By-product Becomes Product, Intersection for the Arts

Intersection of art and science is not uncommon in contemporary culture, or on the pages of this site. While this most often involves the integration of high technology (e.g., electronics and the Internet) into artistic pieces and practice, the current exhibition at Intersection for the Arts in San Francisco takes a new look at a more basic technology, the manufactured materials used by many artists. The show, titled By-product Becomes Product, is a collaboration of lead artist Christine Lee with research engineer John F. Hunt at the U.S. Department of Agriculture Forest Products Laboratory exploring the use of excess wood waste as a safer alternative to some of the toxic materials often used by artists.

Artists have made use of engineered wood products originally created for practical uses such as homebuilding and furniture manufacturing. Among these are plywood, particle board, oriented strand board (OSB) and medium density fiberboard (MDF). All of these have their positives and negatives, and among the negatives are the manufacturing processes, byproducts, and especially in the case of MDF toxic chemicals in the product itself. While a resident the University of Wisconsin at Madison, Lee worked with Hunt to develop a custom composite board made entirely from sawdust and paper fibers. A sample was available at the start of the exhibition:

Because the board was made entirely from waste material, it required no additional wood to be harvested. And because it does not include any adhesives or other additional chemicals, it is non-toxic for artists and viewers of the art. Finally, because it is made entirely from wood by-products, it is biodegradable, and the objects made from it will naturally decay and return to the environment. With this theme in mind, the boards were given to five additional artists to create new work for the exhibition. The results spanned a variety of conceptual and aesthetic styles, and crossed the boundaries between art and design. They were brought together into Intersection’s gallery space in an installation whose clean and spartan quality matched the texture of the material itself:

Russel Baldon’s Mutant Boxes perfectly balanced art and design, and was in many ways the most fun piece in the exhibition. Baldon used the composite material to fashion a series of exquisite corpse boxes featuring his own drawings. The drawings were fun, surreal, often comical or fantastic, and I found myself quite engrossed in playing with them.

[Russel Baldon, Mutant Boxes, 2013.]

This is Baldon’s first public exhibit featuring his drawings – most of his existing work is sculpture and furniture – but they look like the product of someone who is at ease with drawing. The images are clean and precise while maintaining a hand-drawn quality and a common sense a style among a diverse set of characters ranging from anthropomorphic cats to multi-tendriled space aliens. The idea to fashion the material into an object of play was a natural one for the artist, who started his work in his family’s wooden-toy business. It was also an opportunity to feel the material in the form of a finished piece, after touching the prototype board at the start of the exhibit.

Design was squarely the focus of Christine Lee’s own piece, Interwoven. This sculptural furniture piece is a prototype demonstrating the properties of the composite board in terms of strength and flexibility, and an effort that minimized wasted material and toxicity. But the geometric simplicity combined with the detail of the weave also makes it an aesthetically strong piece. It would certainly be at home at CatSynth HQ.

[Christine Lee, Interwoven, 2013.]

Imin Yeh adapted the new boards to an old artform, woodblock printing, in her conceptual installation Double Happiness. She used the composite board as a safe and more natural alternative to other materials used in contemporary woodblock printing. The result was a series of printed paper fruits that were assembled into a cart and crates, also made from the composite board. The scene evokes the wooden produce stands that can be seen around San Francisco:

[Imin Yeh, Double Happiness, 2012.]

The sculpture itself is intended to be a vending station, selling limited edition paper fruits as “organic, fresh, fine art.”

For feed/rest/nest, artist Barbara Holmes created a series of colorful bird houses arranged around the gallery’s spiral staircase.

[Barbara Holmes, feed/rest/nest, 2013.]

Aesthetically, the birdhouses themselves are reminiscent of California architecture of the mid-to-late 20th century. But they also serve a function of returning the materials, sawdust and paper fiber that were themselves by-products of trees removed from the natural environment back into the natural world. They provide habitat for birds, but also will naturally bio-degrade and be reabsorbed into the environment. Holmes intends to place the birdhouses into friends’ yards for habitation and will continue to track their use.

