one that uses fragments of his own history to interpret our time and place, our culture and challenges.

Each Frag disguises its reincarnation, masquerading as layered concrete, stone or plaster. What we are looking at is an object formed from layers of acrylic house paint discarded at the Johnson County hazardous waste facility where the artist volunteered and from which they were scavenged. Objects imbedded in these layers of paint are often plastic ones, upcycled from a Goodwill store; a neon orange pupu platter gingerly finds its place as the base for Frag #3. “I think plastic is absolutely the right material to be working with now, because there is so much of it,” Bussell asserts.

The acrylic house paint from which the Frags are primarily sculpted— “solid, liquid, and in between”— has been utilized and manipulated in a variety of ingenious manners reflecting the artist’s history as both a painter and ceramicist. Remains of desiccated paint were wrenched from the bottom of gallon buckets, cast and cured, becoming the cylindrical discs from which Frag #2 finds its monolithic form. Paint that was still fluid was poured dozens of times onto now camouflaged chicken wire in Frag #1, each layer allowed to dry until after many weeks a new form altogether has been created.

Joe Bussell – Frags installation view, Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art, Johnson County Community College, Overland Park, Kansas

In addition to acrylic house paint, Bussell utilizes both traditional and unconventional materials, such as aluminum-based oil paint and organic dried and sealed vegetation (Frag #3), and Damar varnish and a mid-century plastic bowl upended to create a topper (Frag #18). Many of the Frags have a sort of topknot: “I try to get away from a finial. As a classical ceramicist, it’s a ploy, yes, and it’s the humor part. It adds to the piece. It’s a crown. It’s not just an adornment.”

While all of the Frags on view at the Nerman were completed in 2020, the series began in 2003 with works that are smaller in scale and less complex formally. In 2019, the artist challenged himself to “grow the work.”

A major influence on both the formal and psychological qualities that we see in the Frag sculptures comes from his work in an AIDS clinic: “The ghosts of my experiences at the AIDS hospice always halo my work. The Frag pieces dip in and out of my pool of experiences to perhaps give me a chance to heal from some experiences; sometimes to inform the art and the viewer and sometimes to give me the opportunity to joyfully make a body
of work.”

When pressed on how he knows a work is finished, Bussell replied with marvelous self-awareness, “Do we talk about instincts? Collective consciousness? Things that we cannot put in black and white? At some point, I create a full narrative that is still only telling part of the story.” The story is only told when it is heard; the work is alive when it is experienced in the gallery. The vibrancy, intelligence and ingenuity of the Frag objects find an ideal setting and cadence, gathered together atop a plinth and cosseted within a violet aura within the McCaffree Gallery at the Nerman Museum through Dec. 22.

Barbara O’Brien, an independent curator and critic based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, was executive director of Kemper Museum of Contemporary Art in Kansas City, Missouri.

This is an excerpt from the full essay, available on nermanmuseum.org.

Check nermanmuseum.org for reopening information. The museum is currently open by appointment only for JCCC classes.

–Barbara O’Brien, photos by EG Schempf

CategoriesArts Consortium

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