BRIAN JUNGEN

CASEY KAPLAN GALLERY | SEPTEMBER 8 – OCTOBER 22, 2011

The reluctance to criticize Steve Jobs immediately after his tragic passing was only dignified. The focus was appropriately on his strengths, as exemplified by this statement by the president of a prominent art school:

Jobs saw that artists and designers could make technology emotional, desirable, human … I thank [him] and Apple for proving that art and design are poised to transform our economy in the 21st century.

Whatever Brian Jungen may have thought of Jobs, he would certainly beg to differ with the above-quoted sentiment. In contrast to such an old-think assessment, this artist’s catalytic juxtaposition of mass-produced consumer “goods” with indigenous Pacific Northwest iconography exposes the lie of aesthetic consumption as irresponsibly wasteful in a world of finite resources and accumulating environmental degradation.

Jungen’s earlier salvos—animal masks made from Nike shoes and a whale “skeleton” incorporating stacking chairs as vertebrae—were visually arresting cultural condemnations. Their apparent genre—found-object recycling—recalls New York-based Brazilian émigré artist Vik Muniz, whose 2010 film Waste Land was based on a collaboration with catadores (trashpickers) at the Rio de Janiero landfill, or Roberto De Jesus’s “Knight of Tides” (2011) transformer in the 2011 Art from Detritus: Upcycling with Imagination show at the Williamsburg Art & Historical Center in Brooklyn. Their actual genre—symbolic appropriation—is far more serious, recalling artist-polemicist Barbara Kruger and photographer-activist Chris Jordan.

Jungen’s latest show at Casey Kaplan Gallery represents an evolution of his anti-consumerist message. The works themselves comprise two variations: sculptures and flat-ish wall art. Jungen breaks new ground with the former via the addition of a provocative organic element: elk hide stretched onto high- and low-design mid-century chairs made of stainless steel and fiberglass (e.g., “Eero”). The latter are forgettable silver ink on black foam plastic inkblots.

Formally, the sculptures are direct genetic descendants of modernism: homages to Naum Gabo’s constructivist nylon monofilament “Linear Construction in Space No. 1” (ca. 1945-6) and a metaphorically appropriated Harry Bertoia 1950s “Diamond Chair”for Knoll. Associatively, they are touch-me-not tom-toms. Inexplicably, Jungen hasn’t made them “interactive” by providing drumsticks, which might have livened up the airless environment of the commercial gallery space and breathed some life into it.

As subversive semaphores, Jungen’s sculptures are loquacious. The artist presents the hides in connotative contrast to the synthetic castoffs they cover: products of American industrial design’s famously intentional strategy of “planned obsolescence” as the patriotic method for resuscitating the American economy after the Crash of ’29. Here Jungen stands in opposition to Jobs and another, earlier Pied Piper of trendy consumption, Norman Bel Geddes, who succinctly revealed big business’s manipulative psychological strategy in Horizons in Industrial Design from 1932:

When automobiles … or other objects of an industrial nature stimulate you in the same way that you are stimulated when you look at the Parthenon … you will have every right to speak to them as works of art.

Jungen ingeniously attacks both our “Cultural Industrial Complex” and our “Culture of Disposability” by wrapping and thus obscuring these once-in-fashion innovations à la Christo, but with an entirely different intention and effect. The elk hide shrink-wrap is paper to the office chair’s rock, as in the children’s game of rock/scissors/paper. The landfills will ultimately win, Jungen infers, and his forebearers will be vindicated. Like Juliet Schor, author of Born to Buy, who says that we’re not materialistic enough (otherwise, we’d conserve our planet’s finite resources), Jungen repudiates the waste he sees in these trashed items.

Agendas aside, they’re also oddly beautiful. Aesthetically, Jungen’s incongruous marriage of materials evokes Isamu Noguchi’s stone and wood magicianship. Jungen’s nomenclature may also be inspired by Noguchi’s ingenious monikers, including “Lunar Infant” and“Sky Mirror,” magical antecedents to Jungen’s “My Decoy” and “Five Year Universe.” Jungen could do worse than to imitate Noguchi. His new work seems to temper the loaded language of cultural commentary with aspirations to the transcendental realm of purely visual art.

Meanwhile, the art school C.E.O. fails to mention that the relentlessly obsolescent Apple products he so adulates are made in China—and soon by robots (human labor there considered too expensive by Apple’s subcontractor). How will this, Coltan’s 7 million murdered Africans, and the 2 million tons of CO2 emitted annually by use of iPhones alone, “transform our economy”? Offshore from Jungen’s Northwest coast, the 100 million ton, 10-meter-deep Great Pacific Garbage Patch, a swirling mass of floating technosludge, is estimated to be twice the size of the continental United States. Despite our dawning awareness that resources are finite and that Buckminster Fuller’s “Spaceship Earth” requires dedicated maintenance, the mass producers grip the reins: Bel Geddes’s consumer utopia is our realized “aesthetic” habitat. It’s easy to imagine what might be Jungen’s next installment—a Dane-zaa tipi filled with recently outdated iPads, where art, unbending, confronts “art.” 

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