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Justin Amrhein @ Michael Rosenthal

Pulled Part – Family of Three”, 2011

Forgotten about weapons of mass destruction?  Justin Amrhein hasn’t.  Since 9/11, Amrhein, 32, has spent a lot of time thinking about the real and imaginary possibilities that could be wrung from this so-called existential threat:  What do WMDs look like? How are they rigged to wreak havoc? Where are they hidden? And, more, piercingly, why would anyone conceive of such things? 

Like many Americans, Amrhein “was waiting to see images of mass destruction.”  The government’s failure to produce them brought him to the kind of liberation peculiar to artists. “It gave me the freedom to create my own. It gave me permission to be as silly or as literal as I wanted to be,” he said speaking from Williamsburg where, a year after earning an MFA at San Jose State in 2006, he moved to work at Pierogi, the flat-file gallery founded by his uncle, the artist Joe Amrhein.

In Schema, the artist’s first solo show, we see the results of a five-year a cycle of phantasmagorical musings that mix realism and absurdity in equal parts.  With their tubes, tunnels, byways, ports, wires, gauges, pulleys, funnels, magnetos, centrifuges, pumps and gangplanks to nowhere and everywhere, these claustrophobically complex pictures recall scenes from the movie Brazil; yet their austere, mostly monochromatic color palettes seem to be pointing backward, to mid-century textbook illustrations.

Invariably, after being exhausted by the diagrammatic aspects of the works, visitors turn to the legends which reveal the names Amrhein assigns to each part.  Laughter soon erupts. “Nymph’s Survival Box”, “Predator Miss Direction Mini Motor” and “Evil Seductress Reputation Box” are but a few of the tongue-in-cheek labels mixed in among the deadpan part names in Praying Mantis Machine, one of two drawings that are displayed in a light box. 

“Manduca Quinquemaculata (Tomato Worm)”, 2011
“I wanted to put in just enough information to make the drawings believable," as weapons. Amrhein explains. The wacky part names provide a counterbalance to any perceived threat.  Of his working method he says: “I’ll Google the thing I am attempting to draw and create my own version and figure out the major components to make it functional and believable. Then, I’ll put those parts into my shape or form.” Using graphite and acrylic and other media, he draws the parts to scale on Mylar or vellum, making certain that he can explain exactly how the devices would work if his designs were built.
Only one of the drawings in the show — a wall-sized 3-part diagram of a rocket – is actually labeled as a weapon; the rest look like sprawling factories or details of their components.  If the message sent by these works seems mixed, it’s intentional.  Amrhein understands the inherent craziness of artist-designed WMDs. He also understands the value of not telling viewers what to think. His approach is essentially comedic: laughing when all other choices have been foreclosed. 
Justin Amrhein: "Schema" @ Michael Rosenthal Gallery through July 30, 2011.
About the Author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.

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