The stuff of art

Apr 23, 2003 at 12:00 am

In what amounts to a quiz of our awareness of the issues of contemporary art, “Materiality,” at Wayne State University’s Elaine L. Jacob Gallery, is a stunning show. The exhibition may not explain, but presents in raw style (without a catalog essay and with only an inadequate, factually wrong press release) provocative examples of the use of uncommon materials or the uncommon use of common materials in painting and sculpture.

As the press release states, four painters and three sculptors in the exhibition “challenge our ideas and senses about materials and art.” The main point is that none of these artists is preoccupied with the title “painter” or “sculptor,” and each is engaged in either pushing or changing the medium of art to reflect larger artistic or social issues.

All three of Jason Young’s paintings are made of acrylic and resin on wood. Each is infatuated with its own possibilities and each becomes the object of its own desire. While an eyeful of stuff is happening in or on the surface of these large works, the deliciousness of the material becomes their subject.

In Young’s Coppermint Swirl, a combed or wavy field of sea-green, acrylic, adhesive caulk beckons from beneath a substantial layer of Plexiglas. The Plexiglas itself, meanwhile, has its own excitement. The outside surface is etched or mottled with what look like randomly splashed droplets that have somehow precisely indented the surface. This extraordinary effect rivals the night sky in its perceptual demands. Questions like “how’d he do that?” arise. To add obsession to fascinating invention, each droplet is shadowed beneath the Plexi surface by a copper-colored droplet that repeats or replicates the surface in a slightly off-register but exact fashion.

A viewer can spend great chunks of time examining the nuances of material and process in Young’s pieces only to be caught in some philosophical loop regarding their value. But rather than thinking about the history of painting and whether Young’s work is or is not painting, we begin to think about what happens to the two-dimensional surface when it uses low- or high-tech, pop-culture or banal building materials. We begin to ask ourselves, is there a new way to look at this work?

Margaret Evangeline’s Antoinette Insatiable (pictured) grinds, wrinkles, crumples and tortures three 4 foot-by-8 foot shimmering aluminum panels into heroic surfaces that are riddled with bullet holes and elegantly splashed and puddled with mostly transparent, purple oil paint. It has an over-the-top, decorative quality that manages to become formally beautiful and from a distance could reference landscape painting. However, if we respond to the tortured material itself, we might think of jet airliners and the World Trade Center, or perhaps the aftermath of war.

Whether a particular piece is a wall relief, sculpture or painting is not the issue, but rather what kind of transformation takes place with the importation of new materials. Three other paintings by Evangeline, on aluminum panels from the “Julian Series,” seem to reference medical “smears” and are marked with bloodlike dots or look like incubating microorganisms. Rather than being paintings of something — as models of processes or realities — they act as powerful symbols of contemporary social issues.

Jim Chatelain draws with small, shiny, industrial screws in his paintings, and adorns surfaces with them in his quirky sculptures. Relying on the screws as vector points, the paintings look like force-field maps of human forms. Like his sculptures housed in vitrines — that make them seem like anthropological artifacts while asserting Chatelain’s laconic humor — the paintings test the boundaries between abstraction and representation.

Both Scott Richter and Clarence Morgan road-test the history and precipitous edge of painting by using literally gobs, slabs and blurps of paint to see where it will all end up as a work of art.

Morgan pushes and pulls, trowels and combs, scumbles and kneads his material to the brink of chaos. He remains a “good painter” while he scribbles with paint to the point of childlike drawing or to the edge of muddy gray in search of the boundaries of the integrity of the process. As much as these are traditional abstract paintings, they become images that stand for the rituals of artistic activity.

Richter, on the other hand, fetishizes the painter’s tools and processes to create sculptural reliefs instead of two-dimensional surfaces. His slabs or mounds of paint create a kind of sculpture that raucously parodies the activities and concerns of the traditional artist’s studio.

Despite the lack of curatorial information for “Materiality,” a smart exhibition that really needs it, this wonderful sample of a wide range of artists from all over the country explores the possibilities of using either new materials in traditional forms or pushing traditional materials to excessive ends to create hybrid images that tell us that artists are still exploring the language of art.


“Materiality” is at Elaine L. Jacob Gallery (480 W. Hancock, Detroit) through May 24. Call 313-993-7813.

Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail [email protected]