The modernist drive to explore the aleatory, or fortuitous, dates back a century ago to Dada and Surrealism, which exalted and exploited accidental effects and odd juxtapositions. The traditional notions of individual creativity and professional craftsmanship were exploded and expanded. This aesthetic extolled found objects, like Duchamp’s — or perhaps, if the revisionists are correct, the Baroness Elsa von Freytag-Loringhoven’s — iconic and infamous urinal, with its obdurate refusal to play the art game on the usual bourgeois terms. Abstract Expressionist painters also cultivated an improvisatory, experimental approach, and the collaboration of intent, process, and method with accident continues today with, naturally, mixed results. Even wild and wooly conceptual art depends on talent and discrimination, too.
Two longtime members of the Mercury Twenty Gallery in Oakland, Peter Honig and Charlie Milgrim, disprove F. Scott Fitzgerald’s old dictum that there are no second acts in American lives, with new solo exhibits showcasing developments in their art since previous shows together.
A decade ago, Honig showed large-format digital prints mounted on aluminum that I characterized as parody product shots of mysterious, absurd conglomerations in the Dada-Surrealist tradition, but rendered in the sharp-focus, blank-background style of advertising and museum catalogues. Honig, a commercial photographer, and the son and grandson of photographers, employed his technical skills to create a Bizarro-world catalogue of objects of desire as subversive as Max Ernst’s photoengraving collages of the 1920s.
Honig’s new exhibit is entitled Wire Hum, after a poem that he wrote about the dichotomy between physical and mental absence inpersonal life and today’s wired and weird world. The poem, “Dry of Tears,” handwritten on a sheet of felt affixed to a plywood backing in one of his mixed-media sculptures, contrasts dry-eyed society’s perseverance with the artist’s “lone electric wire hum, calm in the meadow.” It’s a reference to his semi-rural digs in Santa Barbara, and his concept that life and culture, including photography, are converging into forms of electrical energy exchange. Several other scultures, all determinedly rustic-looking, made from scavenged wood and metal, are set on a line of pedestals. Dancer sets a metal sphere (a sinker?) atop a partially limbed torso of twisted tree branch. Portable Burden is a purse-sized triangular stone retrofitted with braided wire and a metal suitcase handle: absurdity, hacked — made easy and convenient.
Flanking Honig’s sculptures are color photos of landscapes — out of focus, because they represent inner states rather than the specific locales of Forest, Meadow, Stream, and Mountain and Sky. They alternate with crisp, high-contrast black and white photos of toilet paper rolls at the end of their service life, with the last torn sheet a kind of white flag of surrender. Honig sees the landscapes and TP portraits as related — and they are, compositionally, if you look for it: Forest, for example, pairs with a roll that ended on Christmas, 2018. The TP portraits might even be considered a kind of self-portrait; Honig saw them — in an ironic meta-interview with himself — mirroring/mocking humanity’s excremental nature as more or less sentient “meat tube[s].”
Milgrim’s works ranges from the absurd (bowling-ball sculptures were her trademark for years) to a politically and environmentally inflected minimalism and conceptualism (dark, tar-paper sculptures of B-2 Stealth bombers; and an installation of spirals of styrofoam, linking Robert Smithson’s famous earthwork, Spiral Jetty, with our three Sargasso seas of circulating plastics).
In recent years, she has been employing photography, which she uses exclusively in Accretion/Erosion. Instead of the geology and archaeology which the title suggests, we see medium-sized color photos that resemble abstract paintings, with very different impressions and affects. Some are of an aqueous nature, with thinned paint creating layers of visual space, as in Monet’s water lilies. Others are abstract expressionist fields of irregularly shaped, hard-edged forms in strong colors that assert themselves and jostle for space and pictorial survival. They’re not paintings at all, but photographs of, respectively, the wash basin in Milgrim’s Oakland high school painting class, with her students’ unused liquid colors mixing in the rinse; and the patchwork of the auto repair garage where the artist has her car smogged, with layers of bright, thick enamel paint worn down by constant human and vehicular abrasion.
Both are art without artists — except for the artist who discerned and discovered them, and photographed them with her iPhone. Blown up, the fifteen accretion and fourteen erosion photos demonstrate that art can be made without artists, as happens in nature incessantly — but the question remains: is it art if nobody but maybe the god of critics recognizes it? Fortunately, Milgrim’s sharp eye preserved these evanescent, unpretentious wonders.