Tuesday, June 25, 2013

Tony Garbarini at galleryHOMELAND

Robert Boyd

Tony Garbarini, Top

Tony Garbarini, Seated Lady Figure, 2013, wood, yarn, fleece, aqua resin, enamel paint, found objects, 50 x 33 x 11.5 inches

Little pieces of black yarn hang off the green-painted wooden post, looking for all the world like stubble on an unshaven cartoon character. Ironically, this piece is called Seated Lady Figure, but the graphic cartoony visual image provides a way into the work of Tony Garbarini in Top a show of work at galleryHOMELAND. The work consists of a video, two wall pieces, and four free-standing sculptures. It's the sculptures that seem the most cartoonish--they have an antic screwball feeling that makes me think of early animated cartoons by the Fleischer Brothers or comics by Rube Goldberg or Bill Holman and Will Elder. The work comes out of a tradition of assemblage, but it has none of the grungy feel of assemblagists like Rauschenberg or Kienholz of Herms or even Jessica Stockholder, although Garbarini shares her love of bright color. It's the humorous juxtaposition of disparate elements--often boldly painted and containing visual puns--that makes me think of Bill Holman, and his comic strip Smokey Stover.

Bill Holman, Smokey Stover, Nov 20, 1938

Bill Holman, Smokey Stover, February 14, 1943

The objects in the Smokey Stover's home and in the firehouse where he works are the ancestors of Tony Garbarini's sculptural objects. I don't know if Garbarini is aware of Bill Holman's comic strips--probably not. Smokey Stover ran until 1973 and the strips have only been occasionally reprinted. But this kind of absurdity has remained an undercurrent in American culture. The idea that Garbarini is influenced by the long history of assemblage in art is obvious. He has a serious art education where it would have been difficult for him not to become aware of this history. But the link between Garbarini and Bill Holman (or Rube Goldberg or Milt Gross or any other "screwball" newspaper comic artist) may exist purely in my mind--this isn't the kind of art history they teach in art school, after all.

Tony Garbarini, The Education of Apocalumps, 2013, fiberglass, epoxy, resin, aqua resin, acrylic paint, found objects, 60 x 30 x 24 inches

I can't see The Education of Apocalumps without also seeing Smokey Stover with a bowling ball on his head. Its meaning is obscure--the model volcano and books suggest "education" or "school," and the knife driven into a sphere could be read as an apocalyptic event, the destruction of a planet. But trying to find symbolism or metaphors or metonymy here is not likely to provide a big payoff. Perhaps better to think about it in formal terms, as a three-dimensional object in a space. But such an analysis would involve ignoring the absurdity of The Education of Apocalumps. Maybe the books provide clues. One is a book folk medicine and another is called Apocalypse Code by Hal Lindsey, an evangelical whose book tying the book of Revelations to current events, The Late Great Planet Earth, was popular in the 1970s. Lindsey is a disturbing fear-mongerer, but the sculpture is more wacky than ominous. Perhaps by being wacky, it satirizes the humorless death worship of Christian Zionism/premillennialism. But that interpretation almost feels too serious because it sucks some of the fun out of the work.

Tony Garbarini, Cheese Slug, 2013, grout sponges, polyurethane foam, yarn, pencils, 40 x 33 x 11.5 inches

The Cheese Slug slithers with two knitting hands growing out of it. The yellow sponges look like cheese a bit. The pencils are not visible--maybe they are inside the structure, holding it all together. The hands, molded with polyurethane foam, are a kind of deathly white. They add a slightly disquieting element to an otherwise humorous piece. They seem ghostly, and the fact that they are rising out an amorphous shape adds an element of the supernatural. 

Tony Garbarini, Columbust, 2013, plaster, aqua resin, epoxy resin, yarn, enamel paint, found objects, 42 x 36 x 26 inches

Traditionally, a pedestal has been a neutral element designed to lift a sculpture off the floor and closer to the viewer. But in both Seated Lady Figure and Columbust, Garbarini explicitly incorporates the pedestal into the sculpture. Seated Lady Figure features a saw resting under the pedestal. Columbust has a dial embedded in the pedestal. Plus, it plays with the idea of a pedestal by having two of them--the modern white box and the classical column. Two pedestals implies that the topper is going to be special indeed! And it's... a trashcan lid, some white yarn and blue resin which sculpturally depicts standing water.

Tony Garbarini, Untitled (Soldier, ship, trophy), 2013, oil painting ordered from http://www.europic-art.com/ , wood, found objects, 84 x 44 x 4 inches

Then there are the two Unititleds, both of which feature paintings created by Europic Art & Craft Company. Here's how Europic describes itself:
Europic Art & Craft Co., Ltd,a fast growing and now is a leading art company in China, focuses on the oil painting reproductions, oil paintings from photos and other related arts for a low price. We are located in Xiamen, the premier oil paintings reproducing center in China. All our artworks are genuine hand-painted oil paintings on canvas. No machine printing or computer spraying is used. Our artists are talented graduates of the art schools for professionals, thus, museum quality is guaranteed.
Garbarini got them to make paintings of three gruesome images--a child soldier from Liberia with a skull on a pike behind him, a sinking ship and a mutilated elephant. The paintings are arranged so that their top edges are lined up. Resting on top of the paintings are a bunch of colorful cheap geegaws, things that you might expect to see in a child's room. There is obvious tension between the horribleness of the paintings' subject matter and the childlike playthings above them, but this feels like easy irony to me. What is more interesting is that he chose to have someone else paint these images, specifically laborers in a Chinese factory. In the late 60s, there was a short-lived group in New York called the Art Workers Coalition. But the people who work at Europic are real art workers, churning out product for a pay stub like any other industrial worker. I am reminded of what John Berger wrote in Ways of Seeing: "Hack work is not the result of either clumsiness or provincialism; it is the result of the market making more insistent demands than the art." The Europic painters are the ultimate hacks, but are blameless. Presumably no one does this for artistic satisfaction; they do it to put food one the table.

Tony Garbarini, Untitled (Wit and Without), 2013, oil painting ordered from http://www.europic-art.com/ , wood, found objects, 63.5 x 32 x 4 inches

I find the use of these paintings slightly disturbing. Garbarini is toying with our conception of an oil painting (a valuable unique object that can be bought and sold), but to play this game, he becomes an exploiter of cheap Chinese artistic labor--just as someone who purchases the toys that rest above the paintings is purchaser of cheap Chinese factory labor. The paintings really mitigate the sense of fun that the sculptures embody. Looking at these paintings, I felt a sudden sensation of taking a "cheap holiday in other people's misery." Fortunately, the opening feature free alcoholic beverages. After I looked at the art, I went outside, sat in the sun and sipped my beer.


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