by Maria Porges
At the 100th anniversary of the debut of Marcel Duchamp’s Fountain, it is worth considering, once again — as if we ever stop thinking about it — the importance of everyday objects in contemporary art. In their practices, Lynn Aldrich and Sabina Ott deploy a wide variety of utilitarian stuff sourced from hardware stores and builder’s supply warehouses. Whether it’s insulation foam, plastic plants and burlap (Ott) or metal gutters, plastic cleaning tools and waxed paper (Aldrich), their materials are neither precious nor, by most common definitions of the word, beautiful.
Yet, as Material Girls demonstrates, Aldrich and Ott are uncommonly adept at making the sculptural equivalent of silk purses out of sow’s ears. There is really no other way to describe the spectacularly eccentric yet magnetically attractive works that punctuate the Bedford Gallery’s space, many hanging from the ceiling. The first impression is of a riot of colors and textures: lots of neon orange, for instance, and plastic in every possible (garish) hue; a forest of shiny galvanized metal, improbable squiggles of foam insulation, and many variations of fake fur and animal skin.
Closer examination reveals that it is not difficult to tell which works are by which artist. Ott’s declared interest is in transforming her materials — making burlap or Styrofoam into something new and unrecognizable. A snare drum, mirrors, clocks, rugs, lights, and grids made of spray foam—among other things– come together in a sprawling installation titled here and there pink melon joy, excerpted from a larger work based on Dante’s Divine Comedy shown in Chicago in 2014. Many of the melon joy elements hang on chains; this elliptical reference to Ott’s research into medieval torture devices draws attention to the gallery’s peculiar circular panopticon-like architecture, as well as to its resemblance to one of the circles of the underworld as described by Dante. A sound track of drumbeats insistently reminds us of time passing, the briefness of life and the eternity that follows.
Several wall-hung works nearby are enchanting in their catholic approach to texture and color as well as shape, surface and juxtaposition. The immersive scale and dynamic white-and-silver surface of yellow and green mass is a gem (2015) invokes Jay DeFeo’s mesmerizing masterpiece The Rose (originally titled deathrose, interestingly). Contemplating Ott’s amalgamation of carved foam, paint, canvas, mirror, wood and chain, questions of Why? What? and How? rise up and then fall away. In a recent profile, Ott described how the grotesque can “break down the barrier between viewer and object.”
In contrast to Ott’s transformations of the mundane, Lynn Aldrich’s process can be described as an A-list of operations: acquisition, alteration and arrangement. Browsing the aisles of big box hardware stores, she finds inspiration in various building materials, including downspouts, flexible conduit, plastic hoses and colorful corrugated plastic sheets. She arranges them in various attractive ways, sometimes manipulating elements, as in the hilarious Parch (2009), a plastic downspout that descends into a snarl of flexible hose. Cascade (1996), poetically enigmatic, is simply a triangular stack of boxes of waxed paper, the overlapping layers of their pearly contents spilling down the front of the wedge. The simplicity of the gesture is magical: like Duchamp’s declaration that a urinal is a fountain, the paper becomes a waterfall. The dates of these works suggest a consistency of practice extending back at least two decades.
Most startling is Aldrich’s giant, ecstatic bouquet of sponges, scrubbers, mop heads and gloves at the entrance to the gallery. A shopping spree for cleaning implements apparently led to a meditation on coral reefs and the importance of protecting the environment, as indicated by the title Starting Over: Neo-Atlantis (2008). (Many of the works included here refer to water or its scarcity, or to the uneasy interface between city and wilderness that she experiences in Los Angeles.) Sadly, the specificity of this solemnly ecological reference detracts from the wonderful peculiarity that makes this explosion of brightly colored plastic crap the most compelling of Aldrich’s works in the show.
In contrast, Ott’s titles — all taken from texts by Gertrude Stein — are not intended to explain or describe. In fact, it is very difficult to do either with these mysterious accumulations of stuff and gesture, so titles like the weight of air or every one loves some ones’ repeating serve her well. Ott has reinvented herself as an artist, repeatedly moving from painting to sculpture to a kind of work that incorporates both. But the past has always been there within each fantastic new body of work. Pieces here that use oval mirrors, floral motifs and carved patterns invoke prior works and serve as artistic breadcrumbs, making it possible to trace a path back through her current palette to see an entire life of material and spiritual exploration.
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“Material Girls: Lynn Aldrich and Sabina Ott” @ the Bedford Gallery through June 4, 2017.
About the Author:
Maria Porges is an artist and writer who lives and works in Oakland. For over two decades, her critical writing has appeared in many publications, including Artforum, Art in America, Sculpture, American Craft, Glass, the New York Times Book Review and many other publications. The author of nearly 100 exhibition catalog essays, she presently serves as an associate professor at California College of the Arts.