There once was a time when art was made from virgin materials, when painters mixed their own pigments from minerals and herbs, and sculptors carved statues and busts from freshly quarried marble. Whatever was left of that ancient tradition came to a halt more than 80 years ago when Marcel Duchamp exhibited urinals and bicycle wheels as art, or "readymades," as he called them. By taking mass-produced objects out of their usual context and showing them as art objects, Duchamp forever altered the way we conceptualize art and objects. And that, in a nutshell, is how art lost its virginity.
Actually, Duchamp was only doing what the dadaists did, but he did it more memorably, so he gets the credit. Since then, art made from found objects has fallen into two classes: the Proustian sort typified by Joseph Cornell's surreal boxes, and the more clinical kind associated with most conceptual art since the 1960s. Where the former involves quirky remembrances of things past, the latter is based on more abstract associations of the sort seen in Sally Heller's Detritus, Refuse and Other Multiples show at Galerie Simonne Stern.
Actually, some pieces are easy and fun. My favorites included a series of portrait faces that might at first be mistaken for line drawings executed with thick globs of paint. Up close, Vanity Face 1, an image of a blue-eyed woman with red lips and green eye shadow, is actually comprised of fake fingernails. Yep, an array of colored faux fingernails arranged to portray a modern-day damsel who looks a little slack-jawed at the prospect of being defined by so many fake talons like the embodiment of a fingernail fetish. Pop to the max, Vanity skirts the borders between Cornell and Warhol. Similar in method is Nude From the Pin-Up Series, an image of a can-can or burlesque dancer strutting her stuff. Outlined in those "wiggle eyes" found on toy and dolls, Nude is a visual pun, a droll take on feminine allure and the male gaze.
Things take a more enigmatic turn with the bigger pieces. For instance, Chain Link Lace With Caterpillar-Like Texture is a lacy network of copper-wire links, some interwoven with fuzzy black pipe cleaners. A tattered hurricane-wire fence attacked by buck moth caterpillars? Hard to say, yet a tall, free-standing piece made from a spiral of blue plastic cable -- titled Spiraling Vortex of Blue Cable -- is archetypal, at least to anyone who fishes or sails. Shards of broken mirror on the floor complete what amounts to a 3-D evocation of a waterspout, and if it's not quite a J.M.W. Turner seascape, neither is it a Duchamp urinal.
More found objects appear at the John Product Gallery, where Steven Lesser and Angel Collazo's sculptures appear as omens that fell from the sky. Literally. Cobbled from parts of old airplanes, this is a show that actually began as a conceptual installation and ended up as an exhibit of abstract, free-standing or wall-mounted sculptures in the age-old tradition of objets d'art. Yet, compared with Heller's meticulous constructions, Lesser and Collazo's sculptures look almost as if they were thrown together on the fly. But maybe that's what they intended. They are busy guys, after all -- Dr. Lesser, for instance, performs surgery when not busy having art shows or developing old warehouses into performance halls, and his work (art, not surgery) often has an improvisational look about it. If it's a little hard to imagine cutting torches and airplane wings as stand-ins for the scissors and construction paper used by Matisse to create his paper cut-outs, there is still a Zen-like spontaneity about these pieces despite being made from scraps of airplane instead of scraps of paper.
Stand Still is like a totem, or maybe a golem -- a kind of semi-humanoid form constructed out of bits of fuselage, airfoil or what have you. It stands as erect and ready as a toy soldier, or one of those robotic figures in Fritz Lang's Metropolis. Stylistically, it is all classically expressionist-cubist-constructivist somehow, as is Zero in Tank, a sawed-off wing tank encircled by a wooden O-ring shaped foundry form. Interspersed with John Product's palette knife abstractions on the wall, like something a Leroy Neiman might have done while tripping out on ayahuasca in the Amazon, it's all, well, maybe a tad more conceptual than we thought. An installation that looks like an art show -- now that's radical!
- Sally Heller's pop-art fun can be found in the visual pun that is Nude From the Pin-Up Series, which puts a spin on the idea of feminine allure and the male gaze.