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The Kitsch Connection

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Many artistic eras are characterized by dominant subjects. Medieval European artists presented Christian themes; Romantics, nature imagery. In recent decades artists have turned increasingly to the artifacts of mass culture. But perhaps more significant than this shift of attention has been a shift in materials: artists don't try to draw or paint such objects but instead arrange them collagelike. I've seen installations of Tupperware; Nathan Mason creates wall pieces of belts, ties, and shoes.

By using actual objects, Mason achieves a directness, even a certain shock, that collapses the distancing inherent in painted representations. At the same time his powerful, sensual objects can overwhelm the viewer, smothering any meaning the artist may try to impart through his arrangements. But then many artists today aren't aiming for a unitary "meaning" that will transform their subject matter. In his statement Mason writes of "the fundamental irrelevance of artistic intentionality" and hopes he's made "poetic objects capable of standing alone." He concludes, "If there is meaning inherent in these objects it is sublimated and subjective." So it seems that the way articles of clothing sometimes dominate Mason's works, asserting their own shapes and colors over his forms, is--well, intentional.

The checklist for Mason's show at RX Gallery numbers 18 works, but actually there are 69: one of the 18 is a large grid of ties, another a grid of belts, and their components are available separately. Tie Grid has 28 components: four colorful ties arranged in a simple cross, each arm a different tie. Mason seems to have grouped them according to their appearance: four floral designs or four with simple geometric patterns. Belt Grid consists of 25 similar crosses, each made up of two or more belts, mostly women's, cut in half and attached at the center. Both grids are floor-to-ceiling arrangements about the size--perhaps intentionally--of a massive abstract expressionist canvas.

Their impact stems from their size, from their precise formal arrangements, and from a certain tongue-in-cheek quality. Mason seems to be gently mocking the aspirations to monumentality and transcendence inherent in many earlier artworks. In his statement he calls his forms both Greek crosses (which are Christian symbols) and plus signs. For many minimalist artists purely geometric forms represented their quest for an ideal formal perfection underlying reality, a search that links minimalists to such earlier painters as Mondrian and Newman. Thus Mason's crosses and grids are loaded with historical associations. But the longer one looks at these ties and belts, the more one becomes lost in the objects themselves. The ties' complex, colorful patterns become more seductive than Mason's repeated forms; the belts' large shiny buckles and wild surfaces--brightly colored, sometimes reflective, sometimes with polka-dot or tiger-skin patterns--are positively alluring.

That allure comes in part from the tension Mason creates between his repeating forms and the ties' and belts' anti-formalist sensuality. But I was undecided whether to call the result less than satisfying or to declare the work's apparent incompleteness part of Mason's statement. He doesn't really bring the dialogue between kitsch surfaces and ideal forms to a conclusion; perhaps, like many artists working with mass-culture artifacts, he treats his materials with an odd mix of irony and reverence because he feels that in some ultimate sense he can never conquer them. At any rate the designs of the ties and belts evoke the ocean of kitsch that sometimes seems to engulf us.

Mason, a 36-year-old Chicagoan, spent part of his childhood in Salt Lake City, where he went on archaeological digs. An art history student in college, he feels he's been influenced by Renaissance panel painting, ancient Chinese pottery, Japanese samurai swords, Donald Lipski, Kurt Schwitters, and the elegant Chicago-area homes he often sees in his present job as an art installer. In his statement he writes of being "more fascinated by the ancient floors and ceilings" of Rome than by its high art. Some years ago he was secretary for the political campaigns of drag queen Joan Jett Blakk, who once advocated replacing the military with "dykes on bikes." Mason says such stands weren't just jokes, however, but were intended "to put more integrity back into the political process." Realizing that he might be appearing in drag for these campaigns, he started buying women's shoes and eventually bought more than he needed--"I liked them as objects." Some women's shoes ended up in this show, also arranged in crosses.

The three-dimensional shoe pieces are among Mason's strongest. The soles facing us, the high heels at the center, they reveal scuff marks and other signs of use. Invoking the messiness of living, they pose a striking contrast to the cross shapes, whose formal precision is further undercut by the shoes' strange angles and curves. Though these pieces are decidedly physical, they don't quite cross the line into fetishism; in fact part of their meaning seems to be that they have no clear meaning. Mason's use of well-worn shoes for the arms of a cross left me scratching my head, wondering what to make of his works' intentional incompleteness.

Some of Pam Lins's six new works at Ten in One, five sculptures and a group of photographs, also seem intentionally puzzling. She told me she hopes viewers will "make big leaps" in interpreting them. Certainly I wouldn't want to see too literal an interpretation of the somewhat surreal, somewhat goofy Vented Boots, in which two boot shapes made of foam sit atop a light blue box with plastic-slatted vents. The vents don't connect to the boots' interiors, which at any rate seem solid foam. Are the vents intended for the wearer's comfort? To reduce the boots' odor? Most of Lins's works suggest scenes from daily life gone somewhat awry, commenting on the kind of excess of manufactured objects Mason also impresses on us. In Sip Cup/Memo Board a group of cups and bottles, made of foam but covered with white and gray paint, sits on a shelf in front of a cork bulletin board filled with blank notepaper. Something happened here once--presumably somebody drank from the cup with the straw in it, somebody else put the note pages up--but something didn't happen as well: the drink was abandoned, no one left any memos.

Indeed, part of the charm of Lins's works lies in what they aren't. If Mason's crosses have a certain phallic quality, Lins's objects--foam sculpted by picking out pieces of it with her fingers--are modest, provisional, almost self-abnegating. The rough indentations on her "boots" feel recessive rather than aggressive, almost rhyming with the enigmatic slits of the vents below. Her gentle humor tends to mock ambition, as in the three prints of Football Photos. In each, a football is seen aloft against blue sky, soaring heroically. But the football is pretty small, and in one shot its visible red edge makes it seem a mere toy. None of these different footballs against the sky occasions any of the feelings one is supposed to have about a long pass.

Lins, now a New Yorker, was born in Chicago in 1957 and grew up in various Chicago suburbs. Through high school she had little exposure to the art world: "One of the main influences I had was the lack of an influence," she told me. At times she's made jewelry and done goldsmithing, and she became interested, she says, "in how some of these objects from the past were fetishized" by their owners. Her father was one key influence. As a child she helped him build a rec room; this exhibit's subtitle is "Notes: How to Make Your Own Recreational and Hobby Rooms." Her father, "a real jock" with three daughters, was always pushing sports on them, but "we never brought home the right kind of football-player boyfriends," says Lins.

The "suburban sports culture" in which Lins was grounded is perhaps best reflected in the show's largest, and strongest, piece, Trophy Cabinet for Under the Stairs. The "cabinet" side of the seven-foot-high structure displays about a dozen foam "trophies," including the usual cups and winged statues. The gouged-out surfaces and pale tan color of the foam undercut not only the heroic forms of the trophies but the grand intent of the collector. On the other side of the cabinet is a lone framed found photograph of Soldier Field with a giant ski jump in front of it. This ridiculous-looking photo, juxtaposing the ski jump with Soldier Field's neoclassical columns, provides the other side of Lins's argument: the actual aspirations of our actual sports culture are far sillier than Lins's gentle handmade sports "icons." o

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "size 14 Cross" by Nathan Mason/ "Trophy Cabinet for Under the Stairs" by Pam Lins.

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