Conceptual artists who pack a wallop
Kenneth Baker
Saturday, October 8, 2005

"Conceptual craft," in the subtitle of Southern Exposure's show "Practice Makes Perfect," sounds like a contradiction in terms.

In its early days, conceptual art implied the negation of craft in every traditional sense. But things have changed. The boundaries between "high" and "low" culture that began to dissolve in the early '60s -- or as much as a half-century earlier, according to some historians -- have not regrown. Rather the rampant pluralism of contemporary art has forced everyone interested to take things as they come, their specifics bursting the bounds of nomenclature more often than not.

We see this clearly in "Practice Makes Perfect."

Anne Chamberlain has made something wonderful by covering the panes of Southern Exposure's high, westward-facing factory windows with carefully perforated black paper. The whole installation describes a giant dark sphere silhouetted against a black sky salted with stars. The more intense the sunlight leaking through the piece, the more intense the illusion of a vantage point behind the moon that occludes the sun. One of Jim Melchert's process-oriented ceramic pieces hangs near Chamberlain's installation. Its nine-panel grid of porcelain tiles wears a pattern of black glaze dots suggestive of night sky in negative. The pattern came about when Melchert methodically dropped and broke and then reassembled each tile, placing a dot of black glaze at each point where a fracture or chip originated.

The work has a look both of randomness and of revealing a hidden level of structure for which we have no name.

On grounds of the techniques, obliqueness and labor they involve, Melchert's piece and Bernie Lubell's must both qualify as "conceptual craft," but they exemplify very different senses of artistic maturity. With characteristic energy, Lubell has built a mostly wooden contraption -- a sort of porch swing -- that purports to extract data on the interaction of a couple who sit on it. Like much of Lubell's work, it contributes to an ongoing, slightly satirical view of misspent energy, that is, of the world as we know it. Sculptor and beekeeper Mark Thompson offers the most hypnotic piece, a projected video called "The Sixth Sense (Closing a Sale)."

In it he appears dressed in white, his face cropped out of the frame, his hands repeating a sequence of gestures. The viewer may think "football umpire" or "third base coach," but the gestures come from the stock exchange trading floor.

As Thompson performs, bees slowly appear, first a few, then dozens, then hundreds. They begin to alight on his hands, and he tones down his gestures to keep from shaking or brushing them off. Eventually, they coat his hands completely, seeming to turn him into a different kind of creature. His gestures slow and thicken until they lose all definition in a sort of allegory of communication swamped by instinct or of vertebrate succumbing to invertebrate intelligence.

Christian Maychack has intervened in Southern Exposure far above eye level, by adding to the architecture what looks like an anomalous growth of bricks and wallboard bulging from the base of the gallery's high south windows. He renovates the tradition of relief sculpture with a surrealistic injection of the anxiety we feel over such innovations as genetic engineering and the influence of a toxic environment on our own growth.

"Practice Makes Perfect" pulls in too many directions, but it definitely rewards attention.