by David M. Roth
Elegant craftsmanship wedded to conceptual brio is not something we see much of in contemporary art. Here and there, you can detect fragments, evidenced in faint whiffs of Bay Area Conceptualism as it existed during the 1960s and 1970s. This untitled four-person show featuring San Jose State Professor Emeritus Tony May and three of his former students (Chris Daubert, Bob Jones, Lonny Tomono) carries that tradition forward. In it, we see strains of Duchamp and Dada, reverential nods to past masters and clever bits of appropriation – all of which are united by a penchant for manipulating materials in unexpected ways. The works, 30 in all, are as brainy as they are well-built.
Daubert’s 10-part installation, the show’s centerpiece, began life as lengths of raw firewood, which the artist carved with a lathe, transforming them into pedestal-mounted objects. Their shapes call to mind Jean Tingley’s kinetic contraptions, Ruth Asawa’s wire baskets and Morandi’s vessels, to name but a few of the associations conjured. An untitled collection of wood wheels with ‘S’-shaped spokes, the largest piece in the installation, alternately calls to mind Tingley’s self-destructing machine (Homage to New York, 1960) and Ai Wei Wei’s bicycle sculptures. Major #3, a Möbius strip suspended from an invisible length of fishing line, dangles above its pedestal as if it were free-floating, spun by air currents. With Major #2, the artist reverses the normal order of things by placing the top of a vase face-down below a chunk of raw wood, making the axe-cleaved block on top the focal point rather than the plinth. The backstory is that Daubert, before he took up art, once earned his living as a master furniture maker, a talent he subsequently diverted to other, less practical ends, expanding later into architectural interventions, electronics, video and much else.
May exhibits two of his justly-famous folding sculptures that collapse into luggable boxes and/or suitcases. Collapsible Construction Model IV, Mini-Makita (beaded), for example, purports to house an unseen electric drill beneath a swatch of fabric, its presence implied by a logo and hang tag. Another such box, Variable/ Collapsible Construction with Fish, opens to reveal a clothes-drying rack suspending a wooden carp – the kind that, when moved, wriggles like an actual fish. The idea, which the artist first developed in the mid-1960s, sprung as much from necessity as imagination when a piece slated for exhibition overseas threatened to incur high shipping costs. May responded by creating the “collapsible construction,” the device that has since become his signature. Over the years, it’s taken myriad forms, enabling the artist to fit contraptions into enclosures that unfold like pop-up books, equal parts punchline delivery system and engineering marvel. In this regard, May’s story is a bit like Daubert’s: His father, a Wisconsin farmer, was a wizard with hand tools, able to build or repair almost anything. May inherited those skills but chose to subvert them, a practice best illustrated by an ongoing series of panel paintings depicting seemingly pointless home repairs. One titled A #4 Book Counterbalances the Hinged Door Flap shows a weighty tome hanging from a string that appears to be doing exactly what the title describes.
Hawaii-based sculptor Lonny Tomono makes dome-shaped wood objects whose shapes vaguely resemble Jun Kaneko’s ceramic “Dangos.” From a distance, they give off the sheen of Oaxaca pottery thanks to graphite applied in layers, abraded to reveal gesso-covered wood. Orifices shaped like portals and keyholes cut into the surfaces puncture the illusion of solidity, suggesting that these objects are the product of exquisite joinery – something the artist may well have performed as a one-time restorer of ancient temples and a carpenter in the employ of the U.S. military. Whatever the case, the result is an interplay of oppositions that sight alone cannot resolve.
Vallejo sculptor Bob Jones’ neo-Dadaist creations, built from objects found or purchased online, invite and resist analysis with roughly equal force. Consider the following: a pachinko game operated by ceramic tchotchkes that, when twisted, supposedly diagram a sentence; a leaning cupboard filled with upside-down coffee mugs; a porcelain elephant bearing bisected halves of a model sailing ship that once functioned as bookends; a thrift store plate carrying a pastoral scene bracketed by metal rulers; and a pair of ceramic conifers connected by a hinge. Each presents a conundrum which you can address any way you please — the interpretive possibilities abound.
All these efforts point to the longstanding American legend of the backyard tinkerer – the polymath who, through pluck, luck and imagination, produced world-changing inventions. In varying degrees, all four artists fit that description; but instead of putting their skills in the service of industry, they engage us with visual pranks that challenge perception and a priori assumptions.
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Chris Daubert, Bob Jones, Tony May and Lonny Tomono @ b. sakata garo through July 2, 2022.
About the author: David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.