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Division of Labor

Exhibition celebrates the allure of the arduously handmade

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Mary Smull’s “Old mill Farm #2”

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Jordan Bernier’s “untitled (snake)”

Division of Labor

At Current Space through April 15

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The new show at Current Space was born of an ongoing conversation among friends, three artists who share an affinity for process-intensive practice. They asked themselves: What is the allure of the hand-made, the laboriously crafted, in a time of digital saturation? Out of this relatively simple question came Division of Labor, a 12-artist exhibition that “asks what meticulous processes and time consuming approaches can bring to an idea,” according to exhibition materials. Three of the participating artists—Skye Gilkerson, Jason Meyer, and Christian Donnelly—also curated, working as a team to compile a roster of artists from Baltimore, Philadelphia, Chicago, and Los Angeles.

Hard physical labor clearly went into some of the pieces. For instance, “1001 Ways to Get to Heaven” by Chicago-based Michael Rea is a sculpture of a mandible chained to an ice pick, every element carved meticulously from wood. And Meyer’s graceful piece “Stayed Gone” is made of “rammed earth.” The artist essentially made sandstone by hand, tamping clay and sand into molds, simulating a process that takes Mother Earth eons. Even Donnelly’s rather airy “P.E.T. Rock Formation #1,” made from plastic soda bottles mottled with a soldering iron and molded into the shape of a boulder, is heavy with the weight of sweat.

But other works seem to have required as much mental dexterity as physical stamina. Mary Smull applies her own formal rules to commercial needlepoint kits, resulting in distorted, kitschy textiles. By manipulating the constraints of a traditional craft she achieves delightfully unsettling results. Gilkerson presents two paper pieces, both refreshingly straightforward in their beauty. She created “Endings Constellation,” made with hand-cut newspaper and ink, while participating in 365 Days of Print, a 2011 project involving more than 100 artists that had her making a new piece every day using the pages of The New York Times.

For some of the exhibition pieces, at first glance the scope of the work invested is not apparent. Such is the case with Renee van der Stelt’s graphite works on paper. A bit underserved by their unanchored presentation, up close the compact texture of scoring, folding, and mark-making creates a rhythmic surface that is at once controlled and intentionally imperfect. From afar, Jordan Bernier’s artwork exhibits a similarly deceptive simplicity. Upon closer inspection his pieces reveal themselves as painstakingly composed hives of graphite hatching.

JK Keller and Keetra Dean Dixon’s standout collaborative piece “Suddenly” is laboriously layered from wax and acrylic paint. It looks something like a geode, though of course, that sort of crystal formation is anything but sudden. (Neither, one suspects, is the artists’ process.) Marian April Glebes presents five shadow boxes housing modified insects, including “Untitled (stitched, fourth attempt),” which consists of a dead moth whose torn wings have been carefully stitched. Glebes’ work does not flinch at the ridiculousness of repeated failure, but rather embraces the inevitable humor in continuing to try.

All the works in Division of Labor resonate with commitment and vigor, though the sort of labor each required varies. Artistic ability cannot be left to the whims of inspiration, the show seems to say. “It’s a muscle,” Glebes says.

And like a good joke, Division of Labor has layers, the buildup serving to fortify the punch line. A lot of the work in the show is in fact funny, or self-consciously ludicrous: Mike Ellyson’s “The Bible” is a work in progress in which the artist uses Wite-Out and ballpoint pen to meticulously cover the original text of a holy book with a handwritten transcription of Charles Darwin’s Origin of Species. Los Angeles-based David Prince’s video piece, “Attempt at Perpetual Motion,” which opens on a scene of the artist chopping down a tree in the woods and continues as he works the log with saws and awls into an unknown form, has a simply amazing ending. (Hint: It involves a slinky.)

We may not always think of laughter as an appropriate response to an art exhibition, but there is an overall tone of merriment to Division of Labor. It makes for an agreeable contrast to the serious questions the exhibition poses. Overall, the show is a successful bid for wide-eyed inquisitiveness.

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