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Broken Relics

Walter Early and Benjamin Funke at HSU's First Street Gallery



How does a sculptor adapt to a world already brimming with stuff? Both Walter Early and Benjamin Funke (full disclosure: this writer's partner) make a point of making do with what we have: everyday, mass-produced objects possessing little or no inherent value. Their two-person show Chronic Fatigue is up at Humboldt State University's First Street Gallery this month, curated with customary deftness by director Jack Bentley.

Kentucky-based Early is a formalist with a weakness for decorator hues; HSU lecturer Funke's influences are DIY punk aesthetics and conceptual art. They treat the presented objects with neither pop sarcasm nor exaggerated reverence but matter-of-factly, as resources. Like it or not, the art seems to say, this is the stuff with which our world is furnished.

Both artists share a romantic jones for ruins and a Catholic taste for relics. They show us what look like basketball nets and thrift-shop end tables — familiar objects fished from the stream of American life, made slightly strange and isolated from context to make them even more alien.

Remnants and fragments abound. Early shows steel constructions that have been purposely defaced, along with a hand-picked selection of forge leftovers. Funke shows misshapen bits of cast bronze that glow like pyrite, along with big photographs documenting fragments of a 1931 plane crash.

Both bodies of work seem to ask: When does a fragment become plausible as art? Austrian art historian Alois Riegl's idea of "age-value," the notion that how old an object is may increase the perception of its worth, comes up against "art-value," since age-value prioritizes the acceptance — and even the celebration — of brokenness and decay.

Once we begin appraising an art object in terms of age-value, it goes through the looking glass. Questions of quality, condition and even structural integrity may influence value in ways that are the opposite of the norm. No wonder most of the sculptures in this exhibition look seasoned, as though they had taken a long, strange trip around the block and come back a little the worse for wear.

Early's gnarled hulks of painted steel perch archly on top of whitewashed furniture, as though their destiny as tasteful objects of middle-class décor had been preordained. Some bear a patina that suggests hard use. Others appear to have been arrested partway through their creation.

The sculptures come from two series, "sparsities" and "johnnycakes." The former are volumetric constructions in steel that have been displaced from their original contexts. The latter are comprised of found and manipulated industrial foundry waste. These objects are, in Early's self-effacing words, "somewhere between Chinese scholars' rocks and wadded up dryer lint."

The hunkering "Buchanan" resembles a roughly handled rendering of the Incredible Hulk's musculature, captured in mid-writhe. "Vagrant" looks like a weathered, albeit unrecognizable, farm implement decked out in an incongruously domestic shade of soapy lavender. It sits atop a stool that recalls the base of Marcel Duchamp's readymade "Bicycle Wheel." "Vagrant" is the garden-tool equivalent of the long, lugubrious faces in Grant Wood's painting American Gothic — a shout-out to the postmodern canon, masquerading as folksy Americana — you can't look away.

Funke shares Early's genial tendency to troll assumptions about taste and value. "Collection (Vertical)" is made from thousands of stacked baseball cards recessed into the wall, a long vertical unit striated with colored bands. Virtually all the players' identities, their stats, card provenance and collectible value are stripped away, raising questions about the individual, the collective and celebrity. And since the value of baseball cards fluctuates like stock, the question of whether the value of the piece as art outweighs its value as a grouping of mass-produced parts remains open.

Funke's photograph series "TWA599" also touches on celebrity and the disparate pieces of a whole. At a distance, the large-scale inkjet prints of mundane fragments and scraps of wood look like hard-edge abstraction from the 1970s. But these are relics salvaged from the 1931 crash that killed Hall of Fame football coach Knute Rockne along with seven others en route to Hollywood. The photos present the crash fragments as formal exercises, isolated from their provenance. But what does putting them back in context do to their value?

Both Early and Funke remove embedded information from familiar forms. In their joint statement, they remark on what they call the "exhausting excess" of contemporary culture. "We are challenged daily by endless arrays of data and uncontrollable amounts of waste. Information overloads our sensors, threatening to overwhelm us physically and psychologically. Screen time can turn into an ordeal and an addiction," the artists observe, before remarking that it can also be a "source of meditation inspiration." These sculptures show you how.

The show's title is a weed joke, needless to say, but it's also a pun on the quintessentially millennial condition of belatedness. In the hyperlinked, oversaturated world we inhabit, these cryptic sculptures are cool because they don't connect. In an age of unlimited infotainment, these artworks say the static on the screen is what's dope.

A reception for the artists will be held at First Street Gallery on Saturday, Feb. 6 during Arts Alive. Walter Early presents a lecture and slide show about his work at Humboldt State University on Friday, Feb. 5 at 5:30 p.m. in Room 102 of the Art Department building. 


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