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Defying Gravitas

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Ah, the culture wars. It's an election year and much of what you hear has to do with not just which candidate would be better at protecting our national well being, but also at reflecting American "values." The values issue goes back to the 1960s, and it sometimes seems as if the Republican right wing is trying to retroactively repeal that fateful decade. In the art world, however, the culture wars are fought on somewhat different turf.

Ever since the 1960s, the clash has been between newer idioms such as postmodernism, conceptualism and minimalism and older expressions such as realism. Unlike the political culture wars, which play for very high stakes, the art wars are more nuanced. Postmodern conceptualism is far from new and can range from quite clever to downright stodgy, while realism can be either timelessly cool or unspeakably shallow depending on the consciousness the artist brings to the work.

A product of the UNO art department's axis of abstraction and conceptualism, Dan Tague has curated a number of mostly postmodern shows that may baffle some conservatives yet are often quite witty if approached with an open mind. His latest, Expanding Boundaries, at Steve Martin, is no exception, a collection of eccentric objects that question our assumptions about what art is, or isn't. Untitled, by John Anderson, lays it on the line, so to speak.

And Anderson's lines are very fine: a row of skeletal outlines is all that is left of common product boxes that once held Band-Aids or toothpaste after everything was surgically cut away but the edges and corners, leaving only empty rectangles. Sometimes telltale traces of text such as "bad breath," "capsule shaped tablets," or "permanent marker" turn up in the margins, but the disembodied boxes themselves come across as cubic abstractions arranged in jazzy patterns of color. And one wonders what Mondrian would make of this Andy-Warhol-Brillo-box variation on his classic Broadway Boogie Woogie painting, were he alive today.

Beyond Mondrian, Anderson's antecedents would have to include Duchamp, who elevated everyday objects to a level of diabolical dadaism. Yet, we should remember that those fathers of minimalism and conceptualism reached their career peaks just under a century ago. So much for the "shock of the new!" In fact, this show would be lost without those everyday objects. Tague's own piece, Dragon, is a drawing rendered in ultra-fine lines that turn out to be hair. Ainsley Beery's Caution Coat is a vastly oversized industrial jumpsuit on a wire hanger made from heavy gauge rebar. The outfit itself is safety-yellow flecked with black in a thick weave reminiscent of latter-day plastic chain mail, and only up close up does it become clear that it's woven from that yellow "Caution" tape commonly strung up at construction sites.

More traditional expressions turn up in Bonnie Paisley's Wall Cake, which initially resembles the baroque ceiling medallions seen in old New Orleans homes. The title sheet, however, notes that it's assembled from "Royal Icing," that ornamental pre-packaged icing that typically adorns wedding cakes. But the mood turns classical in Tim Frisby's Houses of the Holy, another Exacto knife special, this time a small-scale shadow box panorama of federal government buildings in a row. If those precise, green cut-outs of the U.S. Capitol, the White House and Independence Hall look familiar, it's the Lincoln Memorial. The words "In God We Trust" arching over it like a pastel green rainbow confirm our suspicions that these cute little structures were meticulously clipped from paper currency of various denominations and then grafted together to form a kind of ultimate, cash-money American landscape.

But Srdjan Loncar takes pictures to another level, literally, in Abstraction 1, which looks like a scale model of an exploding airliner made from a skin of blurry photographs wrapped around a Styrofoam form. And Christopher Saucedo in Self Portrait (In Exact Volume and Weight) juxtaposes a heavy metal object resting on the floor with comic strip drawings of himself as a child conducting a science experiment on cubic displacement. The heavy metal object, like a calibrated weight from a vastly oversized scale, is a literal expression of gravitas, suggesting that while this show may be wry to the point of sarcasm, it is -- literally -- not without heft.

Weighty matters: Christopher Saucedo's Self Portrait (In Exact Volume and Weight) illustrates the heft of the Expanding Boundaries exhibit at Steve Martin Gallery.
  • Weighty matters: Christopher Saucedo's Self Portrait (In Exact Volume and Weight) illustrates the heft of the Expanding Boundaries exhibit at Steve Martin Gallery.

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