Our stuff is out to get us: Exhibitions at the Katherine E. Nash gallery and the Center for Book Arts

"Hole" by Jennifer Anable
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
“Hole” by Jennifer Anable

I’m a sucker for a really well-named art show, and I can’t think of a better one than Everybody Is an Astronaut,” currently at the University of Minnesota’s Katherine E. Nash Gallery. I suspect the source of it is a quote from Buckminster Fulller, who went on to say, “We all live aboard a beautiful little spaceship called earth,” and I’m glad they left the second part of that quote off the exhibit title. It’s a nice sentiment, but makes the expression a bit too concrete. I’d rather imagine it is a phrase open to all sorts of interpretive possibilities. It sounds like the title to a 1960s science-fiction paperback, or a lost Goddard film, or something Grace Jones might have said aloud at a party.

This exhibit is the MFA thesis for several students, and I won’t discuss them all. As you might imagine, there’s a great deal of variety in this show, as the students weren’t looking to curate a show connected by a single theme or overarching vision, but instead to present what they themselves have been working on. I was especially struck with the work of Jennifer Anable, who mostly seems to take fairly ordinary architectural objects and then mucked them up. As an example, there are two fairly nondescript doors at the front of the gallery, the sort that you might take off an old farmhouse. But Anable has combined the two into a sort of crux decussata, an X-shaped cross like the one St. Andrew was supposed to have been crucified on.

I don’t know what to say about this piece, except that I like it when doors are misused in art. There’s a piece just now at the Walker Art Center‘s “Midnight Party” (I warned you I’d be revisiting this exhibit) called “Untitled Door and Door Frame” by Robert Gober, an installation consisting entirely of a door frame, a small white room, and the door on the opposite side of the room. It’s as though the Incredible Hulk had gotten frustrated at being unable to open the door and knocked it inward. Between that and Anable’s piece, there seems to be a strange hostility toward doors in Minnesota art at the moment, and I can’t help but take pleasure in that. What have doors ever done for me anyway? Screw you, doors!

I especially liked two other pieces by Anable. The first is a long, faux leather vinyl-coated wall piece that looks like, I don’t know, a very slender headboard, or perhaps a slug. It’s got those large vinyl buttons that pucker it inward in places, like those you might find on a booth in a diner, or the fine Corinthian leather of a luxury car. All this suggests purposefulness, like the wall hanging was meant to be something you lean against, or rest your head against, or was meant to protect something functional. And yet it does nothing at all, and serves no function. It’s like the laziest piece of furniture you’ve ever seen in your life, one that is too slothful even to function as furniture.

She also has a wooden cabinet of drawers that has a big, filthy hole in the top, as though you could take a backhoe and dig a hole into any piece of furniture and it would look like you just took a plug of dirt out of the ground. Dirt hugs the sides of the hole and spills to the ground around it. It’s hard not to appreciate just how irritating Anable’s furniture is. She has doors that you could crucify a saint on, vinyl-sided furnishings that refuse to do anything at all, and drawers that will actually track dirt into your home. It’s a though our interior decorations finally had enough of us abusing them and decided to abuse us right back. And we deserve it.

Speaking of abuse, there are a couple of plastic slides at the exhibit, the sort that children skitter down snow-covered hillsides on for a few hours, until they are bored or concussed. It’s part of a collection by Areca Roe, who has mostly taken photographs at the Lake Superior Zoo. The images are quite nice, large and framed into a square, showing a variety of animals and zoo scenes, all taken with a keen eye for the unexpected; a little tuft and hair and what seems to be long vines will turn out to be a monkey, as an example. But the plastic slides are really something. They have been placed in wooden boxes, and they are shredded. As it turns out, these are toys that animals played with — a big cat and a bear, if I remember correctly. I’ve seen these things take a lot of abuse: Children ride them into trees, or onto gravel, or just attack them with hammers, because children are crazy. But I have never seen them shredded like this. It’s an extraordinary demonstration of something that photographs would have a hard time capturing: that the animal kingdom is terrifying.

There’s also a show going on at the Minnesota Center for Book Arts, as always; the place constantly seems to have somebody in it at the printing press, printing something completely unexpected. The MCBA seems to encourage its artists to think about books in surprising ways, and so while this show, called “Parts of a Whole,” has some things that you would typically associate with printing (such as some very nice wood engravings by Kent Aldrich), I found myself drawn to the things that were the least booklike of all.

I suspect that part of the reason for this is that books are such tactile things, usually; one is mostly familiar with handling a book, and flipping through it, and, if you like books, savoring its contents, or, if you dislike books, burning them. But most of these books are behind glass, and so you only get to see it as an objet d’art, and there is a necessary disappointment to this, like being brought into a candy store and told the items there are for display purposes only. I am, in fact, quite keen on book arts — I have bought handmade books in the past. But I keep them on my bookshelf, with my other books, and pull them out every so often to luxuriate over them, or burn them. I’ll let you guess which one.

"A Family Matter" by Julie Sirek
MinnPost photo by Max Sparber
“A Family Matter” by Julie Sirek

And so the piece that stood out for me most in this exhibit is something called “A Family Matter,” which is the least booklike thing at all. It’s row after row of tiny dresses hung from a wall, all made from gampi, a Japanese paper made from the gampi bush and mostly used in printmaking. The dresses look like they might belong on a series of small dolls, but there are no dolls there, just the dresses, hanging there as though they had just been inhabited and the inhabitants had left so quickly that the dresses maintained their shape. Each dress is subtly different, and some are stained brown — I am not sure if this was something the artist did, or if some gampi paper just comes with brownish red stains. Nonetheless, they are disconcerting, like splashes of blood, or scorch marks from fire, or mold that has settled into the fabric.

The title is evocative. “A Family Matter”? Were it a movie for Lifetime, it would star Meredith Baxter, and would be about some truly terrible secrets. Whatever happened to these dolls, and their paper clothes, it can’t have been good.

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