“Ollie, Ollie, Oxen Free”
Sculptures by Didi Dunphy
“Walking in the Dark”
Paintings by Niki Kriese
Through March 13 at Ruby Green Contemporary Art Center
Two weeks ago, I reviewed an exhibit of European masterworks from the Phillips Collection, now showing at the Frist. Great paintings all, they capture a core slice of Western art history, but their demographics tell an old sad story. Not only are all the artists Europeans, as advertised, they’re also all men, except for one painting by Berthe Morisot. Although the Phillips Collection includes paintings by women and people of color, it shows the level of segregation within our cultural history that an exhibit with grand claims can be so exclusive.
This fact forms part of the context within which women operate. Didi Dunphy, an Athens, Ga.-based artist, takes on these conditions by flaunting convention and using weapons of humor and the “domestic sphere.” Her works cut at the overriding masculine ethos of modern art by crossing 20th century design motives with materials from women’s arts, interior design and children’s toys. She also plays with the terms of interaction between gallery-goers and the works themselves.
Two pieces of oversized and extravagantly decorated playground equipment dominate Dunphy’s Ruby Green show. A giant seesaw stands in the center of the gallery, covered with hot-pink plastic like a kid’s bike seat and outfitted with handlebars decorated with tassels and plastic balls. Next to it hangs a swing finished in baby-blue Naugahyde, plastic balls and tassels hanging from the bottom.
Dunphy fully intends us to use the adult-sized equipment, but watching people interact with them, you don’t see children hurling themselves into play. At the show’s opening, everyone approached the pieces gingerly: It was like watching a kid out on the playground for the first time who hesitates at the top of the slide, scared of the drop. It’s been so long since most of us got on a seesaw that it’s as good as the first time. On the playground, the other kids give you hell when you hesitate, so you get on with it, get used to the sensation and then go off to the next trauma. Adults didn’t have the same prodding here. They were solicitous to each other and tended to move the seesaw in slow motion, perhaps overly aware of the risk of getting hurt.
Materials are critical in Dunphy’s language. The seesaw and swing are finished in unconventional materials for art, and in fact unconventional materials for the objects represented. No swing this side of Fragonard has those frills. The other works in the show involve similar uses and misuses of elements drawn from the world of domestic arts and home decorating, much of it laced with nostalgia for the 1960s. “Modern Convenience” is a set of round cushions covered in bright Naugahyde and mounted on the wall. The piece came to Dunphy’s mind in response to a quote from Barnett Newman: “Sculpture is something you bump into while backing up to look at a painting.” She took him seriously (sort of) and made art that people could bump into without getting hurt. Dunphy’s Naugahyde work is washable, and she even left a spray bottle of cleaner with the folks at Ruby Green. The pieces reflect household valuessafe and scrubbable.
Baudelaire described paintings as machines, and any time you encounter an artwork, you figure out what you’re supposed to do in responsethe possibilities range from contemplation and interpretation to something more active. Dunphy’s seesaw and swing are literally machines, with moving parts meant to be operated. The other works also have rules of interaction. “Luminous Object” consists of plastic bulbs inserted into a metal frame and backlit with fluorescent lamps. It functions like a grown-up version of a Lite-Brite set. You move the bulbs to change the pattern.
Dunphy seems to be evolving toward pieces that increase the ways people engage with art. Using simple mechanisms like a swing or seesaw, she sets up strategies for interaction with the materials, allowing a certain degree of room for personal choice on how to use the art (“personal play patterns,” in the words of a toy marketing person I heard on NPR this week). But for all Dunphy’s use of materials and values outside the modern art canon, she operates fully within in it. The humor and dissonance of her work only exists in tension with the ideas of modern art. Its strategy-based approach descends from John Cage, a connection she confirmed during the gallery talk at the opening.
If Didi Dunphy directly addresses the kinds of gender problems made clear by all-male masterpiece exhibits, Niki Kriese’s work points up another aspect of the changing role of women: their increasing presence as exhibiting artists, a necessary precondition to creating an art culture that consists of men and women indiscriminately. Kriese works in a more traditional mediumabstract oil painting. Although occasionally people declare painting dead, it persists. I think this persistence reflects its value as a basic tool of expression, much like traditional verse forms. There is still value in subjecting your writing to the structure of rhyme schemes. The same is true in painting.
Kriese’s fine paintings respond to the urban landscape in Chicago. They are dark, crowded with looming shapes in shades of black, brown and dark blue. In many of them, an opening of brighter color pierces the image’s center. The effect is like looking up from the street to the patch of sky bordered by overhead El tracks, buildings, elevated highways and trees. Kriese captures the sedimentary quality of the city, made up of layers above and below (subway tunnels, construction excavations). The surfaces of her canvases reflect this, where she frequently masks one color with overpainting, letting it peek out or float under the surface as a ghost, an outline of slightly different tone. The impact of her paintings is a bit oppressive, but true to the way the city closes in.
A few months ago, Brady Haston, another Chicago-based painter, showed work at Zeitgeist with a similar genesisabstractions based on a reaction to the city landscape. Haston’s and Kriese’s work share some of the same colors, especially the muted tones that reflect the city’s encrusted grime and omnipresent yellow brick. However, Haston’s work has a lighter feel, with an off-balance, delicate quality. Kriese’s work resonates in a different emotional range, thicker and steadier.
The differences between Kriese and Haston do not lie, on their face, in Kriese being female. Sure, you can weave a narrative that relates her paintings’ sensation of the encroaching city as a woman’s reaction to the environment. However, it makes as much sense to attribute the difference to the simple distinctiveness of two separate human consciousnesses engaging the same surroundings.
So after enjoying (with some guilty conscience) the lovely history preserved by the Phillips Collection, we come back to the present. Now artists like Dunphy and Kriese enter and enrich the mix by stretching discourse or making themselves at home as a matter of course. With the participation of these and other women, over time Western art history will increasingly be the history of men and women making art.
If you're looking for Prohibition-era gangster drama, the movie LAWLESS has been turning up a…
I just got done reading your article, and really enjoyed it, thank you. Here is…
I hope Bonnie and Clyde is better than Mob City, which was - as far…
The only website you can call directly is 1-800-FLOWERS.com.
Not the first time Mario Lopez has been snubbed (see Kapowski, Kelly).