by Rex Brown and published on the River North Art District website
A year ago, Deborah Jang and Jean Smith agreed to do another show together at the Ice Cube Gallery that would turn the gallery’s large volume into an aquarium. Smith, a deft and imaginative ceramicist (jeanbsmith.com), set out to create fanciful sea plants that could climb the walls and rise from the “sea” floor. Jang, a mixed media sculptor (deborahjang.com), began combing Craig’s List, yard sales, junk yards, thrift shops and dumpsters for materials that struck her as potential components of sea creatures. The result is “Fathom This,” a brilliantly colorful and highly entertaining exhibit that shows off both the artists and the generous and beautiful gallery on 3320 Walnut Street from November 11th to December 3rd.
Assemblage art grows out of a natural impulse to integrate the past into the present. At any point in its history, a culture is an assemblage, a melange of old and new ideas, texts, and objects reinterpreted and re-purposed to create and inspire new meanings. In the art world, assemblage began its modern life as anti-art, as a radical break with traditional notions of what constitutes “art” or suitable materials and processes for making “art.” In the early 20th century, Duchamp, Braque, Dubuffet and even Picasso created assemblages, as did most Dadaists and, later, artists such as Rauschenberg and Man Ray. Assemblage objects are fundamentally ironic and often comic, bringing together, as they do, unlike materials, and pushing the limits of visual simile, visual metaphor, and visual paradox. They show us that “junk” or “garbage” can be made beautiful; that unpleasing materials can be combined in pleasing ways; and that there are no limits to a work of art’s potential referentiality.
Deborah Jang’s assemblages are so inventive and witty they can make you laugh out loud. Most of her assemblages are fish, either on the walls or suspended from the ceiling at different depths to reinforce the suggestion that you are walking on the sea floor as the fish lazily swim in place. Some are wire mobiles that cast wonderful shadows, others are assembled out of a host of found materials and objects. She has made fish eyes out of a crank, a clock spring, metal nuts and washers of various sizes, a dog tag, a candle holder, and even a pencil sharpener. Her fins are made out of keys, wrenches, a soap dish, a yard sprinkler, license plates, saw blades and paint brushes. Her fish tails are made out of springs, mixer beaters, a wooden coat hanger, a bicycle reflector, or a cut up red chile sauce can. Two barracuda-like fish are ingeniously made out of crutches. If you have ever seen some of the deep sea creatures filmed by adventurers like William Beebe in his bathysphere, none of Jang’s fish is implausible (I know I’ve seen that fish with the pencil sharpener eye(s) somewhere!). Mother Nature is an assemblage artist, after all. She just cobbles together organic junk until it is beautiful in the sense that it works.
|Deborah Jang, Lean On Me|
|Deborah Jang, Skinny Dipper|
Jang also contributes a sunken rowboat and a sunken canoe to the sea bottom, as well as a tricked up kiddie-ride boat that jangles along surface, driven by a flamingo, and a lot of flotsam and jetsam–mostly paddles and oars whose users may now be in Davy Jones’ Locker. Her goal in making each piece is “to integrate form, color, texture, and substance.” This is what separates her from lesser assemblage artists: she reaches that goal time after time; others do not.
Jean Smith, whose studio is at the Dry Ice Building which houses the Ice Cube Gallery, is a prodigiously productive ceramicist who can cook up any object she can see or imagine. She contributes the brilliantly colored sea flowers, corals, algae and kelp to the aquarium. Like the many ceramic flower arrangements and centerpieces for which she is known, the sea flowers have a fantastical look, as if they just stepped out of an animated movie. The low-fired smaller pieces on the wall or on pedestals are subtly tinted and cleverly layered. Some parts were fired separately and then attached. All are as beautifully textured as living coral, though, if you look closely, their markings came from Indian ink stamps Smith found in a flea market or horse radish leaves from her garden (ceramicists can be assemblage artists, too!). The large sculptures, which she calls “totems,” range from 4 to 6 feet high, and are made in segments that are stacked on top of each other on a metal rod affixed to a heavy steel base. Flowers and barnacles and such ring the totems and at their tops, surreal tendrils reach up and out into the water, wavily seeking food. The totems are high-fired so that the bottom segments can take the weight above them. The high temperatures and glazes involved produce intense hues such as you might find around hydrothermal vents at the very bottom of the ocean. Near them, some cold-finish sea fans rock on metal stands as if caught in a gentle current.
|Jean Smith, Flowering Amoeba Totem; Sea Fans|
Many two-person shows are just that: two person shows. Two sensibilities, two aesthetics. Although they work in different media, Deborah Jang and Jean Smith work together like peas in a pod. They share a common sensibility, a common penchant for assemblage, a common whimsy, and a common commitment to integrating form, color, texture and substance in their work. With respect to the substance, am I pushing things too far if I suggest that this show is a reminder that most of the world’s fisheries and coral reefs are in critical states of decline, and floating garbage patches, some the size of Texas, swirl in every major ocean? If that’s a reach for you, retreat to the simplest reason to see this exhibit: “Fathom This” is a very collectible show. With so many exquisite and reasonably priced objects, you could redecorate a couple of rooms and buy all your holiday gifts in one place.
“Fathom This” runs through December 3rd and both artists can be contacted through the websites mentioned above.