Reclaiming the joy in art

What do you do when everything turns boringly predictable? If you’re Asheville Art Museum guest curator Michael Klein , you go for something off the wall. Klein says the world of conceptual art had grown stagnant for him. So he went hunting salvation elsewhere, and found it in the work of eight sculptors — some new, some established — but all sharing a similar allergic reaction to accepted boundaries of art.

At the recent opening of the Asheville Art Museum’s exhibit Off the Wall, Klein unveiled the process behind his artistic redemption.

“In [creating Off the Wall],” he explained, “I was looking for work with a sense of chance and playfulness; work that [showed] a love of technique, of how things are … put together; work that had an earmark of maturity, a sense of process and ingenuity, but [that] also [exhibited] a buoyancy when put on a wall.”

High hopes, perhaps — but by all appearances, he pulled it off.

At times, the sculptures Klein chose for this exhibit seem to defy gravity — hulking, springing, exploding off the walls, as though escaping predictable artistic boundaries.

Joel Shapiro’s wooden carvings whimsically recall, in 3-D, the blocky outlines chalked around murder victims. Shapiro’s figures clearly belong to the land of the living: One executes a flippant headstand from a wall, suggesting the antics of a latter-day breakdancer.

The work of Robert Lobe, on the other hand, is more down-to-earth — and, at the same time, otherworldly. Lobe, who casts his work from trees and rocks, created “Harmony Ridge #35″ to look like natural bark, but the free-form piece hovers off the wall, casting ominous shadows, appearing anything but of this earth.

Perhaps the least “kinetic” of the sculptures exhibited in Off the Wall are installation-artist Donna Dennis’ maquettes. A maquette, she explains, is a model, and most of her smaller pieces are precisely that — blueprints, of a sort, for her larger works, which often fill entire rooms and come complete with lights and other accouterments of humanity’s passing. In contrast, the fragile mixed-media maquettes look comparatively lifeless, like abandoned construction sites. Their ghostly force is suggested by their colors (a mix of steel-gray and faded carnivalesque pastels) and skeletal forms. Though not obvious on first view, several of the pieces imitate the shape of drawbridges, Dennis revealed in a recent phone interview. The artist became fixated on these largely antiquated structures and began to incorporate parts of their complex mechanisms in both her large and small pieces.

“I was looking at drawbridges everywhere I went,” she recalled. And once she began studying them, it wasn’t just the mechanics of the bridges that interested her — she was also fascinated by their human dimension. “I found out that drawbridges all have little houses in them for the people who operate the drawbridge,” she explained.

Dennis likened her large pieces to walking onto a stage set. “Most of them have a humorous quality; they suggest a human presence … [and] evoke a sense of place, a place that things have happened in.”

Her maquettes, she said, allow her to study certain aspects of the structures she intends to commemorate on a grand scale, in the same way that painters will sketch an outdoor scene that they intend to later dramatize in oils or watercolors.

“But the sketches are beautiful little drawings in and of themselves,” she concluded.

Irreverence was a major criterion for Klein’s selections. With some, such as Richard Artschwager’s formica “splatter” pieces (which are tucked into corners — the better to splatter out), the humor is as obvious as the time-honored smashed egg. Lynda Benglis’ voluminous sculptures, on the other hand, are not exactly funny, but their texture is reminiscent of scrunched tinfoil and Slinkies, giving them the look of accidentally blown-up toys.

Judy Pfaff’s sculptures are frenzied concoctions of wire, more wire, and occasionally, recognizable metal objects. The viewer is naturally drawn to the busy innards of these works — there’s so much going on in there, it seems the place for answers — but from a more distant perspective, they turn into discernible creatures. The huge “Milagro” is transformed into an awkward, egg-laying insect, while her tangly red “Yongle” perpetuates the Dr. Seuss-silliness of its title by means of a broken umbrella frame melded into the chaos.

Greg McPherson, who installs exhibits for the museum, recalls Pfaff’s requirements for assembling “Yongle”: The directions were “specific; there were tongs that fit into numbered slots. … [Pfaff] said, ‘Don’t freak out because it [looks] so crazy. Just relax, take a deep breath, and get the [written] instructions.'”

McPherson and Asheville Art Museum Curator Frank Thomson recently returned from the New York City area, traveling everywhere from Jersey City to Long Island to gather the sculptures.

Assembling this show was a definite change from most of the exhibits he’s installed, says McPherson. The scale and complexity of many of these works made handling them a new experience.

Take Matthew McCaslin’s work, which gives new definition to the term “mixed media.” His sculptures are formed from thick electrical cords, fluorescent overhead lights, and those vaguely hostile-looking, black-and-white clocks so common in schools and government buildings. The mesmerizing “Orient Point” is the most dramatic sculpture in Off the Wall: This vigorous piece adds three oscillating fans to McCaslin’s usual media-mix; they jerk their heads from side to side in defiant un-unison, while the clocks rotate their hands in separate time zones.

For McCaslin’s “Circle Game” — a simpler piece featuring numerous snaky cords crowned by a single bulb — the artist allowed its assemblers room for interpretation. “It’s kind of funny,” relates McPherson. “With that piece, [McCaslin] said, ‘Do whatever you want’ — but with ‘Orient Point,’ he faxed seven pages of [assembly] instructions to us.”

But it’s David Ireland’s “Untitled Identified Objects” that really dissolves the boundary between the artist’s intent and the viewer’s interpretation. Ireland’s pieces are brown and gray concrete “lumps” that look like rocks to the uninitiated eye. Turns out they’re belligerent space controllers, willing and able to manipulate any gallery’s well-ordered layout, heartlessly “attacking” any nearby work simply by their distracting presence.

Ireland insists, though, that the pieces are intended to occupy their own space, without intruding on that of other works. The artist suggests placement arrangements for the seven objects, but he leaves their final location entirely up to the exhibit’s installers. McPherson says that deciding where to set the objects for this show came from a “gut feeling” that was evolved over time, admitting that he and his colleagues didn’t always agree about the optimum spot.

A particularly large piece lives entirely apart from the others in a hard-to-find spot, a sort of postmodern hidden Easter egg. Another can be found on a shelf above the sign for the show. Four works protrude, pod-like, from the same wall, and their remaining companion lives under a baseboard, seemingly kicked there accidentally by McPherson, as he was installing the pieces.

“It looked good there,” is his unapologetic explanation, “and the [museum] director liked it, so we kept it there.”

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