By Carl Blumenthal
Special to Brooklyn Daily Eagle
BROOKLYN — As a student in Paris during the mid-1970s, I earned my room as a bricoleur, or handyman. Thus, I went to the new exhibit, “The Bricoleurs,” on display through March 3 at BRIC’s Rotunda Gallery, 33 Clinton St. (www.bricartsmedia.org), expecting to find electricians and plumbers moonlighting as painters and sculptors.
It turns out the show is a mixed bag, or toolkit, of a variety of techniques used by 10 artists and the two curators who solicited their works.
The gallery has another, smaller display running concurrently. “Figured,’” as the catalog states, “is an exhibition of six artists who represent the figure without using its physical form.”
The juxtaposition of these two exhibits invites comparison, and “Figured” is both the simpler and more elegant of the two.
Julia Chiang’s handmade ceramic chain, “Keep it Together,” hangs snake-like from a wall as if the bearer has shed his or her skin and escaped to God knows where. Similarly, Regi Muller built “Spine III” like stepping stones into another wall.
“Megalomaniac” could be a Lady Gaga hairpiece unfurled in a mansion’s drawing room. It’s a photograph by Petros Christotomou. On the other end of the photographic spectrum is Leigh Davis’ “Residence” series — two images of tiny, cluttered YWCA rooms.
Then there’s Leor Grady’s “In Order of Appearance,” a witty video list of the people important in his life. Finally, Eric Rhein fills a third wall with “Fly Leaves,” 24 wire outlines of tree leaves, each one memorializing an AIDS victim with an apt epitaph.
I applaud Kris Nuzzi, curator of “Figured,” for gathering these disparate works that seem to go together so naturally. Her well-written brochure focuses on the art pieces themselves while allowing viewers to draw their own conclusions.
“The Bricoleurs” is a more ambitious show. Just look at the catalog – a series of postcards combining a print by each artist with an essay by the curators, Christian Fuller and Risa Shoup, wrapped in a rubber band stamped “The Bricoleurs.” The cover card is a montage of all 10 artists’ works, giving additional form to the theme that “bricolage” is a melding of different parts into singular wholes.
This cleverness is reinforced in the essay by transforming the humble craft of “doing it yourself” with materials at hand into a major artistic exercise, supported with quotes from the cultural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss and the literary critic Jacques Derrida. It is crammed with footnotes, making the reader wonder how much scholarship can fit on the head of a pen.
The catalog is big on theory and long on the artists’ distinguished resumes, but the curators devote only a few lines to describing each of the actual works on display. Perhaps unintentionally, this is because the reality only partly matches the billing.
Even before Levi-Strauss and Derrida “discovered” the practice of bricolage in so-called “primitive” and modern cultures, the French surrealists found juxtapositions of words and images that were grist for their artistic mills, or as one surrealist famously put it, imagination is like a cross between a sewing machine and an operating table. Like Freud, the surrealists favored visual puns as signifiers of the unconscious.
This kind of dreamlike imagery is so pervasive in our culture, especially in advertising, that when I see it in contemporary art, my immediate reaction is “Been there, done that.” Half the artists in this exhibit begin with this strike against them.
For example, Man Barlett’s “case studies” are collages of people with suitcases instead of their heads. Danielle Durchslag's “Relative Unknown” series consists of vintage photographic portraits cut out from their original backgrounds and recreated in collage. With a plastic skull, metal chain, photographer’s tripod and three sneakers, Joseph Gillette strung together a “Superficial Person.” As for the success of this figure, I can’t help saying it’s hanging by a thread.
Troy Michie’s portraits and Max Greis’ landscapes are collages that combine the fantastic and the realistic in trying ways. Joseph Gillette’s “Une Semaine de [a week of] Google” is such a pastiche of stock Freudian images, I have to laugh.
On the positive end of the exhibit level are the artists whose dreams have a more abstract, nightmarish cast. Alana Fitzgerald’s “Myth of Sisyphus” suggests the markings Kafka would have left behind if he were an oil painter. Christian Maychack is closest to a traditional bricoleur because he incorporates chair caning and a woven basket into clay sculptures that resemble cancerous growths.
“Cairn,” by MaryKate Maher, an installation of stones and stalagmites made from wood, resin, and acryllic paint, seems like an invocation of the gods against a stark environment. Likewise, Andrea Burgay has an “Urge for Permanence,” which she expresses in fabric sculptures menacing enough to ward off all threats. Finally, Cooper Holoweski gets a kick out of turning garbage into artistic gold using stop-motion video in “The Good Life (Nebuchadnezzar’s Dream).”