Like Imin Yeh, Julia Goodman used the composite board indirectly, is this case as a series of molds for cast paper. Her conceptual pieces FEMA 3 Step, Forgive and Forget, and Oversight embed words into the cast paper that recall the issues surrounding MDF and formaldehyde leakage in FEMA trailers after Hurricane Katrina. The issue of MDF had a personal dimension for Goodman, as she used MDF in her own art practice and was exposed to its toxic byproducts. She was drawn to the new materials promise as a non-toxic alternative for both art practice and for homes.

Among the artists in the exhibition Scott Oliver seemed to take the sustainability and minimization of waste to its furthest extreme. He used not only the composite boards, but the wooden crate that used to ship the raw material to him. The crate and boards were fashioned into a camper shell for the his Toyota pick-up, once again making an object that is both art and function at the same time. His title Tree, Crate, Camper Shell, Or, On the Way to Becoming Something Else suggests that the life cycle of the piece and its materials is not yet over. They started as trees, become crates and composite boards, but in the future the natural materials of the camper shell will decay and be returned to the environment.

The pieces in this exhibition demonstrate that Lee and Hunt’s new composite-board material has promise as a medium for art and design. They were all quite simple in both form and concept and attempted to relate directly to the themes of sustainability inherent in the material. It will be interesting too see if the material has a wider arrange of applications in more complex artworks in the future and ideas beyond these themes. That will clearly depend on its availability and the imagination of artists.

By-product Becomes Product will remain on display at Intersection for Arts through March 30.

Present Tense Biennial, Chinese Culture Center

In August I had the opportunity to take a private curator-led tour of the Present Tense Biennial exhibition at the Chinese Culture Center here in San Francisco before it closed on August 23. The exhibition was a joint project of the Chinese Cultural Center and the Kearny Street Workshop and included 31 artists with works that interpreted contemporary Chinese culture. There was no single direction or theme to these interpretations. There were plays on Chinese language, heritage, stereotypes, geography, artistic techniques, history and iconic objects.

[Nostalgia No 24 by Maleonn. Image courtesy of the CCC online gallery. Click image to enlarge.]

The above image, featured on the posters for the exhibition, is a photograph entitled Nostalgia No. 24 by Chinese artist Maleonn. It features a young man looking at a miniature model of the Tiananmen Gate in Beijing.

[Manuscript of Nature V by Cui Fei. Courtesy of CCC online gallery. Click image to enlarge.]

In keeping with the exhibition title of “Chinese Character”, several works dealt with plays on language. For example, the New-York-based artist Cui Fei’s Manuscript of Nature V was a large wall installation composed of plant tendrils resembling Chinese calligraphy. It was immediately reminiscent of handwritten Chinese characters (as I had seen many times in my recent visits); however, this was an entirely made-up character set.

Tamara Albaitis presented an audio and sculptural installation, with two planar arrays of speakers. Each speaker played a human voice uttering sounds (not strictly phonemes, but vowels, consonants, diphthongs, etc.) from various languages. On one side were sounds from languages arranged strictly horizontally (e.g., English and other Indo-European languages) while on the other were languages that could be written vertically, such as several East Asian languages. One could walk through the middle of the installation, with each bank as a “wall” of linguistic sounds, or around the outside. Out of context, it was not easy to distinguish the sounds from one language or another. One could use directional cues to determine whether a language was “horizontal” or “vertical”, but that served more to demonstrate similarities or “confusion” among languages.

[Larry Lee, Endless Column. Photo courtesy of the CCC online gallery. Click to enlarge.]

In addition to the plays on language, these pieces were in the minority that I would consider to be “modern art” (rather than more loosely defined “contemporary art”). Another was Larry Lee’s Endless column takes a simple and familiar object, the traditional porcelain rice bowl,and arranges them in an “endless column” of spheres that extend from the base to the ceiling of the gallery. From a distance, it appears as a large piece of modernist abstract art, and the rice bowls are purely there for their shape and texture, rather than their function. However, the detail and functional context of the bowls are an interesting contrast to some of Lee’s other abstract sculptures (some of which can be seen at the CCC online gallery) with the simple geometry and solid colors that are the norm for abstract art.

