This week three artists stood out for me, but I’ll put them up one at a time since this first one, Brian Jungen, will likely take me as long as the other two combined. Jungen, a young west coast artist, has as a show at the New Museum of Contemporary Art. This is an artist whose practice illustrates profoundly, the value of using found materials. Much like the northwest coast Natives found and used the materials around them, shaping them into vessels of convenience—canoes, bent boxes—as into art, decorative, theatrical, and transformative, Jungen uses materials that we are surrounded by every day, and he transforms them.
If you’ve ever stared long into a softwood fire—cedar to be precise—you may have, as I have, recognized the core of west coast Native art in the long, thick veins of the wood. All is found there: the wide eyes of the masks, the outlines of whales and ravens, the framing of the allegorical totems and sculptures, all in the deep reds and blacks of the embers. The shapes, their roundness, are unmistakable. But most of us are not staring into fires, most of us are staring into screens: computers, tvs, train schedules… And what do we see? A lot of us see Nike, for one thing.
Having gone to high school in northern British Columbia, and played basketball with Nisga'a and Haida high school teams (from New Aiyansh and Masset, on the Queen Charlotte Islands), I know full well how important basketball is to those communities. And how good they are. I could go into a history of basketball and how it came to be…but suffice to say that Jungen has “seen” basketball in an entirely new way. And after seeing this show, I doubt any of you will look at basketball or its accoutrements the same way again either.
I had seen photographs of some of the pieces (perhaps in Border Crossings?) but even so I was unprepared for the power of them. The tongues and heels of those objects considered sacred to legions of 13 year old boys worldwide, transformed into masks, and displayed as if they are anthropological finds is, well, moving. Particularly for someone who grew up in an with this art. They work incredibly well. There is also an igloo (small scale), made of shoeboxes, and talking sticks made from baseball bats.
Jungen is a powerful artist, a complete original, with a message so crystal clear and sharp that it pierces. And it’s a message that’s both timely and resonates beyond its beautiful simplicity. His first solo show here in New York featured a basketball court transformed into sweatshop tables inverting the story of the totemic sports gear to the viewer: elegant, minimal, and intensely realized. I did not have the experience of walking into the room, but having seen this show today I can imagine the effect. Photos of the basketball court and all other pieces are available on the Catriona Jeffries website, though really, this is work that needs to be seen.
There were also two dinosaurs, large and believable in their structure, shape, and scale. But these two are made of out those ubiquitous (and uncomfortable), white deck chairs. You know the kind, 5.99 at Walmart? Who knew they could prove so useful a tool. Must see.
Photo, inside the dinosaur