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.