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Boxed In: The Lonely, Busy Art of Andrew Krieger

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Sunday, August 8, 2004; Page N01

I've never met Andrew Krieger. Yet after seeing the artist's 30-year career-to-date retrospective at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, I feel like I know the guy.

My impression: kooky, obsessive, helpful and really, really awkward at parties.

Art imbued with a dense, personal iconography: "A Room at the Hotel Du Luys," a mixed-media diorama from 1987. (Courtesy of the Artist)

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Not that I know what it's like to barbecue with the guy on weekends. It's just that the 54-year-old District resident makes the kind of art that feels personal. This isn't confessional work but rather art imbued with a dense, personal iconography. His drawings and paper and wood constructions are filled with repeated characters, intimate dioramas and sketches for seemingly useless gadgets that only the artist could really understand. Yes, his scenes and whatchamacallits bear resemblance to things we've seen or heard of. But the intimate little rooms, the curiously engineered gizmos and the odd, vaguely human characters seem entirely Krieger's.

Art such as this is both fascinating and limiting. What's most interesting is the sheer energy poured into the work and the obsessive mind it took to make it. We're left to marvel at someone's alternate reality, one populated by people with cheese heads or full of funky gadgets. The downside: We never get beyond the marveling. Instead of artwork that's a gateway to a more universal experience or idea, Krieger's seems to stop us at the artist's doorstep. Enjoyment of the show will depend, in large part, on your interest in an Andrew Krieger-engineered world.

Exhibition curator Eric Denker, the Corcoran's curator of prints and drawings, purposefully installed this dense show in a single gallery. Krieger's works fill the walls and crowd plexiglass cases. The feeling is cluttered and claustrophobic, a setup that conjures what I imagine Krieger's mind would look like: a domed room where thoughts bump up against each other, vying for attention. It's almost as if Krieger himself were the curio we study inside these exhibition boxes.

The range of work is surprisingly uniform. Put a drawing from the 1970s next to one from a few years ago and you'll barely notice a difference. Anomie and subtle aggression underlie almost all the works involving humanlike figures. Early works find Krieger replacing human heads with what look like slices of cheese or even cheese grater-like contraptions. More recent characters, the ones Krieger calls "dominant forms," look like a person from the waist down, with head and upper torso sliced off. Many suggest action unleavened by reason, like a fraternity guy gone sour.

But most of Krieger's works aren't about people at all. Drawing contraptions and constructing paper dioramas of interiors are Krieger's favorite pastimes. The artist has spent much time producing images of lonely way stations -- bus stations, transit stations, weather stations -- that have little or no apparent use. Each is constructed elaborately but with major holes in reasoning: One station, enclosed on three sides like a bus shelter, has a roof suspended far too high to protect those below. A signaling platform is so decrepit it's hardly functioning. Many of the structures are shabby, crooked and leaning. Some have flags raised and waving, as if marking an outpost for settlers.

These drawings speak of missed connections and garbled communication, loneliness and isolation. All seem made for rural towns where old folks meet weekly for bingo. We can imagine Krieger living in such a town, known among its residents as a well-meaning tinkerer. The guy aching to help out but unerringly hapless.

The show also presents a good amount of dollhouse-size paper constructions and dioramas in wooden or tin boxes. For the boxes, he's made dioramas, sometimes with needles or photographs or little knickknacks, a bit like box artist Joseph Cornell. And Krieger's done a particularly masterful job of turning Italian cookie tins into mini-theaters.

Krieger's boxes come in a few types. Some seem to be rooms in lower-middle-class homes for Archie Bunker-types. Most could pass for humble urban digs or working-class hangouts from the mid-20th century. A few have the feeling of sooty tenements. Other boxes host visual and verbal puns that amount to one-trick stabs at cuteness. "Monument to a Great Screw" features a really big metal screw standing on its head looking phallic. Other humorous works manage to charm. The glittery needles and sequins that make up "Needle Club" really do know how to boogie.

Krieger's works, from the constructions to the drawings of useless contraptions, place him squarely in a fraternity of quirky art-world fellows. Cantankerous prankster William T. Wiley, who draws up a storm of cranky politics and half-baked puns, is one. Cartoonist R. Crumb, whose sexual and other neuroses get full airtime in his drawings, is another. These guys make art that feels like a one-to-one link with their psyches. It's almost as if the artists talked to you directly from their vitrines.

Which brings me back around to the narrowness of Krieger's work. So tied is it to his personal iconography that my responses are limited to marveling, scoffing, laughing or pitying. You can look at his work like a curio in a cabinet and be intrigued by the mind that made it. But it always speaks more of his individual world than to a more universal experience. Krieger gives us much to look at, but he fails to make a deeper connection.

Thinking Inside the Box: The Art of Andrew Krieger at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, 500 17th St. NW, to Nov. 15.

© 2004 The Washington Post Company