The "Poetic Objects" now on view at the Washington Project for the Arts tell stories to the eye. Some reminisce, some mourn, some wisecrack, others howl.
The silent metaphysical poems they recite speak of life as well as art, for the 48 objects on display all incorporate materials torn whole from the real world--bobby pins and anvils, bones, stones and syringes.
These sculptures don't pretend. Unlike older works of art, they do not attempt to transform their hard materials, to make carved oak or marble stand for folded cloth or flesh. That six-pack is a six-pack still, that tennis ball a tennis ball. The found objects in this show--the walking sticks and chocolate cakes, tooled leather belts and light bulbs--though thrust into the realm of art, preserve the weight and meaning they bore in real life.
This quickly put together, funny-scary show was organized by Walter Hopps, the curator and art scout who, after years in Washington, recently accepted a museum job in Houston. The image on its poster -- a four-inch metal wood screw driven through an eight-ball -- is a fitting rebus for this wholly Hoppsian, slightly screwball show.
It may perhaps be read as his Washington valedictory, and as kind of a self-portrait. It reflects Hopps' taste, his politics, his professional migrations. Behind it stand dead masters to whom he has paid homage, particularly Marcel Duchamp and Joseph Cornell. It includes objects made by artists he has championed -- Edward Kienholz, H.C. Westermann, Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, Sam Gilliam and Rockne Krebs--and yet gives equal billing to others still unknown. In these ways and in others--in its crisp yet airy hanging, and in the way it champions five regions of the country -- Washington, Chicago, his native California, Texas and New York -- it poignantly recalls a dozen exhibitions he has mounted here before.
An old and sound idea of his is here made explicit. "Twentieth-century American art," says Hopps, "falls into three big categories. First there's realist art, that of Hopper, for example. Then there's wholly abstract art; think of Pollock's drips. Then there's all the other stuff. 'Imagist,' I call it. It's an old Chicago word implying poetry and visions; it was used by Ezra Pound. Is O'Keeffe a realist? Is Chicago's Ivan Albright? No. Nor is their art abstract."
"An Exhibition of Imagist Sculpture Employing Found Objects" is the subtitle he's chosen for his "Poetic Objects" show.
"Fire Engine Iron" (1977) by Chicago's Roger Brown is a kind of metal comic strip, a once-hot flatiron equipped with little ladders and painted fire-engine red. Bob Wade, the Texas sculptor who built the World's Biggest Cowboy Boots in downtown Washington, has put a piece of cowhide, a tin of chili without beans, and a church key, Tabasco and mezcal in the wall-hung box he calls, not at all obscurely, his "Texas Survival Kit." Yuri Schwebler's sculpture, with its battered anvil, its rusting tongs and wrenches, is an honest act of homage to the Voltri sculptures of the late David Smith.
Wade's box is a Texas gag, Schwebler's piece is somber, and yet there's much they share. They have a pedigree in common. Behind them stretch the Readymades selected by Duchamp before World War I, Andre' Breton's Object Poems, Kurt Schwitters' Merz-bau scavengings, the concrete-yet-apparitional boxes of Cornell, and countless works of folk art. The objects Hopps has gathered, some savage, some devotional, make abundantly apparent an attitude toward making art now common in our land.
The Lucas Samaras piece -- a kind of Iron Maiden with costume jewelry, flowing auburn hair and skull-penetrating pins -- comes, says Hopps, "straight out of the sadomasochist, sexual-surreal repertoire." It is the most evil object in the show. Suzanne Codi's is the sweetest. It is a kind of relic box, a little, loving shrine to Pursie (1970-82), her late cocker spaniel. Caroline Huber's "Black Building With White Piano No. 3" is part ominous, part chic, as if it were the offspring of a black-tie-and-white-satin Thin Man movie of the '30s and a Gothic horror flick.
Some of the works of art displayed employ their found objects to convey specific narratives. The bobby pins in Alexis Smith's "Chandlerism" sharpen a quotation from Raymond Chandler's private eye: "She smoothed her hair with that quick gesture, like a bird preening itself. Ten thousand years of practice behind it."
The yellowing and used 1947 calendar displayed by Washington's William Christenberry evokes, as all his artworks do, the Alabama life of his native Hale County. It was once owned by his grandfather, who noted on its pages births and deaths and marriages, the day he bought his tractor, the day his road was paved, and in doing so recorded the texture of his life.
While such works as these spin stories, others seem in contrast dumb. The bowling-ball-sized stone encased in the padded wooden casket of H.C. Westermann's "An Old Indian Implement" (1964) is nothing but a rock. The Kienholz is tougher, cruder, less explicit. It is a ruined radio speaker sunk into a bucket of black hardened tar. Hopps calls it junk-as-junk.
Many of these Texas objects call to mind that state. A number made in Washington--for instance, Linda Swick's, which displays a bronze fac,ade mounted on a pedestal faced with countless copper pennies--tweak this city's monuments. Rockne Krebs' large seashell, painted red, white and blue and installed on a flagpole, suggests the shining seas and the rippling of the flag. Clay Spohn's curled and twisted forks, made in San Francisco in the proto-Beat days of the late 1940s, also conjure up his city and his time.
Hopps' "Poetic Objects" show reminds us once again how much we will miss his knowledge, thought and eye. It closes Jan. 15.