Among my favorite photographs in the exhibition were Thomas Chang’s images of a Chinese-government-sponsored project in the United States that did not go so well. Spendid China was a theme park in Orlando, Florida (where else could it be?) that featured to-scale models of great Chinese monuments, including the Great Wall and others. The park closed in 2003, after which it became a frequent target of vandalism and fell into disrepair. Chang’s photographs document the ruins. I have a long-standing interest in ruined buildings, particularly as they appear in the context of a modern city, so I was intrigued by these photos even without knowing the full context. I think it would actually be interesting to visit this park in its current state.

[Thomas Chang. Great Wall. Splendid China Theme Park, Orlando, Florida.
Image courtesy of the CCC online gallery. Click image to enlarge.

Other photograph sets explored the concept of “Chinese identity” as well as the intersection with American identity. Whitespace by David Yun presents portraits of an extended Chinese-American family (presumably taken around Christmas time). There are individuals we conventionally think of as “Asian”, a young blonde girl, and others who look vaguely Latino or Mediteranean, yet these are all blood relatives in the same family. I can certainly identify with a family whose composition defies traditional expectations, with relatives who appear to be from different parts of the world. Yet both my own family and the family presented in Whitespace are quintessentially American, i.e., this is what many American families look like when you get everyone together. Another take on family is presented in Sean Marc Lee’s portraits of his father. We see the typical “American Dad” in the Los Angeles area. But we also a man who seemed to have an exceptionally fun and playful attitude towards life even while raising children; and someone who knew how to “ham it up” for the camera. We see him blowing out candles with his children, posing like a TV still in a 1970s leisure suit in front of a sports car, going for a swim in a mountain lake. We also see him later in life, aging, resting, and receiving medical treatment. There are similarly familiar and intimate portraits of Lee’s father on his flickr site.

Kenneth Lo combines commentary on Asian identity in the United States with a lifelong dream to be a basketball star, in one of the shows more entertaining pieces Happy Feet Lucky Shoes. This conceptual work centers around a new brand of athletic shoes marketed as the AZN INVZN (i.e., the “Asian Invasion”) with their own superstar “K Lo.” There was a commercial, in which a young man is getting crushed on a basketball court. But once he receives the “magic touch” from K Lo along with a pair of “Yellow Fever” shoes, he magically acquires unstoppable basketball prowess (along with straight black hair), overpowering his opponents and winning the admiration of attractive cheongsam-clad young women. In addition to the video, and themed t-shirts for sale, the piece also included a Chinatown storefront made into a shoe store that specialized in the AZN INVZN, and even actual reviews on Yelp.

[Kenneth Lo Happy Feet Luck Shoes storefront. Photos by CatSynth. Click to enlarge images.]

This was one of several installations scattered in the nearby blocks of Chinatown, beyond the boundaries of the standard gallery. Another was Imin Yeh’s storefront of household objects wrapped in the Chinese patterned fabric often used for gift boxes. Among the wrapped objects were dolls, fans, TVs, even an Apple Macbook:

[Imin Yeh. 710 Kearny Street. Photo by CatSynth. Click image to enlarge.]

Charlene Tan’s The Good Life incorporating “wrappings” of a very different sort. The piece was entirely made of photocopied fast-food wrappers from various locations in Asia. Several were clearly recognizable as McDonald’s wrappers, but for unfamiliar items. There was one that caught my in particular. It featured an Asian cartoon cat making the universal facial expression for “yummy!” surrounded by fish, and was presumably a wrapper for a fish sandwich or snack. I wish I could find a picture of that wrapper somewhere online.

We close with another of the neighborhood storefronts, a text-based work by Tucker Nichols in the Chinese for Affirmative Action window, declaring “YES WE ARE”, a riff of Barack Obama’s “Yes we can!” slogan. It faces inward, as if for the occupants of the office to affirm themselves while looking out at the world.

[Window installation by Tucker Nichols. Photo from the Kearny Street Workshop blog.]

A special thanks to Ellen Oh, Executive Director of the Kearny Street Workshop and co-curator of the exhibition, for hosting our tour.

The Kearny Street Workshop will be hosting their annual APAture festival, showcasing Asian Pacific American art. We at CatSynth look forward to attending at least a few of the events.