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Art People: Luke Dohner's reverential rip-offs


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"Need some straws?" asks artist Luke Dohner. "They're Sweetheart sanitary drinking straws." He's got nearly a whole box of them--12,300, to be exact, in his Ukrainian Village studio. Turns out he only needed about 200 for a piece he's assembling called Prototype for a Mailing Tube (International). Unless Dohner decides to open a chain of soda fountains, he's stuck with a few lifetimes' worth of the liquid conveyances. Luckily, the box says they're "durable."

Straws are just one of the unconventional but commonplace items Dohner uses in addition to traditional materials like ceramic, glass, and wood in his series of witty, ethnographically inspired works now on view at Ten in One Gallery. There's a piece made of a condom, a tampon, and underwear elastic called Yes You Can (Feminist) and another incorporating denim called Walking Man (Mexican). There's also a giant log cabin built of paper carpet tubing. You can even walk through it and look at the knickknacks inside.

Though Dohner calls his art "quick sculptures," he's quick to point out that some of them were "done very slowly," over a matter of weeks, sometimes months, like the fragrant Carpet Runner (Oriental). It's an intricately patterned "rug" composed of glued-down spices: black peppercorns, cardamom, coriander, and achiote. The seven-foot-long piece evinces all the painstaking workmanship of a Navaho sand painting--or a handmade rug.

"It was inspired by an actual Persian rug design," says Dohner. "It's supposed to look like a museum artifact, or something for the tourist trade. The worst thing about doing these things is the labor. You try to avoid it. But to do a real rug would take me forever, or a real Faberge egg, a real African tribal mask." And "to do an actual one is pointless, because they're already there. . . . I'm trying to bring up questions of what's 'authentic culture,' and to explore these assumptions we all have of it."

Dohner decided to enroll in art school after working at a frame shop near Washington, D.C., in the late 70s. "I saw a lot of shitty art coming through there, and being the high-minded early-20s person I was, I thought I could do better," he says. He was a sculpture major at the School of the Art Institute, but spent most of his classroom time doing installations. After graduating in 1985 Dohner worked for a party decoration company ("doing, like, kung fu sculptures for bar mitzvahs, or corporate parties with chocolate themes") and as a set builder for a photography studio.

"These two places affected me as much as art school," he says. "It was interesting to work with crass art, the worst commercial art you could think of. It shows you the quickest ways of constructing things. It destroys any idea in your head that your art is a special sacred endeavor. It really loosens you up."

Dohner's been a preparator and exhibit designer at the State of Illinois Art Gallery since 1989. But he's perhaps best known as the cocreator of the annual Flo-Tilla, the afternoon-long gala held each summer since 1990 at which Chicago artists send buoyant sculptures downriver from the Cortland Avenue bridge. Next year for the first time, Flo-Tilla's starting point will be Navy Pier. Dohner admits he doesn't know what'll happen when the artwork is set loose in the lake instead of the river.

An unabashed devotee of "functional and vernacular things," Dohner scouts for bric-a-brac everywhere: Amvets thrift stores, Walgreens, Dollar Stores, Fulton Street market. While you couldn't classify him as a "found object" artist--he's adept at working with glass, ceramic, and silicone--Dohner nevertheless combines tawdry, cast-off, and overlooked materials in surprising, idiosyncratic ways. His is a repackaged secondhand aesthetic that fits right into out-of-the-mainstream "uncomfortable space" galleries like Ten in One and Beret International, where Dohner has been exhibiting for a number of years.

Some observers might see the sculptures and installations in the current exhibit as coyly buying into a nascent multi-culti backlash: is this PC art with quotation marks around it, the self-mocking co-optation of minority identities by a white male? In any event, his pieces point up some of the perplexities involved in the representation of ethnocentric, vernacular, and gender-specific art forms.

Yes You Can (Feminist), whose title is taken from a Virginia Slims cigarette ad, is Dohner's homage to feminism. "A lot of the good stuff in the 80s was feminist--Jenny Holzer, Barbara Kruger, the SisterSerpents." The eight-foot-tall, nine-foot-wide Log Cabin, or Life Among the Lowly (Early American) is based on a design from a book on folk housing and takes its subtitle from Uncle Tom's Cabin. "You could associate it with European colonialist Indian killers, or with European settlers in the American frontier," says Dohner. "But its association with slavery dampens it down." And he says some of the other works are based on ethnographic art he really likes--African masks, Ukrainian eggs, Oriental wall hangings, and such.

"I'm not trying to be a smart ass or anything," he says. "But I've been inspired by the archetypes of all these different cultures. I don't want to say I'm "appropriating,' because it sounds so postmodern. It's more like I'm reverential of these cultures' icons and aesthetics. I might be borrowing their archetypes, but it's not like I'm culture robbing or stealing their thunder--as if I could. Some purists think that certain ideas and images are indigenous to only one culture, but it's not so. Even before pop culture became global, things got mixed up with wars, trading, and travel."

Just to make sure we realize that all of these pieces were created by a Caucasian fellow, Dohner has inserted himself into the artwork in the form of small photographs. "It's like a signature, but I also wanted people to know I was a white guy of a certain age, with a certain haircut, so they can categorize me, too." So much, perhaps, for the hegemony of Eurocentric patriarchal discourse.

An exhibit of Dohner's work continues through November 26 at Ten in One Gallery, 1542 N. Damen. Gallery hours are 1 to 6 Wednesday though Friday, 11 to 5 Saturday, or by appointment. Call 486-5820 for more information.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): photos/Cynthia Howe.

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