"Prototype for New Understanding #21"
Brian Jungen, "Prototype for New Understanding #21," 2004, Nike Air Jordans, no dimensions given. Photo: Trevor Mills, Vancouver Art Gallery.
BRIAN JUNGEN, Shapeshifter
New Museum of Contemporary Art, New York; Sept 29 — Dec 31, 2005
Vancouver Art Gallery; Jan 28 — April 30, 2006
Musée d'art Contemporain de Montréal; May 25 — Sept 4, 2006
By Sara Genn
Brian Jungen's themes of metamorphosis, myth, minimalism, craft, and ecology are like the landscape itself for Western Canadians. We are the children of our environment and claim its motifs, naturalness, and quiet open spaces as our own. The New Museum of Contemporary Art is a Chelsea doorway flanked by the art world's vocabularies of the moment. Inside the gallery, it feels like I've left Saturn with its gaseous, coloured rings and, landed back on Earth, remembering that air and water are beautiful. Within the interplanetary Esperanto of Jungen's sculptures are themes we believe are ours, but which are ultimately universal. The power of them, through the vehicle of the personal, resonates beyond the context of our geographical beginnings.
Jungen's sculptures created from mass-produced consumer goods have been exhibited internationally for over a decade. His work is understood and celebrated for its universal clarity, while losing nothing of its personal power or its geographical and cultural specificity. Here in New York, Jungen's ten-year survey show of sculptures, drawings and installations is received with curiosity. Blake Gopnik's review in the New York Post commends Jungen for his playfulness and visual appeal, and for toying with forms and imagery inspired by his mixed Dunne-za and Swiss parentage.
As a boy growing up in Fort St. John BC, Jungen recalls his mother's family making use of objects "in ways that weren't originally intended, a kind of improvisatory recycling that was borne out of both practical and economic necessity." In his art, Jungen has sharpened his senses to the ironies of material and cultural branding, springboarding to a deeper analysis of heritage and culture and continuing to evolve First Nations transformation myths.
At the centre of the exhibition, his well-known Cetology, Vienna, and Shapeshifterwhale skeletons constructed from mould-injected garden chairs swim in a cheeky and foreboding mimicry of the natural world. The shifting of shapes continues with Prototypes For New Understanding — twenty-three Northwest Coast-style masks constructed from cut-up and reassembled Nike Air Jordan shoes — each questioning what constitutes "Native art" while radically corrupting a ready-made and fetishized consumer product to redefine the relationship between consumer and object.
Jungen also carries the torch of the Vancouver conceptual movement in Isolated Depiction of the Passage of Time— a cedar pallet piled chest-high with cafeteria trays. The assembled form appears as a minimalist cube, but here Jungen uses this mimicry only as a template for a deeper message. The cube was inspired by a news story about an escape pod built by an inmate at Millhaven Penitentiary. Aware that the food trays were transported to another facility for cleaning, the inmate cut out the centre of the stack and hid inside. A photo in the exhibition catalogue of the original, tattered, and filthy pod, glued and sawed and then sawed again to reveal the cavity, hints further at the true social message in Jungen's installation piece. He continues this message by placing a television tuned to daytime programming in his cube's internal chamber. As well, the number of trays reference the number of aboriginal men incarcerated in Canadian penal institutions, and the colour of the trays indicates the length of each prisoner's sentence.
New York benefits from Jungen's reminders of our lust for consumer goods and their impact on the natural and social environment.The universal truths of his body of work at the New Museum stand as a powerful testament to the strength of his ideas and their creative execution.