As I place my stained fingers on the lid of a wooden box, apparently painted by Nancy Spero, I can’t help but think “Will I get into trouble for this?” The box, titled ‘Portfolio of Act Up Art Box,’ contains small objects, each attributed to a different artist, and sits on a pedestal with the lid resting against a wall in Goya Contemporary. The arrangement prevents me from seeing the top of the lid, which my program says is hand-printed and painted by Spero, an artist whose work I’ve always taken interest in. There are no gloves available to handle the piece, but I can’t leave without knowing what’s on the lid. I’m not sure if I’m crazy for touching the art, or if I’m being silly for thinking it might be forbidden.
After wiping my hands on my pants and peeking over my shoulder, I lower the lid to reveal black contours of female bodies, fragmented and sprinting over scrapes of pink paint. Printed across the figures as if from a broken typewriter reads, “let the priests tremble, we’re going to show them our sexts! too bad for them.” (Since the box was made in the mid-’90s, we can assume that “sext” does not refer to a sexy text message, but to the part of the Christian Breviary recited at noon.)
Gallery etiquette aside, it was worth it, if only for the thrill of touching an artwork, especially one made by a famous artist for whom I have a particularly strong affinity. The playful and temptingly tactile materiality of art is what is at once so pleasurable and frustrating about exhibition spaces. Even art that is digital or otherwise untouchable often begs for some kind of physical contact beyond sight. The rule of the gallery that (usually) forbids us from touching art challenges us to extend our vision and critical thinking to experience the artwork without physical contact. The materiality of art draws us into what the artist has to offer—and sometimes, that is simply the material itself.
“Material Matters,” at Goya Contemporary through Aug. 15, draws a focus to the material presence of the artwork. Considering that the world has seen art made from preserved animal corpses, internet ephemera, vacuum cleaners, and the results of plastic surgery, the materials used to create the work in “Material Matters” are relatively tame. Most pieces are made from fairly traditional fine-art materials: paint, ink, paper, steel, wood. None of the work speaks or barks or smells or tastes or thinks. Along with the portfolio box, which contains a black toy-like bird by Ross Bleckner, a wooden egg shape by Mike Kelley, clear and frosted glass wishbones by Lorna Simpson, a pink phallus by Louise Bourgeois, printed fabric by Simon Leung, and a circular glass citruslike object with a photograph—both by Kiki Smith—two other pieces stand out as the most nontraditional in their material makeup.
In the corner next to the box rests a single red ski by Salvator Scarpitta, titled ‘Red Friar (Sci ribelle).’ Like Duchamp’s readymades, the ski, taken from its partner and placed in the gallery, is removed from its function entirely and appears only an as object to be observed. A sculpture by Sanford Biggers, ‘B, R, S, R II (Bounce, Rock, Skate, Roll)’—a bizarre concentric arrangement of what looks like a worn wooden skateboard curved over small polyurethane wheels—transforms the destroyed object into a more ordered chaos. The readymade and the found-object pieces are, of course, nothing new, but here, they represent different uses of raw materials that present endless possibilities.
The freedom to create art from absolutely any material is a relatively new phenomenon. Artists have moved away from the abstract expressionist-Clement Greenberg infatuation with the properties of the medium in itself to the exploration of an endless frontier of materials and tools. Since Duchamp, artists have used the material qualities of their work to question the boundaries of what art is and can be. Of course, the still-not-yet-fully-defined definition of art extends beyond how objects are made and what they are made of, so “material matters” is only one facet to the possibilities of art, though nonetheless a critical one.
Baltimore painter Jo Smail’s paintings play with materiality in the more abstract-expressionist sense. In ‘Toss Up,’ a scrap of canvas and a sliver of painted paper are sparingly flattened to the canvas. ‘A Supreme Conjunction with Probability’ uses similar collage elements to cover more surface, along with three balled-up clumps of white paint. Thick application of paint almost always evokes an either conscious or subconscious desire to feel its texture (a teacher of mine once theorized that this has to do with scatological play during childhood, but that’s a different story). The playful contrast created by the smooth canvas and paper heightens the compulsion to run your hands all over the surface.
Luis Flores, also a Baltimore artist, uses organic materials to create his two collages and one sculpture in the show. In ‘Caja Muda #2 (Mute Box #2),’ a deep wooden frame boxes in two rounded leather columns stacked horizontally. A wedge from a log sits atop with box with a knotted leather string. In the company of artworks made from synthetic materials, the untarnished natural makeup of the piece evokes the link between materiality and nature—the origins of all material elements.
On the other side of the wall is a section of the gallery that carries a severe, almost surgical theme. A wind-chime-like structure called “Inverted Column” by the late kinetic sculptor George Rickey sways slowly in smooth, measured movements, almost robotically, I thought—until I discovered the fan that generated the breeze knocking the thin steel rods together, creating subtle clacking sounds. Facing the kinetic piece hang 11 clustered Louise Bourgeois etchings, accompanied by a small blue portfolio envelope. The group, titled “Anatomy Portfolio,” features Bourgeois’ typically bizarre and childlike images depicting a system of bodily symbols—bones, feet, breasts, a DNA spiral—like a mental patient’s sketches that you might find in the Visionary Arts Museum. The etchings themselves do not focus on the medium, using it as both subject and object. But because they are presented as if they were taken directly from Bourgeois’ desk, complete with their casing, they carry the weight of personal possessions, expressing a different sense of materiality.
Yayoi Kusama’s ‘Flower Pink’ is the most alluring piece in the show, not because of its famous provenance, but for its simultaneous creepiness and oversaturated sweetness. The crudely molded potted plant, painted pink and covered in silver glitter, is composed of stiff, sinewy stems connecting thick leaves to flower petals like alien antennae, as if it came out of some weird princess-claymation production of “Little Shop of Horrors.” It appeals to the odd and stupid human attraction to bright, shiny materials.
Like the ‘Act Up Art Box,’ the show is essentially a collection of artworks, created by both wildly famous and lesser known artists, presented in a context that emphasizes their material objecthood—although that context is really only created by the title of the show and the presence of the box as a microcosmic exhibition.