An enormous inflated creature crouches atop the building housing Marty Walker Gallery. It’s a Macrodon, a creature born from Billy Zinser’s expressionistic, Philip Guston-ish paintings, and brought to life as a hulking, quasi action figure glob. The piece is an amusing inclusion for a show titled Small Works: Art + Object. Zinser, Marty Walker Gallery director and recent Dallas Museum of Art grant recipient, has a number of offerings in the show, aside from the anything-but-diminutive piece on the roof. Macrodons began as small, boxed “toy” sculptures (on sale for $40 in the gallery), but Zinser was able to expand (or is inflate the right word?) the idea to a new scale with the earnings from his DMA grant. The decision to place the inflated Macrodon on top of the gallery was a last minute one, says Zinser, but one of those eureka moments. Having the giant inflatable on the roof to serve as a sculptural delegate for the show queues visitors into the pop/cartoon/post-now spirit of the exhibit: one enters the gallery expecting loads of fun, and the show doesn’t disappoint in that regard.
But the work here isn’t fluff. If the minor existential crisis I had about the state of our cultural era in light of this show is any indication of the mind games the work can play, i.e. how will we be remembered if everything we ever made was ephemeral, conceptual, or silly, then consider seeing this show a joyful little labor. If Zinser’s enormous, hot air-filled Macrodon is the show’s mascot, it sure has its team pumped to play hard.
Small Works is an invitational round-up of small sculpture by some of the gallery’s artists, as well as many more from elsewhere. For a majority of the work, white shelves have been installed along the walls of the gallery leaving room for navigating the space, and letting the pint-sized, often colorful work pop off the white gallery walls. Some work, like that of Austin artist Sterling Allen, sits on the floor in a corner.
Mr. Allen’s sculptures are some of the first you see when you enter the space – small wooden constructions painted an acidy blue and pasty white. There is an A-frame, fast food restaurant/bird house structure called Fast Stop; a mini-monument of the state of Texas, backwards, called Texas; and among a few other objects, a piece of wood that looks like a hacked-off cutting board called Piece. Some of the objects are a miniaturization of things so huge and inflated, and pregnant with identifiers – fast food chains and our own Lone Star State – that making kitsch totems of them seems entirely appropriate, like toys you’d take home with a combo meal, or from a rest stop shop on Interstate 30. Clustering the chalky-colored collection of Allen’s things on the floor makes them seem even more toss-away, as if they are slated for the yard sale table on some random Saturday; and as a group, Sterling Allen’s sculptures look like a bunch of things made by a woodshop class in high school, and so sound their titles. But it seems that’s what Allen is after: a tweaked and wonky representation of objects that represent bigger things. It’s meta-level irony. (Fast food is for the birds. [chuckle chuckle])
Funny man Wayne White pulled a few more laughs out of me with his squashed-word phrases, rendered here as small vertical sculptures on tiny pedestals. One of them, Dude Starts Freakin, is a cast bronze, karate chopping, little devil of hilarity, like a little 3-D shape poem falling down to the sound of its own meter. It elicits bar-fight scenes or road-side road rage fist throws. Seriously, the things Wayne White can conjure up in a few of someone else’s overused words should go down as legitimate sociological research somewhere. And he’s managed to up the ante in these sculptures by coupling phrases to materials that further propel you toward a stereotypical portrait of someone. Hotties 24/7, for example, is all bubble-lettered squishy pinks and marshmallow whites.
Speaking of squishy, Austin artist Nathan Green offers a full table of faux food delights and otherwise (cracks): a yellow sponge burger, called Bcn Chz Burg, which tantalizes with fake bacon and the odor of text messaging codes for the munchies. Or how about that saccharine sweet looking boot covered in candy called Nerdy Abstraction with Shoe? Oh, did I put my foot in my mouth? Are Nerds not your thing? Maybe an equally sweet rainbow spear/monstrous lollipop called Rainbow Stalactite would suit you? Or maybe you’re not hungry (like that) at all. Need a back scratch? Nathan Green’s got just the thing: a bigger, better, more far-reaching white plastic hanger for all those hard to reach itches that can drive a bloke batty. It’s called Altered Hanger. (Hey now – no need to be fancy, folks. If you have an itch you must scratch, just scratch it.) Look at that democratization – artists offering serviceable goods, feeding and soothing the masses with witty object poems.
Margaret Meehan offers her own reclaimed object spoof as well, though these have word play far removed from Mr. Green’s high-brow, dorm room humor. Ms. Meehan, like many of her artist colleagues here, is playing with words. By wrapping thin, branched twigs in soft pink or black leather, binding them with beads and colored thread and calling them all Libido (with various numeral assignations) she’s turned fragile little fallen branches into S and M personas, cladding something utterly benign in an armor of identities and suggestive forces. The sticks, fastened deftly to the wall to appear to grow out of it, cast shadows three layers thick around themselves, increasing their thrust, shall we say, and making them seem more beautiful, but more terrifying too. A small white fur and plaster bust beneath the branches called The Pugilist opens a toothy slit of a mouth and drops a tear from a hollow, beady eye. It’s a beaten creature.
Dallas artist Thomas Feulmer lends a couple more creatures to the dialogue. More appropriately, I should say a couple of couples, as the two sculptures I have in mind are both entwined or mounted pairs. Always considering male sexuality, Mr. Feulmer has made one little object in particular here that I found most compelling. Called Asleep with Shadows, it is an assembled piece made from a hollow porcelain statuette of a pair of nuzzling polar bears stuffed with multicolored pompoms. Hot pink string ties the statuette to a rough, dark bronze copy of it, with a swatch of mattress ticking slid in between. It’s an odd and clever little suggestion of, to pun, polar tensions: the bright purity of an action that is sullied by lurking weight and darkness. More than anything, I like the intuitive urgency of the piece. The disparate parts and fragments counterweight each other, creating a measured balance that feels like daring fashion can. It has a tossing energy about it that is disquieting, but private. It’s just right, and in the course of my tour of the show I kept coming back to this piece, marveling I think, at its just-so-ness– its material and intellectual surety.
At first, much of the work in this little show eluded me. I suspect it will others. It is easy to think you’ve seen what’s here before, in one iteration or another. You have. But Small Works reminds us that art is about seeing that leads to thinking that leads to looking anew. And that’s no laughing matter.
Small Works: Art + Object
Marty Walker Gallery
November 20 – December 23, 2010