Saturday, October 13, 2007


It would be easy (though not particularly clever) to say that the New Bedford Art Museum (NBAM, 608 Pleasant Street, NBMA) addresses the trash problem in New Bedford with its new show(s). Art made with found objects is deceptive: at once droll, revolting, beautiful, and evocative. Here are my thoughts:
Reclaimed and Rejuvenated, Discards into Art is the main show. Featured are ten artists whose works, well, I'll let co-curators Richard Kellaway and Tom Puryear explain:

The objects or materials employed are often referred to as "found objects," and are easily identified as the stuff found in the artist's surroundings. A certain degree of serendipity accompanies their deployment. Discovered in family closets,flea markets, town dumps, city streets, ancient kitchen middens, along farm pathways and riverbanks, or at industrial
sites both active and disused, these objects are given a new life. Indeed they readily take on a life of their own in the hands of artists and provoke a wide range of response from viewers.

Ain't that the truth.
About 18 months ago, I volunteered to work Sundays at NBAM until they could find someone else to sit at the front desk. Before I forgot completely what a weekend was, a wonderful local artist took over. But not before I could make the following observation. In terms of "response from viewers," this is the loudest show NBAM has ever mounted. Visitors are immediately and continually vocal: "Look at this!" "Ever seen one of those?" "That is so cool" and of course, "We don't got nothin' like this in Fawrivvah." Which really has nothing to do with the exhibit.

Steve Bradford is an assemblage artist. His art is full of absolutely familiar bric-a-brac and tchotchkes (former toys, dolls, doorknobs, twigs) in completely unfamiliar settings. Over a noisy dinner, I mentioned to Steve, "Your pieces all have this dreamlike narrative going on." Steve was as nice as someone who regularly fields ridiculously contrived critiques of his work can be. Steve admitted that his subconscious mind informs his artwork but his wife Susan finds the objects. Sitting at the front desk during other shows, I would hear people -- as they looked at an obscure sculpture or abstract painting -- remark, "I could do that!" Steve Bradford's work explains exactly why those people really never could "do that."

Although I have never sailed with Karl Unnasch, he reminds me of so many shipmates whose company I've enjoyed both aloft and at the tavern. Talking with Karl, expect to be bombarded with the nature of revenants, bourbon, Shatner, mythology, and Deadwood. Here, read the little card next to his artwork: "snake carcass, reclaimed spray can, HO model railroad accessories, and pigment." Check out the gallery at his website. He has extraordinarily delicate pieces in this show protected by small bell jars that remind you of the fragility of botched enrichment. Not like in the old days when he was going to D-UMass and he'd make landscapes with heifer carcasses.
Karl and Jon Taylor were the two guys I most wanted on my work crew those days. You probably remember Jon as the guy who developed Head Acres. Jon's NoNu Portable Shelter continues his insistent "reviving usefulness" jihad. Jon drives his Volvo with vegetable oil. He sees the dross our consumerism produces, and rather than bemoan and belittle, he uses it and trusts in human nature to persevere and grow out of this over-arching adolescent selfishness and religion of waste. Because they'll have to. Or they'll go to him to build a mobile home so they might, in his words, "live in a free and mobile manner, sustaining themselves on the excesses of society."

Steve Whittlesey has his own featured show at NBAM, curated by David Boyce. Steve stretches his material (wood, mostly) to absurd limits. Whittlesey finds our flotsam (driftwood, boat hulks, ruined lobster pots -- "orphans") and creates "Tables and Shelves." Steve is Professor of Wood & Furniture Design in the Artisanry Department in the College of Visual and Performing Arts, and is head of the MFA Graduate Programs. Look here. Reminds me of more than a few docks I've had to navigate.

Probably NBAM's most important exhibit is Trash²Treasure, the work of the participants in NBAM's youth education programs, Invest-In-Kids, SuMmerART, and artMOBILE. Taking their cue from the taller artists upstairs and unmistakably imaginatively developing their own styles, the young artists' ideas are lively and revitalizing, even if only to give NB parents hope that there's something to this art stuff.

The Vault Building which houses NBAM was built in 1918 as a bank and NBAM uses the old vaults currently as installation spaces for Alan Johnston, the challenging abstract sculptor. How's that for adaptive re-use? Joan Backes, who has been filling the vaults with special exhibits for many years, brought in the Edinburgh artist whose work answers and responds to the architecture it inhabits. Johnston is pretty heady stuff, but what makes his work most appropriate (to my lights, anyway) is how he uses -- re-uses -- the existing structure, this very Eastern idea of defining art as inhabiting the space that is the absence of the art. You know, that "sound as the absence of noise" thing. Isn't art the calm silence, the peace amid noise and turmoil?

If it is, then R&R:DIA is a showing of great art simply because of the raucous discussions at NBAM. You can join in Wednesday through Sunday (noon to five) until New Year's, and 'til nine on the two remaining AHA! Nights of 2007.

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