The Communal Table

Danielle Webb, Rico Gatson, Ian Umlauf, Marykate Maher

 (image: http://meyer-ebrecht.com/Content/../Archive/ProjectFolder/CommunalTable/bme_CommunalTable_1_web.jpg) I have been invited to introduce four artists and their works from a sculpture show I organized in late spring 2014 at my studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn. (i) The show consisted of 12 sculptures presented on a table that I built. The title, “Communal Table,” riffs on the ubiquitous yet hollowed-out use of the expression in the restaurant industry. The communal table of this show aspired to an earlier, utopian idea of a platform where members of the community gather to share and debate ideas. By including 12 artists, I wanted to create a map of the sculptural conversations that have formed and informed my own recent sculptures. I selected artists well known to me, with whom I have a history of exchange and shared ideas, as well as artists whose work I did not know in depth, but whose work had recently gained my attention.

The table is a sculpture in its own right, not simply a neutral plinth. Central to its design is the construction and pattern of the tabletop surface. Colorfully painted wooden planks form a grid of vertical, horizontal, and diagonal lines. The pattern consists of fragments of larger geometric systems, similar to various languages and systems that would intersect on the surface. The table and 12 sculptures were conceived as a single installation, the only prerequisite being that each artwork receive the space and presence it required. (ii)

Conventionally, models are displayed on tables, often as proposals to be executed in full-scale in the future. Communal Table played with this visionary aspect of smaller works. Placed on a table, even sculptures not intended as models are transported beyond their immediate environment and specific size into a fictional space of undetermined scale, where the monumental can exist next to the miniature.

Danielle Webb's “Polyhaus” plays directly with the convention of the architectural model by presenting us with a form based on a design for a Bauhaus-era home. Made out of a newsletter for casting and mold making published in the 1990s, “Polyhaus” is grounded in two time periods: autobiographically in the nineties, and historically in the era of early modernism. Constructing a sculpture from paper is a conscious alternative to conventional sculptural modes, which the newsletter serviced — turning the artwork's own making into its subject. Simultaneously, as an architectural model, Webb's piece echoes the grand ambitions of modernism and the revolutionary project of the Bauhaus.

Rico Gatson's sculpture, “Mystery Object #6,” could be mistaken as a model for a monumental, modernist sculpture. At closer inspection, it only plays with the form of the proposal, while firmly existing in its own scale and size. In a different way to Webb's model home, it speaks to its own making as a studio activity. Identically sized wooden blocks are stacked in a zigzag pattern to create a compressed column. Slight imperfections and irregularities reveal the manual process, and the attention to detail and labor spent. The painted base grounds the sculpture in the larger political context of Gatson's work, in which diagonally-painted stripes in red, orange, yellow, green, and black, simultaneously refer to the visual language of western modernism as well as to the project of black liberation. By putting the sculpture on this base, Gatson removes it from its surroundings and puts it into its own frame of reference. In this act, he achieves something similar to what the installation of the Communal Table is attempting.

Ian Umlauf's “teparu: Endlessly (adapted)” is a stack of wooden planes and wedges, printed images, and a plumb line suspended from above. Umlauf's sculpture consists of loose elements that are laid out and assembled on site. As the only work that extends beyond the table, it has a neon-colored thread that hangs from the ceiling and ties to the wall of my studio. It follows the logic of collage, combining different materials and modes of representations: the wooden planes are part of a found hollow-core door that has been cut into pieces, revealing its cardboard corrugation inside. Cut into geometric shapes, they are squared up and leveled with the architecture of the building. Two found images printed on a single paper are placed on the door fragments. Playfully didactic, they spell out other uses for this type of door, as a ramp, or a tabletop. Another print superimposes an image of Brancusi's “Endless Column” with a satellite image of the viewer's location. In a self-reflective move, the plum line identifies the exact location of the sculpture, and by extension, anchors the whole table in its specific geographic reality, while simultaneously following the upward, soaring movement of the “Endless Column.”

The three works introduced thus far have a distinct matter-of-factness. MaryKate Maher's sculpture, “Brooklyn Rubble,” subverts this notion with a carefully crafted pile of rocks and concrete fragments sitting on top of a miniature black trash bag. It is precariously leaning, and impossibly held by a thin metal rod. While the title suggests found debris from some derelict industrial streetscape, the rocks turn out to be skillfully hand-painted casts, mixed with actual debris and dirt. The pile's lean, its lightness and defiance of gravity, reveals the artificiality of this arrangement. The deceptive naturalism, it brings to the table, sets this sculpture apart from the other works. Similar to Umlauf's plumb line, Maher's sculpture grounds the table in its geographic context in Brooklyn. Yet by staging the illusion of her found objects, she exposes the romanticized notion of the non-determined post-industrial environment where most art is made.

(i) Communal Table, curated by Björn Meyer-Ebrecht, took place in Meyer-Ebrecht's studio in Bushwick, Brooklyn during the Bushwick Open Studios Weekend, May 29 to June 1, 2014. Artists included Andy Cross, Joy Curtis, Rico Gatson, Lars Kremer, MaryKate Maher, Ellie Murphy, Ben Pedersen, Marc Andre Robinson, Lynn Sullivan, Ian Umlauf, Danielle Webb and Letha Wilson.

(ii) My initial reluctance to present Communal Table in the format of the Culturehall feature was the limitation to four artists. The twelve artworks shared the table in a democratic manner and singling out single works seemed against the spirit of the show. I finally did commit to the feature, deciding to choose four representative works as case studies to reflect how this exhibition as whole and each of the chosen works functioned on the table.

Published December 2014 by Culturhall