The Afterlife of Artifacts: Assemblages by Barbara Irwin, John Sager, Larry Seaman, Steve Brudniak and Steve Wiman
written by Hannah Roberts
A rainbow of collected color greets each guest to Davis Gallery for The Afterlife of Artifacts, a group show featuring the work of five Austin assemblage artists. Colorful Exploration, a conglomerate spectrum of organic and manmade discard, is the work of artist Steve Wiman. This warm, textural welcome inspires nostalgic childhood memories of a fond and not-so-distant past. A green army man, a cut piece of an old red dodge ball, an orange rubber stamp, a blue ribbon. Simpler times. A comfortable place to be vulnerable.
Turning left from this priming, a heaviness sets in as the room opens to an eerier collection. The severity of Steve Brudniak’s installations commands immediate attention, and his work, The Menagerie of Eternal Life, sets the timeline back 250 million years. This beautiful assemblage of brass and salt crystals displays the famous 2-9-3 strain, the oldest known living thing on Earth (a specimen the artist persistently tracked down from the biologist who made the discovery).
Next, we are introduced to Brudniak (the person) in Self-Portrait of the Artist in Perpetual Maintenance, an unnerving autobiographical work about his own trauma and the passing of time. Locked behind a heavy antique refrigerator door, we see a ceramic casting of the artist’s face, submerged in fluorescent green antifreeze. The work interacts with itself, as a laser emits a red light from a grocery scanner through the eye of a deity. The sharp beam bounces in and out of the work via mirrors, toward the viewer and then back into the ceramic eye of the artist. This self-portrait, both stunning and overwhelming, recollects the industrial revolution and the relationship between human and machine.
…it is a reflection on the painful and pleasant complexities of existence, reaching across time and space. From the dawn of life, to mid-century nostalgia and our present state, to post-mortum and the future unknown.
Through Ulteriaphobia, we meet ourselves and, says Brudniack, our “fear of things far or unseen.” The viewer is invited to press their eye against this large-scale monument of concrete and metal to see themselves in a distant mirror. Between two glass displays of centipedes, submerged in familiar green antifreeze, there is a leather alter for kneeling before a hollow relief of two sizable hands. Like the feeling of pushing through fear, there is an uneasy attraction to place our own hands in this open space. By doing so, an electric current sends a physical shock through the entire body via a nerve stimulator. This shock, painful and exhilarating, is passed on to anyone in contact with the person whose hands are in place.
And so, it is understood. The Afterlife of Artifacts is not simply a stroll down memory lane. Rather, it is a reflection on the painful and pleasant complexities of existence, reaching across time and space. From the dawn of life, to mid-century nostalgia and our present state, to post-mortum and the future unknown.
In the midst of this tumult, Barbara Irwin’s work embodies the spiritual qualities of our journey and our experiences of freedom and confinement along the way. In her Towers of Power—Spiritual Totem Series, Irwin reminds us “to be open and receptive to the layers of meaning that serve as a focal point for communicating with the spiritual realms.” Through the stacked collection of repurposed materials that form her totems, there is a sense of faithful searching and triumphant rebirth. In contrast and representing the whole of experience, her Confinement Series, featuring caged environments, “represent[s] a way to see how our thoughts and beliefs concerning time, money, relationships, spirituality and appearances can confine and limit us.”
A poetic reflection on our spiritual growth, our physical decay and our ability to recover and reincarnate.
Not only does her work represent the Aristotelian concept that the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, Barbara Irwin is to credit for bringing this show together in partnership with the gallery. Davis Gallery has been part of the Austin community for over 30 years, serving as both an exhibition space and a custom frame workshop. According to Kevin Ivester, Assistant Gallery Director, Irwin has developed a close relationship with Davis Gallery over the years, and often collects their frame scraps for use in her own assemblages. It was through this exchange that the team collaboratively developed the concept for The Afterlife of Artifacts, following Irwin’s lead to bring together this impressive compilation of local assemblage artists.
Each reincarnating the pieces of the past into something new, of all the artists’ work, John Sager’s especially inspires a sense of optimism. Horizon Lines, a colorful paper collage that balances a feeling of meandering pleasantness with structure and purpose, is a reminder of those solid moments of beauty and ease. In addition to his two-dimensional paper collages, Sager’s vast media range includes sculpted, reshaped books as well as steel sculpture—such as his Cloudtree, a structure welded with grace and power, reaching up toward the great unknown. Sager’s work varies greatly in material, and even dimension, but is linked by his ability to forage discard to reshape new, heroic narratives.
Larry Seaman’s assemblages harken the well-known struggle between light and darkness, the grotesque and the glorious. Life and death. Together, three of his works tell this story: Devil’s Radio versus Hail Mary represent two opposing spiritual forces perceived by humankind. In the first, an old rusty radio transmitter is made up of a control panel of teeth, bones, a hoof and a circular blade saw. This nefarious equipment is juxtaposed by Catholic iconography—praying icons, melted candlesticks and the “Hail Mary” prayer. Between the two hangs Disheveled, where a dish hangs, split down the middle, atop a colorful silk scarf. Remnant of human nature, a beautiful, broken scene.
Vicariously through the restructured artifacts of Irwin, Sager, Seaman, Brudniak and Wiman, The Afterlife of Artifacts is a bittersweet experience of self on a personal level and a grand scale. A poetic reflection on our spiritual growth, our physical decay and our ability to recover and reincarnate. “We are all works in progress, constantly changing and evolving throughout our lives… We are all made up of many parts and components which create our physical, mental, spiritual beings.” -Barbara Irwin
The Afterlife of Artifacts will be on display at Davis Gallery through November 25th, 2017.