Article XFebruary 20, 2010
“Article X” at Johansson Projects explores the transformation of everyday materials through David Trautrimas’ photographs and Kristina Lewis’ sculptures. While at first glance Trautrimas and Lewis do not make an obvious pair, the work of both artists positions manipulation (either digital or physical) of banal materials in relation to ideas of representation and “objectness.” Moreover, the exhibition title, “Article X,” evokes a mysteriousness, an unnamable “thing” which could be the original objects the artists manipulated, or the result of their reworking or recontextualization.
Trautrimas presents “The Spyfrost Project,” a stunning series of photographs of skunk work-like architecture in overcast rural landscapes. “Skunk works” is a nomination commonly applied to bureaucracies and engineering projects that operate with some degree of autonomy and secrecy; the term originated during the Cold War as the official alias for Lockheed Martin’s Advanced Development Programs in rural Kentucky. Trautrimas begins by photographing regional parks; military test sites like Los Alamos and Prince Edward County; and household metal objects like ice cube trays, coffee pots, and refrigerators, lights and microscopes, and then sutures them together in Photoshop. Unlike the plastic proliferations for sale today, the vintage aluminum and steel housewares in Tautrimas’ photographs are tinged with a nostalgia that recalls an era when the United States triumphed as a manufacturing and political super power: the last time everyday objects were made with the seeming permanence of metal. These relics of the past reflect an optimism about our country’s advanced science and manufacturing history that contrasts with the secret scientific and social government experiments alluded to in Trautrimas’ images.
Shot from a high vantage point, Trautrimas’ images have a low horizon line that renders the structures imposingly large and psychologically distanced; the images are more about the architectural form than an embodied relationship to the space or structures. Although Trautrimas’ metallic forms seem monumental, they are composed of semi-recognizable small housewares, creating an ambiguous scale and interesting tensions within the images. Trautrimas plays with size further by inserting staircases and jeeps, which have very specific relationships to the scale of the human body. The sharp contrast and grayed palette in Trautrimas’ photographs gives them a CGI or CAD quality, making the images appear as stills from a science-fiction film or proposals for an institutional architectural project.
With titles like "Micro Re-Instigator" (2009) and "The Radiant Proliferator" (2009), Trautrimas not only reinforces his images’ science-fiction and cold war aesthetic, but provides a narrative about the functionality of the building itself or the covert operations that may occur within. Unlike traditional architecture that viewed the structure as a shell into which building operations like heating, plumbing, and electricity were discretely inserted, his titles and structures hypothesize a hybrid of machinery and architecture, not unlike the new, heavily engineered San Francisco Federal Building and California Academy of Sciences.
Contrasting Trautrimas’ work, Lewis takes a more intuitive route, manipulating everyday materials (like tape, electrical components, zippers, and shoes) with an organic sensibility. Restricting the range of her materials to their utility or context in everyday life, Lewis responds to her subjects’ essential qualities –like the stickiness of tape and adhesives, the conductivity of electricity, or the structure and ornament of shoes.
In ReVolt (2010), an outlet plate cover and an electrical box protrude from the wall, anchoring Lewis’ drawing-like installation. On the left side of the outlet plate, black electrical wires splay out and cascade onto the floor into a jumbled pile. While a few black wires reenter the wall and a few make connection to other electrical elements, most remain
unconnected, suggesting an incomplete circuit or “live” wire. On the right side of the electrical box, long copper wires emerge and recede back into the drywall while another cluster of wires protrudes from the lower part of the adjacent wall.
In Boundary Plastic (2009), Lewis’ largely intact roll of tape formally and conceptually anchors the sculpture and allows the tape to act as the primary material, the adhesive, and as a meditation on stickiness. In this piece, tape wraps around small acrylic and plastic tubes, creating cell-like voids in which glistening glue has coagulated. While appearing momentarily fixed in time and space, Boundary Plastic feels like it has the potential to continue its process of unrolling and wrapping around the tubes, enlarging or growing.
Lewis also presents a series of manipulated high heels and zippers, but falls short in delivering a fresh perspective of these objects. In It leaves a shining wake (2009) and The Tentacles’ Teeth (2009), zippers hang from monofilament and drape from an upside-down hanger respectively to create a snake-like form and a horned mammoth. While at times strikingly beautiful, the obsessive labor and fragility of the zipper pieces recall familiar notions of feminine craft that hinder the work from becoming truly transformative. In addition, Lewis’ series of shoes, dismantled and symmetrically reconfigured by the artist, are predictably evocative of insect, birds, vaginal diagrams, and Rorschach patterns. The most successful piece in this body of work is Black Ache (2010). While still adhering to her symmetrical pattern, she uses one shoe heel, as opposed to a pair, which is situated straight on, rather than in profile. In Black Ache, the reconstituted shoe takes on a mask-like quality and feels much more transformed and mysterious then many of her other shoes.
With varying degrees of success, “Article X” presents the work of two artists who have taken on the task of “making strange” ordinary objects. Trautrimas succeeds in creating images that transform everyday objects, and his work is mysteriously gorgeous and conceptually rich. On the other hand, while I found Lewis’ tape and electrical pieces formally and conceptually satisfying, I have reservations about her zipper and shoe pieces. Based on Lewis’ artist statement, I don’t think that she intends to examine the social construction of masculine and feminine objects, but her use of high heels and zippers are so heavily loaded with notions of gender that I found it difficult to escape this paradigm.
"Article X" is on view at Johansson Projects in Oakland through March 20, 2010.