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Barbara Koenen: Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand

at Ten in One, through December 20

By Fred Camper

What did the Buddha say at the hot dog stand? "Make me one with everything." --quoted in Barbara Koenen's exhibition checklist

Some observers, myself included, routinely complain about the one-liner form of current art--jokes you get in an instant but that are presented with little craft. Barbara Koenen's elegantly made works on paper, "Buddha at the Hot Dog Stand," at first seem part of this vein. But ultimately her show goes beyond, and even inverts, the one-liner on which it's based.

Each of Koenen's 36 works, mounted in a six-by-six grid in Ten in One's back room, is decorated--and that is the right word--with dots, most often in irregular grids but sometimes in clusters resembling nebulae and galaxies. The materials vary from one picture to the next, often wildly so. Dots made of sand lead to clusters of poppy seeds, which lead to a grid of grommets. Circles drawn with pencil are adjacent to a grid of differently colored sesame seeds (raw or roasted in different ways, Koenen told me), which leads to a grid of small burn holes called Fire. Just below this is a grid of rainbow-colored candies, which Koenen removed from their original strip of paper and remounted on a wider one.

But Koenen's work is not the trendy pastiche it seems at first, though there is a pleasurable shock in the shifts from one group of dots to the next. By juxtaposing painted patterns with patterns made of candy with patterns of holes, Koenen undercuts the very idea of a picture as a depiction of something. Her poppy seeds may evoke galaxies, but the grommets beneath them are just grommets, making the paper an object rather than a window. Fire redefines the paper again, as a site to be worked on rather than a transparent conveyor of illusion. Indeed, each sheet represents a kind of performance, a record of the artist's obsessive labor.

Part of what takes this installation beyond pomo undercutting is its elegance. Mounted unframed, the paper curling away from the wall, these unprepossessing works of humorously common materials have a rare vitality. Koenen may crowd her painted black dots together so that they almost collide, but she positions the plastic flowers farther apart, creating an equally dynamic design with more empty space. The sesame seeds--tiny jewel-like flecks with lots of white space between them--need even more room because of their odd conglomeration of colors. The irregularity of the grids, when there are grids, more closely resembles the patterns of nature than the calculated order of minimal art.

Born in Milwaukee in 1960 and now a Chicagoan, Koenen cites two childhood experiences as formative-- neither of them involving TV shows. One was Girl Scout camp ("being in the woods, looking at plants"), and the other was spending hours in the family basement, "full of machinery and grime and oil and sawdust," extracting and straightening nails for her father as he remodeled their bungalow--a time she calls "very close to very unpleasant." Together with some key adult influences--James Gleick's book Chaos, artists James Irwin and Nancy Graves, aikido, Japanese art and calligraphy--they do much to account for her obsessively repeated nature-inspired irregular patterns.

But nothing Koenen told me predicted what I liked most about her installation: the way it reverses the meaning of its eponymous joke. Part of its humor, of course, is that the Buddhist practices involved in becoming "one with everything" are typically vegetarian, monastic, and self-abnegating--the very opposite of the lifestyle implied by a dog with everything, pickles, ketchup, mustard, onions, relish, and whatever goes into the sausage. Yet the latter approach is what seems to inform Koenen's combination of pictures and objects, galaxies and grommets, candies and holes.

On the other hand, by juxtaposing painted circles, seeds, candies, fire-made holes, and much else, Koenen encourages the viewer to see their underlying equality and the designs they hold in common, whether grommets or galaxies. The differences--that one is a painting and the next something to eat--tend to fall away; Koenen's installation is really more about envisioning everything as a mixture of patterns and randomness. I can even imagine seeing the relish and onions on a hot dog through such eyes, arranged into grids or constellations. The dog-with-everything inclusiveness of Koenen's widely varied materials is not a contradiction of the desire for unity but its affirmation.

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): uncredited artwork.

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