Brian Jungen’s 2006 exhibition at Casey Kaplan wasn’t much to talk about. I’ve never cared for skull art — I can’t keep myself from thinking about pirates and acid trips, no matter the intended metaphor. In that show, presumably, the skull iconography referenced the Wild West, as the entrance featured a number of rear-view mirrors with hanging feathered ornaments, and in the main gallery and back room, respectively, multiple baseball skins were molded into human skulls that lay in a flatfooted arrangement on the floor, and sofa chairs were turned into saddles and mounted on stools. The work in the exhibition was laid too low to the ground and failed to fill out the space enough, making it difficult for most viewers to even catch the theme of the show.
Two years later, the sculptures have gone from bad to worse. Jungen’s current exhibition at Casey Kaplan suffers from both conceptual and aesthetic flaws, though it basically follows along themes he’s been exploring for the last eight years. Jungen, a Dunne-za, First Nations Indian, creates sculptures that reference his heritage, transforming various mass-produced objects into art: this exhibition opens with a plastic gasoline can perforated with small holes forming the shapes of dragonflies. It’s unclear what significance the viewer should glean from the use of a motif popular among college freshmen, though one might infer that the can likely points to gas-huffing, a problem on First Nation reserves in Canada. Or it may be that the imprinted design is simply meant to create a female counterpart to the other pieces in the show, though such gender oppositions don’t add anything to the interpretation of the work.
The rest of the gallery is filled with woven ceremonial robes made from sports jerseys. Hanging flatly on the wall, and neutered of any meaning past the dull objects they were and have become, the work is surely a low point relative to Jungen’s past successes, the most recent of which was shown at Catriona Jeffries gallery in Vancouver last year, where Jungen created a series of impressive totem poles constructed from hiking backpacks. In that work, both the materials and the object they represent are successful in their craft, as they are in concept, each privileging social status, referencing a type of vacation that typically involves a fair bit of work. Admittedly, the artist brings some virtuosity to the actual textile weaving of his newest work, the patterns at times verging on beautiful, but the shirt still looks like a shirt, and a boring one at that.
Sadly, the show fails in its execution, to the extent that it leaves the viewer wondering if the artist has run out of ideas. Given Jungen’s success with Catriona Jeffries, I hope he still has something to offer, but he certainly has a bad track record with Casey Kaplan. I may not skip out on his next exhibit with the gallery — after all, its ground-floor location in Chelsea ensures that I’ll see it whether I plan to or not — but already I’m filled with more skepticism than I am enthusiasm.