From afar, the stuff glued to the gallery wall seemed like a flotilla of rococo candelabras, painted in lurid hues of puce and scarlet. Closer—it resembled gooey sludge: perhaps the set for a David Bowie movie that never was, a post-Apocalyptic homage to what nature must once have looked like. Made of ceramic and wood and titled “Le Jardiniere” (for the French word for female horticulturalists) it was meant to be both—a rococo, cultured re-imagining of the mess and sludge of our rude world.
This huge installation is what the artist Julia Whitney Barnes’ thinks of as her “vertical garden”—the only type of garden you could just fit into a city these days. Inspired by her walks through Prospect Park where nature is safe and charming and sweet, the gaudy mess is meant to poke fun at urban mistranslations of nature. A Vermont-born painter plunked down into the caverns and grottos of New York City streets when she attended Parsons for undergrad, Barnes’ work investigates our dumb miscomprehension of nature’s complexities—a topic that’s been everywhere in the art world ever since we were told we were destroying ourselves back in the sixties. (Just last month at Pierogi’s Boiler Room, an artist making a statement re: Global Warming installed a pony-sized chunk of arctic ice in a glass cube and refrigerated it with solar powered panels on the roof.)
By tracing onto balsa wood the shapes of bark dropped by the Prospect Park trees, Barnes was playing the same tune on a toy piano: Isn’t this a little bit uh, weird guys? But nothing seemed to make Barnes’ re-mediated nature, tacked to a wall, any more successful than gaudy wallpaper. With its drooping flowers and bizarre hunting panoramas, our gaudy wallpapers and bad floral prints are simply the stilted way that we understand things outside of ourselves: these are the things lovely dead.
“I am definitely interested in trophy walls,” Barnes said, taking in the whole wall at a glance—“In the things we choose to kill to put up, and in that style of display.”
The piece was a bright accompaniment to the work of a more well-seasoned artist, Melissa Pokorny.
Pokorny’s sculptures are the 3-dimensional equivalent to hyperrealist video artists like Ryan Trecartin: they take what’s already out there in the world—ornamental lawn pieces, faux architectural details; combine it in loose, unsatisfying ways whose construction is openly visible (noticeable glue-gun smears, tape); and function not to provide us with linear, solvable narratives, but instead to present us with the truth that there is so much stuff in the world and that the relationships between these elements are up to our interpretation.
Take a piece that consisted of a low wall Pokorny covered with an image of a grimacing monkey and stippled with crunched-up cups, half-filled with what appeared to be a lemony-juice—were they the beverages left by revelers at an opening or a garden party? And what of the monkey? Another piece featured a bought ornamental puppy—a sad animal, with drooping ears—who had been tied to a wall Pokorny had glued with photographs of other walls she had taken on a sabbatical in Spain. Attached to this was a photograph of Lassie, emerging from a dark and enormous cave. Pokorny has her own answers on the relationships between the objects. “These aren’t just kitsch,” she says of the objects she chooses. “I really love these things.” As a real dog strolled by and sniffed Porkony’s fake, she said. “By putting this fake dog into this narrative, it gives it a life.”
In that way, the work of the two artists played off the same sad truth: We kill things in order to understand them. Barnes showed dead images of nature to be sadly mistranslated, albeit beautiful, while Porkony took the strange dead bi-products of culture—ornamental lawn ornaments, drunk cups—and sought to reinject them with life.
“Within the Menagerie” shows through June 21st at Front Room, 147 Roebling (at Metropolitan). Fri – Sun 1 – 6.