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Monday, December 13, 2004

A World in an Everyday Object

Contemporary Art: Floor to Ceiling, Wall to Wall at the Wadsworth Atheneum draws from the museum’s permanent collection (with a few supplemental loans) to provide a thoughtful overview of major artistic movements from the early-1960s to today.

Focused on artists’ return to the external world for inspiration in the years after Abstract Expressionism lost its monolithic hold, the show gives a remarkably complete overview of the second half of the twentieth century, considering the relatively small number of works included. By making such strategic use of the resources available to her, and by installing the exhibition as well as she has in the Wadsworth’s contemporary-art-friendly galleries, curator Joanna Marsh has shown just what can be done by a strong regional museum.

While the show as a whole is impressive, I found the exhibition’s small closing gallery to be particularly thought provoking. Gathered together under the theme of “a new objectivity,” are four pieces by Tom Friedman, Robert Lazzarini, Charles LeDray, and Fred Tomaselli. By transforming everyday objects in one way or another, these artists ask us to reevaluate the commoditized products that surround us and to inquire into the nature of our powers of perception.

Friedman has taken a Lucky Charms box, cut it down into pieces that are no greater than 1/3 centimeter square, and reassembled these pieces mosaic style into four single-serving-sized Lucky Charms boxes. I found myself looking at these boxes as closely as I looked at the tiny mosaics made of microscopic tiles in the Met’s recent exhibition of Byzantine art. Has our commercial culture been able to turn everyday consumer products into the devotional objects of our era? Friedman raises the question.

Robert Lazzarini is represented by phone, which he spoke about with me last month. There’s a sadness about this piece, a sense of time slipped away, that makes me look with a new eye at the otherwise overlooked commercial objects surrounding me in my office. Will the ugly black handset that I have on my desk today function for me some day as Proust’s madeleine did for him by bringing to mind memories of things, people, and relationships lost or past? Lazzarini makes me wonder.

Seeing Charles LeDray’s 2000 Pots recalled for me the opening to William Blake’s “Auguries of Innocence”:

To see a World in a Grain of Sand
And a Heaven in a Wild Flower,
Hold Infinity in the palm of your hand
And Eternity in an hour.

Each of the 2000 tiny ceramic vessels contained in LeDray’s phone-booth-sized steel and glass vitrine differs from every other. The extensiveness of this collection of hand-crafted objects overwhelms and conveys a sense of the infinite through its obsessive repetition of the finite.

Finally, Tomaselli’s painting All the Birds I Remember Seeing, All the Drugs I Can Remember Taking has what must be one of the most interesting wall texts in the show. The materials of the piece listed there include hemp leaves, aspirin, acetaminophen, antacid, ephedrine, saccharin, prisma color, acrylic, and resin on wood panel. Using these items, Tomaselli has created a faux network diagram that ties together bird species (the bird-like figures in the piece have been made from tiny hemp leaves) and drugs both legal and illegal. The piece draws connections between the psychological and the physical landscapes and causes me to wonder how many of the bird species mentioned Tomaselli saw on some drug-induced trip into the inner landscape.

Each of these four pieces begins with specific objects from the everyday world and uses them as a departure point for a meditation on the sublime found either within the human psyche or in the world in which we live. The expansiveness of meaning that emerges from the works installed in this one small gallery is indicative of the layers of interest and meaning that emerge from the rest of the show at large.

Contemporary Art: Floor to Ceiling, Wall to Wall is on view at the Wadsworth Atheneum in Hartford, CT, through April 24, 2005.

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