Imitation as Art: Form Creates the Substance

(Evan Reed - Evan Reed)
  Enlarge Photo    
By Jessica Dawson
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, January 30, 2009

Meet a dozen artists who charged themselves with a curious task: parsing the act of creating.

Calling themselves the MAKE Research Cluster -- that's "the cluster," if you please -- they live an hour outside London and most lecture at an art college there. Together, they explore the machinations of creativity, the why and what of inspiration.

As in: Why make something if you've already drawn it? Is making a three-dimensional model -- of a building, say, or of a sculpture -- even necessary, now that product design and architecture exist almost entirely inside computer hard drives?

Deep thoughts, yes, and someone's got to think them. Yet ideas alone rarely generate juicy exhibitions. (Recall the chilly lists and acrylic boxes of '60s-era conceptualists, artworks that not only discouraged visual pleasure but actively resisted it.)

So it comes as some surprise that the cluster's tiny show at Georgetown's Gallery 101 manages to please and even charm. Called, matter-of-factly, "Repetition and Difference," the exhibition showcases small sculptures and works on paper generated by the group during a week-long modelmaking session last summer.

The question their efforts posed -- How does modeling in 3-D affect creativity? -- never really gets answered. But the exhibition's pleasure comes not from solutions but from the very act of parsing.

The specific task they set for themselves was this: The artists would each work with the same four forms; they would replicate those forms in whatever materials they chose. And so the artists generated object after object, each one an iteration of the four originals. The result is a cheery clutch of sculptures bearing a strong familial resemblance.

The pair heading up the MAKE cluster -- Terry Perk and Gary Clough, both professors at the University for the Creative Arts in Rochester, England -- chose and generated the original forms based on ideas both lofty and vague ("adhesion," "conduit," "pressure" and "interweaving"). Perk and Clough wanted figures that could be replicated to make a system as well as stand alone.

The final four are hybrid forms, vaguely organic, vaguely Home Depot. One looks like a Greek cross crowning a toilet plunger. Another appears to be a trio of car mufflers, their bellies connected, and intersected, by a tube. The third is a medievalish device that might pass for a stunted wheeled cannon. The fourth, a curving V-shape, crosses a muffler and a manta ray.

Translated into a Dollar Store's worth of materials, the forms take on all kinds of new meaning. Several, especially those made of wooden sticks, could pass for Vladimir Tatlin utopian architectural models from the first years of last century. Others appear to be plucked from the natural world. Rendered in white plaster, that muffler-mantis could pass for a whale vertebra. Made out of wire, the same form resembles a segment of spine and rib cage. In cardboard, it becomes a ship's sail.

Of all the forms, though, the Greek cross-plunger encouraged the most intriguing iterations. One artist built it as a tower of blood-red Legos. Here the cross rests atop a stepped base like an equestrian monument; the effect is both liturgical and playful. Nearby, another artist cut up toilet roll segments and set them orbiting a plastic cup. Yet another participant curled plastic tubing around a wooden, cruciform base.

Now and again, the utter preposterousness of the proceedings -- the what, why and "who cares?" of these forms -- rears up. For this visitor, resistance gave way to a glad suspension of disbelief. Others might not be so lucky.

This stuff is the work of a collective, so nothing is signed. Yet signatures emerge with extended looking, part of the gradual pleasures of the show. There's the artist who fashions work in terra cotta, the one who favors interlocking panes of yellow acrylic, the one who uses wooden sticks. Paradoxically, individuality thrives here.

Alongside these objects hang several large-scale drawings made with glue, wire, ink, collages of anything and everything. On these pages, forms repeat and morph. The muffler trio, when mirrored with another just like it, interlocks to suggest an engine or motor. Elsewhere, arrows point from a math formula to what might be a hand mixer on feet (it's a version of the Greek cross form, I think), creating a relationship that only its creator could understand. One drawing of the mantis-muffler has "cityscape!" jotted alongside it, as if the artist were playing Rorschach with the form.

Like Tatlin's unbuilt monuments, these are follies and utopias, art for art's sake. Yet somewhere, too, lurks the potential for a breakthrough in structure or design. Look hard enough and you might find the next Zaha Hadid in here. "Repetition and Difference" milks the tension between what will be and what will never be.

This show won't appeal to everyone; it doesn't come on strong. Instead, the exhibition shows us how familiarity can breed pleasure -- like leafing through an old friend's photo album and seeing him in several decades' worth of outfits and haircuts. He's recognizable, yes, but also changed by time and circumstance. Could this, then, suggest how design grows, too?

© 2009 The Washington Post Company