‘Once Removed’ examines contemporary sculptures

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Photo by Henry Ehrenberg.

The toilet brush: used expressly for cleaning purposes. Right?

Wrong. A trip to the Yale University Art Gallery’s exhibit “Once Removed: Sculpture’s Changing Frame of Reference” proves to visitors that the toilet brush, among many other commonplace goods, can readily become art. The exhibit, which opened on Dec. 12 with the unveiling of the YUAG’s new renovations, focuses on the diversity of contemporary sculpture, featuring works from 1974 to the present that employ media ranging from an Ikea bookcase to cowskin to Vaseline. Visitors must keep one foot in the gallery and the other in the outside world to understand a work in its entirety, curator Cathleen Chaffee said.

“I compare it to a tripod. [The pieces] all have at least one leg that is outside the gallery; they’re pointing you away from each of the different works,” Chaffee said.

Chaffee explained that the works she chose for the exhibit exemplify the tendency of contemporary artists to create work that does not snugly fit into a museum, but instead requires the viewer to turn outside the gallery for meaning. Rejecting the traditional view of sculpture as an autonomous art form allows artists to respond to the world for broader purposes than political messages or social criticism, Chaffee explained.

“It’s not about reaching out to an idea, but reaching out to the world and how you interact with it,” School of Art professor Martin Kersels said.

The works in the exhibit force viewers to think about their own lives and interactions with materials, culture, shopping and junk, Kersels said. These concepts are immediate; they exist in the present, as opposed to the antiquated stories told by classical sculpture.

Kersels highlighted the relevancy of the museum’s pieces with Nam June Paik’s “Real Plant/Live Plant,” which features a gutted television from the 1950s that is partially filled with dirt and fitted with two “antennae” — vases of live flowers — and an internal monitor that receives real-time feed of the flowers from a video camera. The piece invites the audience to step back and marvel at objects that are so pervasive in society that they are often overlooked.

“One might think about how the monitor has become embedded with society,” Kersels said. “We hold them in our hands as phones and on our laps as laptops — they’ve become so ubiquitous with our culture.”

Anne Gunnison, a conservator who works on “Once Removed,” said using commonplace objects as artistic media may pose a challenge to the audience. She added that viewers may find it difficult to separate such ordinary objects as plastic bottles from their intended use and begin to view them as art.

Gunnison discussed the implications of sculptor Marcel Broodthaers’ use of a 16 mm projector in his “Un voyage en Mer du Nord.” The projector runs still images on a loop, but is so obsolete as an entertainment device that it is considered a sculpture itself. The audience must question how this projector is different than one in a living room or movie theater, since using it in an unusual context does not make it less effective, Gunnison said.

The YUAG will host a talk by two of the featured artists Feb. 7.

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