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In a Jar

Peggy Diggs’ Witty, Obsessive Installation Is Best In Show

PIER ONE: An installation view of Zoë Charlton’s "Import U.S.A"

By J. Bowers | Posted 3/29/2006

Sometimes the simplest ideas are the most compelling ones. Peggy Diggs’ new installation is nothing more than a vast assortment of glass jars plastered with typewritten drugstore canning labels and filled with various household objects. But “Recollection” deftly steals the spotlight from the other five works in What Objects Want, an uncharacteristically sparse and uneven show presented by Art on Purpose at the Park School, an exhibition meant to “explore the meanings objects have in our lives.”

Arranged on rough-hewn wooden tables and accompanied by signs inviting viewers to please organize, “Recollection’s” jars and their seemingly unassuming contents are actually a visual autobiography, using Diggs’ obsessive tendency to save so-called meaningful objects to create a deeply personal look at the artist’s life and times. Sometimes the artifacts are poignant—a plastic medical apparatus coils, snakelike, at the bottom of one of the larger jars, with the label the last oxygen mask dad used as he died. A small vinyl doll squashes against the glass in another, with the legend my sister took it all out on her. Sometimes the jars are amusing, like the one full of dryer lint, stacked to form rocklike strata and labeled several loads of laundry lint tells you a lot about your clothing color choices. Sometimes they’re whimsical—a fat little jar of water is a footprint of a deer in the snow from my yard. And sometimes they’re downright creepy, like the pile of discarded human teeth found outside a dentist’s office once.

“Recollection” is a wholly unique take on a contemporary installation trend. For at least the past 15 years, artists and curators have reinterpreted and re-purposed the Enlightenment-era tendency toward assembling collections of intriguing objects, with varying results. By presenting items that highlight events in her life, both important and mundane, Diggs offers a telling look at her own idiosyncrasies as a collector, artist, daughter, and woman. A selection of empty jars completes the assemblage, inviting Park School students to add their own artifacts to the mix.

Unfortunately, the rest of the works in What Objects Want feel halfhearted and haphazard next to “Recollection.” Maryland-based installation artist Zoë Charlton aims high but falls short with “Import U.S.A.,” a faux-museum diorama installed in the corner of the gallery. Meant to illustrate the commoditization of identity and culture, “Import U.S.A.” presents an assortment of authentic African tourist-trade statuettes arranged alongside handmade, large-scale clay versions of the cheap figurines depicting African women often found in American dollar stores. Posed on Astroturf in front of a purposefully childish-looking backdrop, the figures carry wads of red velvet in clay satchels. Though Charlton’s clay sculptures are well made, the installation’s message is completely unclear without the accompanying wall text, the mark of an unrealized concept. A piece this allegedly high-concept should convey meaning without extraneous explanation.

Claudia McDonough’s “Nothing Doing #2” is similarly underwhelming. For it McDonough hung a blank canvas next to a pile of laundry. The artist describes this arrangement as “magically rich with narrative potential,” but, honestly, just as sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, sometimes a heap of dirty laundry is just a heap of dirty laundry.

Kate Bingaman’s “Obsessive Consumption” is a brighter spot. Mounted on the wall outside of the gallery, this series of 24 pen-and-ink drawings chronicles Bingaman’s credit history with freakishly faithful reproductions of bills from Target, MBNA, and Chase Bank. There’s a hurried quality to Bingaman’s lines and letters, and a sympathetic sense of humor to the whole process, particularly her tendency to send in the minimum payments due with each new statement. Strangely, curator Peter Bruun has chosen to complement Bingaman’s drawings with reproductions of magazine advertisements, and more of the same occupy a wall within the gallery proper. Several recent Park School exhibits have included this gallery addendum element to greater effect. Here, the ads feel like filler, and detract from the novelty of Bingaman’s efforts, as well as the overarching concept of the show. The focus here should be on the objects themselves, not objectification.

Also typical of most Park School shows, What Objects Want is accompanied by artworks created by Park students and faculty, all directly or indirectly related to the main show’s theme. Usually of higher quality than your standard grade-school art class fare, these works are a fun diversion, but, perhaps most interestingly, this time one of the professional artists’ works is almost indistinguishable from the student work on display. Tim Nowakowski’s monumental oil and acrylic “Running Shoes With Yellow Black Bursts” is a straightforward, realistic portrait of everyday objects often idealized and coveted by grade-school-age students. And, as such, it’s almost unnoticeable amid their paintings of toys, books, and other valued objects. This noncontrast is simultaneously intriguing and unfortunate: Nowakowski’s work makes the student work feel more important and relevant, and the student work devalues the craft and education behind the professional’s piece. Interesting, but probably not what he had in mind.

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