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Reconsidered Materials

at The Exploratorium

This quirky show at San Francisco's exuberant Exploratorium is a special exhibition of over ten artworks made from stuff not normally associated with "fine" art, or with art at all for that matter -- things like styrofoam, carbon, duct tape, retreads, recycled plastic, mayonnaise jars and cupric sulfate, for starters.

According to curator Pamela Winfrey, the exhibit grew out of a need to re-define part of the space in the vast, crescent shaped, hangar-like Exploratorium. Ms. Winfrey's idea was also to "draw attention to the invisible interaction between object and substance by creating works from unusual or unexpected materials." The ten or so pieces are mostly scaled to outdoor installation size, which is perfectly appropriate in the rambling Exploratorium space. Several of the artists are "Burning Man people" -- and that flamboyant, heroic, psychedelic aesthetic is evident. The pieces fit in nicely with the standing exhibits, and are probably much more at home here, as thought-provoking, experimental work, than they would be in a stifling, sanctimonious don't-touch museum or gallery setting.

{b]Portal, by Finley Fryer, is a huge stained glass-like arch made from recyled plastic, metal frame and resin. It hangs about ten feet off the floor, and welcomes you into the space.

Jonathon Keats' solid carbon cube, approximately ten inches on each side, is not too compelling until you learn that the block represents the total amount of carbon in the artist's body, as though he was incinerated, sifted, and pressed into a cube that looks like it came from the Death Star. Creepy, visceral, and, of course, an excellent object with which to stimulate scientific inquiry.

Andrew Junge's Styrofoam Hummer was conceived when the artist, who worked at a San Francisco recycling center, happened to notice one day that there is simply a mega amount of styrofoam in the world. If you've ever spent much time at the beach or on the ocean, you know that it takes seemingly forever to degrade. He combines one powerful symbol of waste (the macho, military-overkill Hummer) with another -- useless, bland, indestructible, non-recyclable styrofoam. Incidentally, this piece weighs 500 pounds -- which makes you wonder just how heavy a real Hummer is.

Mary Elizabeth Yarbrough's Telephone Pole Reconsidered is a strangely eloquent full scale telephone pole made from latex weather balloons, duct tape, and fishing line. I'm not sure what the message is, but it's really beautiful. This unassuming, faintly ominous piece has all the presence and poetry of anything by Oldenburg or Beuys.

Jim Haynes' Constellation is a chandelier made from old jam and mayonnaise jars, which appear to be coated and corroded with cupric sulfate and ammonium chloride, as if they were dug up from a garbage pit. The chemicals transform the jars into radiant, richly colored jewels when they're internally lit by light bulbs.

Eleanor Lovinsky's horse pieces, crafted from rebar and retreads, are a sly comment on the evolution of modern transportation. These recycled ponies are turbocharged -- their graceful, muscular, majesty exudes a hard-driving equine energy that makes Debora Butterfield's horses look rather like quaint basket weaving.

This show, especially in the context of the curiosity-stimulating Exploratorium, makes us think about the materials we usually take completely for granted, and our relationship to them. There's a long tradition of modern artists using unconventional materials in their work, from Jeff Koons' chrome-plated inflatable bunnies to Ed Rucha's silkscreens in blood, chocolate, and mayonnaise, but "fine" artists usually are not trying to get us to think; rather, at times, they seem to be just trying to be weird or shocking.

Not that weird or shocking is bad, it can be fun. It's just that learning and questioning and coming to see your world in a different way is even more engaging. Reconsidered Materials lets us do just that, and have a great art experience at the same time.

Reconsidered Materials
through June 18, 2006
at the Exploratorium (at the Palace of Fine Arts)
Tuesday through Sunday, 10am - 5pm
Admission $8-13