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Hall of Mirrors
by Kevin Radley

Robert Orbal "Mountain Dew", 1996

I keep finding myself, these days, being most attracted to the idea of group shows--anything but a one-person exhibition. Primarily because with group shows you get more bang for your buck: visual catalogs of material bliss in combination with variety, diversity, and your choice of colors. In the hyper-consumerist cultural landscape of the late 20th century, America finds itself saturated by a deluge of products and services whose use and value have become increasingly suspect, and where packaging prevails.

For Refusalon's current exhibition, "Nothing Matters," artist/entrepreneur and gallery founder Charles Linder has invited 17 artists to examine the issues surrounding materiality and meaning. He leaves the premise open and suggestive, stating "it's more of a feeling that we're after--an increasingly fleeting one in this material era..."

Setting the tone for the exhibition is Samuel Yates' installation "UNTITLED," thirty-six medium size brown cardboard boxes stacked on top of one another. The work towers prodigiously through the stairwell of the building, rising to a height of 40 feet. The top box is popped open--nothing inside. The face of each box is silk-screened in powder-blue and in bold text, a single word reads, "BLAH," and again "BLAH, BLAH, BLAH." It's a stunning piece, if not for its sheer monumentality and ingenuity. In many ways, the piece performs an art historical straddling about sculptural content. To some extent, it is a hybrid of Brancusi's endless column and Warhol's brillo boxes. Whereas Brancusi's seemingly endless stack of plinths speak of the power of monumentality and the spiritual, Warhol's piles cynically pinpoint consumerism as emblematic, overstated and overproduced. Yates' piece ups the Warholian ante by suggesting that no matter what is to be bought, it's never enough; no matter what your needs, you'll always need more. Eventually, "BLAH, BLAH, BLAH," becomes tantamount to a generational "whatever."

In direct contrast to Yates' monumental gesture, Richard Haden's box takes the opposite strategy. box is a deceptively simple yet thoroughly engaging work. Placed strategically near the center of the gallery, it commands a complete double take. At first glance, the piece comes up short, I wasn't so thrilled about the idea of a cardboard box washed overwith a grayish white film, sealed shut with a wide strip of green shipping tape and a slightly askew address label attached to its side. Yeah right! Been there, done that. However, in that brief instant when second sight shatters one's own presumptions, the realization occurs: not everything is what it appears to be. The piece is not cardboard at all, but a solid cube of mahogany meticulously fabricated with creases, dents, and all the rationale of a much handled package. The tape and address label are, in fact, layer upon layer of applied paint. There is an anonymity to the piece--it's not addressed to anyone; there are no identifiable markings; there are no signs of being delivered or waiting to be picked up. It just sits there silent and inert. The piece's strength lies in its ordinariness, implicating any number of potentialities and destinations. This is in direct contrast to popular culture's adherence to readable and recognizable markings in determining an object's full potential as an image. Haden strips away those relied upon markings, and delivers his package to the realm of non-Pop.

Robert Ortbal's contribution is the tool shed-oriented mountain dew. Mounted on the wall is a weathered wooden shelf. Pinned above it is a series of black and white photographs. The shelf holds several cans of "Mountain Dew," and a small beige garden sprayer hangs beneath it. The photographs function primarily as documentation of a male figure loading up the sprayer and dispensing the liquid in an empty white room. One image however, is solid black and it splits the storyboard into equal parts. Why the deleted image? What is not being said and why? One possible answer is the question of intent. Ortbal's ironic wackiness is both subtle and subversive not only to the commodity he employs, but to the place and manner in which he employs it--the gallery floor. By dumping the antifreeze-colored beverage into a chemical sprayer, Ortbal's demonstration speaks more for truth in materiality of the popular soft drink than the makers of "Mountain Dew" would ever say. Maybe that's why it takes 31 grams of sugar to mask the sodium benzoate and erythorbic acid used to preserve freshness, or the dash of calcium disodium EDTA to protect flavor.

While there is a strain of work in the exhibition that directly addresses the issue of commodity and meaning, there are other works that address "matter" in a more open and suggestive mode, stressing form, material and process. Carla Paganelli has an uncanny sense of form selection and employing its potential towards the utilitarian. muse is a sculptural work presented in two parts. The first piece is a found object made of solid wood and mounted to the wall. Each end of the object is semi-oval in shape and joined at the hip by a rectilinear area. The second half of the piece is free standing and decidedly larger (approximately eight feet tall), repeating the forms of the smaller work and leaning at a precarious angle. The body of the piece is covered in a luscious satiny fabric not unlike the type used in finely upholstered furniture, or maybe even a ballgown. The back has a buttoned-hole seam that runs up it's edge. Pagenelli seems to be playing with dual meanings here, with commentaries ranging from the figurative to the functional. On the one hand, muse establishes the notion of an ancient fertility figure having been clothed, covered and protected. On the other, it also reads like a big loveseat stood on end, perhaps jilted, or, more likely, declaratively single and independent.

Heather Sparks's ream pits computer technology and the epidermal in an unsettling relationship. Sparks scans the surface of her skin, then mainlines the information via the computer and laser printer onto strips of vellum, which are draped over a pipe suspended from the gallery ceiling. The edges of the vellum are torn and crumpled, in some areas and the printer seems to have run amok with ink, leaving occasional drops of red. Under these conditions the material actually has a feeling of being "reamed" through the printer, or perhaps "processed" is a more apt term here. For all of its low-tech beauty, ream poses arduous questions about the body in relationship to technology. Are we better informed, in these final heartbeats of the 20th century, by the technological body surrounding us? Or, are we merely being scanned into strands of laser-printed information?

All too often, group shows read as collections of evidence surrounding particular themes. However, in "Nothing Matters," Refusalon's array of images, objects and artifacts ricochet off of one another. From a sculptural perspective it repositions materiality in relationship to subject matter. From a cultural perspective, especially with regard to commodity, it challenges the assumption that "the proof is in the packaging."

Kevin Radley

San Francisco, California
1996

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