The Handyman Can
Hans Godo Frabel, Hammers and Nails, 1980, glass. Photo courtesy of Edward Owens.
I couldn’t help thinking that I had seen some of these works before. Sawbird, by Mark Blumenstein, in particular looked familiar, but I couldn’t quite place it. It was a couple days before I realized. I had seen pieces like this on the roadside, beckoning me to flea markets and garage sales. The attention-grabbing quality of the works is especially potent as a lure to the road tripping consumer, but even when that use is absent, this quality is equally present in the work as it sits in the gallery. When visitors came to the previous exhibit, The Life and Art of Mary Petty, it was easy to direct them to the chronological arrangement of the “New Yorker” magazine covers. On the other hand, in this exhibit, it is fascinating to see the eye drawn all around the room. So many of these pieces act like those sculptures on the roadside, calling attention to themselves. The arrangement of so many immediately exciting pieces around the room makes for an exciting bit of tension when entering the gallery. Do you make a beeline for that piece made of wrenches? What’s that all the way up there?
Mark Blumenstein, Saw Bird, 1979. Metal and hardware.
But where does this attention-grabbing quality come from? While it iseasy to pass off the essential concept of this collection as “tools”, the selection currently at the Mitchell Gallery focuses on a particular aesthetic use of those tools. Almost every piece in the collection places a tool in a striking or unusual context. Take Hans Frabel’s piece Hammer and Nails. The glass is blown into the shape of a hammer and nails. What’s most striking about this piece, however, is how it is positioned. Frabel has framed it so that the hammer is just about to strike the nail – I enjoy showing visitors the angle at which this illusion is most apparent. The instant reaction is a recognition of the fragility of the two. How easily they can be made to shatter. We know, of course, that the hammer will never come down on the nail. The hammer is suspended by a hidden pin at it’s base, a fact which is easily missed. Raising it in this way then renders it miraculous – almost unbreakable. The tension then, between the obvious fragility and the uncanny suspension, never allows the viewer to become too comfortable with the hammer, prompting it’s careful consideration.
James Rosenquist, Trash Can in the Grass—Calix Krater, 1978. Screenprint.
A less immediately striking image is Trash Can in the Grass by James Rosenquist. This print envisions a Calyx-Krater, an Ancient Greek ceremonial vase. Unlike the gorgeously ornamented pieces we imagine from antiquity, however, Rosenquist depicts the vase as if it were crafted from garbage. The result is less Hellenistic and more Helter-Skelter. On further reflection, however, the question of how different this work is than our archeological discoveries reveals itself to be more complex. Most of the Calyx discovered by historians are fragmented, reconstructed. We have the general shape of the vase, but a perfect specimen is elusive. To reconstruct a vase, then, is to piece it together in a way that best resembles that original. Rosenquist’s work takes an everyday object and asks us to consider its resemblance to the ancient vase. The work looks backwards to the history of the “Calyx”, as well as enabling us to comprehend a trash can as a part of a larger lineage. Like the hammer, the material is different, but the shape – the tool-ness – of the object remains the same.
Not all of the pieces are in conversation with the practicality of their original material. Pieces like Sawbird are, instead, oriented towards a kind of delight. These pieces call attention less to the artists consideration of their material’s use. They invite us to marvel at their creator’s imagination. Like the hammer, the bird is suspended, marvelous. Both in their reconfiguration as artwork and in their arrangement in the gallery, the tools are defamiliarized. Rather than acting as means of construction, these tools, in fact, deconstruct our ability to take these everyday objects for granted. In doing so, they lend us the ability to view our world through a new lens, to take delight and fascination in even the most ordinary of objects.
This exhibition is made possible through a leadership gift from the Helena Foundation and is generously sponsored by PNC Bank and Anne S. Potter. Additional support is provided by David and Laura Watt, Richard and Carole Falk, and Katie Blyth + Gary Brown + Brogan Brown.
“ReTooled: Highlights from the Hechinger Collection” was organized by International Arts & Artists, Washington, DC. Gift of John and June Hechinger