There’s No Place Like Kansas

02/01/2012 5:00 AM |

Virtually any mid-sized sculpture would look good in the front gallery of KANSAS. Marked by large windows, warm wooden floors and a ramp leading down to the main gallery space, the sight lines and interior are designed to display artwork in a flattering light.

This isn’t so different from most galleries—artworks sell better when they are glorified—but it’s worth mentioning because the space re-enforces the warmth of KANSAS’s current group show. Cheat Chains and Telephones (through February 18th) demonstrates at every turn the power of both the handmade object and a good joke.

This is apparent from the outset. Fabienne Lasserre’s freestanding metal half-circle painted in hot pink and white greets viewers, its loose paint application and imperfect curves showing the artist’s touch. It’s a simple piece—color divides the half-circle into three sections—and that understated quality works for it. A wire in the shape of the freestanding metal lies on the floor, as if keeping the whole piece from toppling over. It’s not quite an illusion—you never believe a thin bit of wire supports the whole sculpture—but the suggestion that empty space could contain so much weight is enjoyable nonetheless.

Nearby, a small shelf displays three B. Wurtz sculptures: a sophisticated paperweight, an upscale lamp and an understated cat toy. Each is an arrangement of reused plastic containers, tiny blocks of untreated wood, and plastic webbing. There’s a low-to-high transformation here that might be interpreted as a little too easy at first glance—friends I spoke to complained about this—but I was never bothered. The works are clearly playful, a quality that not only tempers this reading, but offers a lot more in the looking. The mood is most clearly expressed through the artist’s use of wire; the curves he pulls out of this metal move as if in time to the BA-dum-tum rhythm of a comedy routine.

Less of this kind of humor exists elsewhere, though the show isn’t without other jokes. I can’t imagine, for example, that Elisa Lendvay didn’t smile a little when making her hanging papier mach√© space saver; it’s exactly the kind of nonsense object us art folk think is hilarious. Anytime an object manages to perplex a group of people who spend all day thinking about why objects are made, we like it.

Lendvay, as it turns out, was also responsible for a tree stump pinned to the wall in the main gallery. At first glance, it looks like a ballsack, but further examination reveals layers of nuance: its shadow looks like a dick, and a seriously vaginal seam runs down its center. As the only object in the show with little to no manipulation, the piece stands out, though its curves play brilliantly off those of John Newman’s nearby assemblage sculpture, “Ask The Fact for The Form (red collapse)” (2011). Up close this conch-like piece has a little too much Rococo going on to be wholly successful; a ridiculous amount of ornately folded aluminum is used to buttress wood sticks and Japanese paper. It’s almost saved by the sleek red resin horn that runs though the piece—the sculpture needed the simplicity—but it ultimately fails to unify the work.

Newman struggles some in the back gallery as well, but it’s no dealbreaker. Lendvay’s person-sized tinker toy made of found objects holds that room just fine, so a couple of sculptures that look like they could have used more time in the studio aren’t so problematic. They are no impediment to a show that, as a whole, is one of the stronger I’ve seen this season.

(Top: John Newman, “Ask the Fact for the Form (red collapse),” 2011; bottom: B. Wurtz, “Untitled,” 2007; Courtesy KANSAS)