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Alchemy of Ordinary
McClain Gallery West, Houston, Texas
Review by Donna Tennant

Mark Wagner, "Took For Granted," 2008, currency collage, 30 x 25". Image courtesy of Pavel Zoubok Gallery.

Continuing through November 16, 2013

This show is anything but ordinary. In fact, extraordinary would be more accurate, given the range of artists, materials, concepts, and creation dates. Thirty-five pieces comprise the show, with the renowned German artist Hannah Höch piece from 1950 and two Clinton Hills from 1953 setting the standard. Every decade since is represented — two from the sixties, five from the seventies, two from the eighties, one from the nineties, and the rest falling into the 21st century. At a time when it sometimes seems as though every third show includes some variation on collage or assemblage, this mini-survey reminds us that making art from the detritus of everyday life has a long history.

Part of the fascination with collage, also referred to as mixed-media construction or mixed-media assemblage, is getting up close and figuring out just which materials the artist used to make the piece and how successful he or she was in transforming them into something entirely new and engaging. The alchemy referenced in the title dates back centuries and, at its most basic, refers to changing base metals into gold or silver. A broader definition, however, might include the ongoing search for perfection, beauty, immortality, or even redemption. It’s all about transformation, and a large part of that is the viewer’s fascination with how the artist achieved it. In some cases, it’s the materials. In others, it’s the technique. In the most successful, it’s both.

One piece with a particularly unusual combination of materials is “Fire & Rain” (2011) by Donna Sharrett. Her mandala is assembled from neckties embellished with buttons, willow branches bound with guitar string, a field of glittering black sand, circles of handmade rose beads, and pieces of costume jewelry. For Buddhists and Hindus, mandalas are sacred symbols of the universe, and Sharrett transforms these mundane materials into a spiritual object.

Another standout in terms of materials is “Untitled: Street Butt Venus” (1985) by Al Hansen, who uses cigarette butts to create an in-your-face three-dimensional female figure that extends a full seven inches out from the background. A third is Thomas Lanigan-Schmidt’s “Foreplay (Non-Finito) Reaching for the Moon” (1986-87), which combines aluminum foil, plastic wrap, holographic tape, pipe cleaners, glitter, staples, colored marker, and more into a flamboyant architectural landscape containing a domed church with tall spires under a glowing moon.

Some of the techniques are astonishing, ranging from obsessive work with cut envelopes/printer paper to paper currency that has been sliced into thousands of pieces and reassembled. Mark Wagner dominates this arena with two recent pieces, one of which is a take-off on the ever-popular “American Gothic” by Grant Wood, but Barton Lidicé Beneš comes in a close second with his small facsimiles of prayer rugs made from Egyptian, Syrian, and African currency. Poured plastic, urethane, Plexiglas, and other chemical compounds find their way into other pieces, along with de-assembled golf bags, postcards, maps, and sliced-up colored pencils.

The ongoing fascination with collage by both creators and viewers continues unabated. This mini-survey show provides an opportunity to observe how collage is constantly evolving and changing but remains tied to the artist’s day-to-day life. Artists see possibilities in the ordinary materials and objects around them, and this vision, in concert with a certain amount of craftsmanship, results in works of art with associative powers for the viewer.

Focusing primarily on Americans, The Alchemy of the Ordinary is a reminder of how vital collage has been to the evolution of modernism, beginning with Picasso, continuing with Duchamp, Cornell, Ernst, and Schwitters, and moving on through abstract expressionism and the art of the sixties, with its exploitation of popular culture.

Referred to by McClain Gallery as a “pop-up” show to complement their Motherwell – Four Decades of Collage exhibition, it is presented in partnership with the New York-based Pavel Zoubok Gallery, which specializes in collage, assemblage, and mixed-media installation. The mission of the Pavel Zoubok Gallery is to create an art historical context for collage and its related forms.

McClain Gallery

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