by Kristen Wawruck
The past few years have tested our relationship with things as our connections to the world became digital, immaterial, distanced and remote. The Potential of Objects posits a return to tangibility, bringing together current work from eleven California-based artists. Comprised primarily of sculptures that fill the two galleries at Marin MoCA, this is a show that demands physical encounters with works that question the possibilities of things in the broadest sense. Organized by MoCA Director Amy Owen, the exhibition takes its cue from Jane Bennett’s Vibrant Matter: A Political Ecology of Things, a philosophical examination of the vitality of objects, living and non-living. The show attempts to answer Bennett’s question: “How, for example, would patterns of consumption change if we faced not litter, rubbish, trash, or the recycling, but an accumulating pile of lively and potentially dangerous matter?”
How we look at commonplace materials, from treasured hand-me-downs to garbage, is at the forefront of several works. Teresa Baker’s tapestry-like wall pieces made of Astroturf confront us with shimmering fields of color and texture. The effect is akin to the experience of seeing shimmering colors on a pigeon’s feathers or grains of sugar under a microscope. In Good Weather, for example, Baker’s use of paint, woven tree bark and splotches of solder transform this synthetic-as-it-gets material into a topography of the artist’s Mandan/Hidatsa prairie heritage. In similarly minimal but potent gestures, Natani Notah reveals troubled and exploitative histories of indigenous peoples in the United States in elegant assemblages like Raring to Go, made with a bike part and horsehair, and Shell-Shocked, a tender, belted bundle comprised of a vintage Four Corners T-shirt, shell beads, fake fur and plastic corn pellets. Gathered together, these cultural signifiers offer a portrait of inheritance, identity and place.
Elsewhere, ancestral ghosts populate Masako Miki’s colorful sculptures, where Shinto spirits occupy modernist household furnishings. Hitotsume-kozo (one-eyed goblin), an eye made of gray felt held up by tapered mahogany legs, would look at home in a West Elm store. These clever “shapeshifters,” as she previously deemed them, can be understood as metaphorical vessels that create new forms and, thus, possibilities for transformation. Objects that literally transmit unseen forces are the
sparkling chunks of pyrite, or fool’s gold, positioned in sound sculptures by Peter Simensky — part of his ongoing Pyrite Pirate Radio series. An otherwise useless mineral’s reflective qualities act as receivers to capture radio waves, as they once did in early 20th-century radio sets. Instead of fuzzy AM signals, these candy-colored, iridescent receivers deliver “broadcasts” from Yemeni and Ukrainian musicians. By drawing attention to the continued violence in both countries, the work, in the manner of a Trojan horse, also reminds us that MoCA is located on the site of a former U.S. Army base. These otherwise cheerful-appearing and adorned forms transmit sounds of lands engulfed in proxy battles while also providing pathways for connection.
These works give visual expression to Bennett’s queries about how politics and ecologies might change—if only we paid more attention to “the force of things.” In a pandemic- and war-ravaged world threatened by an escalating climate crisis, these sentiments find resonance, as nonhuman things increasingly dictate our fate. And, in the face of pressing climatological disasters, questions about how we can all share space ring loudly.
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“The Potential of Objects” @ Marin Museum of Contemporary Art through June 5, 2022. The exhibition also includes works by Ashwini Bhat, Demetri Broxton, Sophronia Cook, Tyler Cross and Kyle Lypka, Renée Gertler and Cathy Lu.
About the author: Kristen Wawruck is an arts worker, writer, and curator. Prior to moving to the Bay Area, she was the Deputy Director of Swiss Institute in New York.