A Vivid Spectrum of Commentary

By Jessica Dawson
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, May 9, 2008

Though 15 days shy of graduation, Benjamin Jurgensen is enjoying the kind of success his Corcoran College of Art and Design peers can only pray for. Over the past few years, Jurgensen has contributed intriguing sculptures to several important group exhibitions, including Project 4's uneven, if inventive, "Useless." Now, barely old enough to buy a beer, he debuts a solo show at Meat Market.

So what sets Jurgensen apart? For one, a remarkably cogent set of works that display, if not maturity beyond his years, then at least a level of finesse that has to be taken seriously. That, and a certain creative juice -- a whiff of the art student persona, that smarty-pants obsessive creative type -- infuses almost every work.

The convoluted grammar of Jurgensen's exhibition title -- "Don't Ready to Die Anymore" -- hints at what he's about. Like the work in this show, it rings both familiar and strange.

Among the disparate stuff his exhibition references: a nearly unheard-of brand of Eastern European bike, land-mine education, the Disney films "The Little Mermaid" and "Cool Runnings," the artist's own graduation, cellphone towers, a trident, underwater flippers, barnacles. Our eyes wander over objects in the gallery that appear tied by loose association. You could call it the physical manifestation of Googling.

How do you unite these things? Color and materials. Jurgensen made almost everything in the show out of medium-density fiberboard, that wood composite familiar to Ikea shoppers. The artist machines and hand-molds the board into impeccably crafted objects. Then he picks a color -- a particularly Miami kind of matte aqua for one piece; Hollywood "green screen" green for another -- and coats every component in that pigment. It gives the works a cool layer of irony.

That produces objects that are both solemn and loaded with pop culture. They appear generic but feel portentous.

Those who remember Glaswegian sculptor Kenny Hunter's exhibitions at Conner Contemporary Art in 2002 and 2004 will recall an artist with a similar strategy. Hunter's goal was anti-monument-making. He created the shapes of everyday people -- a firefighter in full gear, a pair of channel surfers slouched on a couch -- in sculptures coated with a matte black or peapod green, lending sarcophagus-like gravitas to quotidian situations.

Like Hunter, Jurgensen has memorials in mind. Two works here honor -- in a manner of speaking -- the late rappers Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls, who were both slain more than a decade ago. Each gets a shin-high work made to look like the compressor-tank contraptions used with airbrush kits. According to the artist, the shape refers to the countless airbrushed T-shirts that memorialized both deaths.

As for color, the tints here connote rap-star excess. For Tupac, the machine's stout body -- it has a bovine presence -- was bathed in platinum, its upper cylinder wrapped in the rapper's signature bandanna. For Biggie, Jurgensen topped the golden-hued work with a crown like one the late star wore in life.

Unlike typical monuments, these are not Mini-Mes. Instead of revealing likeness, they write cultural shorthand. The bandanna and the spray paint are references that those in the know will know. So are the titles. For Biggie, it's: "life after death, ninety-six, woulda been fine had puff daddy been a better father figure." It references the rapper's first album (called "Ready to Die"), from the year when violent hip-hop rivalries escalated and the artist-mogul Sean Combs (Puff Daddy at the time), the man credited with discovering Biggie and encouraging him to leave thug life behind.

It's here that Jurgensen's youth comes out: his passion for trivia, the earnestness and thoroughness of his knowledge, his concern for the lives and deaths of men he never met. But even at its most insiderish, his works leave room for the rest of us.

Take the tan piece that greets us near the gallery door. Here Jurgensen inserted a pile of feces -- again, all sculpted fiberboard -- in the upper drawer of an end table. The rest of the work includes a toppled floor lamp, a split avocado on a cutting board, an industrial flashlight and a copy of "Fibromyalgia for Dummies" (only the book isn't sculpted). Pranks by art school friends inspired Jurgensen to make this piece, but those of us who aren't members of the Corcoran Class of '08 have stuff to get into.

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