Riches and Ruin
Benjamin Kelley conveys the dark side of mechanized production
Published: November 23, 2011
Riches and Ruin
In his first post-MFA solo exhibition, artist Benjamin Kelley approaches America’s industrial history through a series of works that lays bare the darker aspects of the country’s domestic production. Riches and Ruin includes four sculptures and a found photograph Kelley reproduced from a negative. The photo, which depicts a well-dressed man next to ambiguous mechanical artifacts, hangs on a back wall, a backdrop for the spread of sculptures. The cleanly framed, somehow ominous photograph helps to set the tone for the exhibition.
Open Space, like many of Baltimore’s galleries, is housed in a rehabilitated industrial venue—in this case, a fully operational auto-body shop. The building’s architecture, including rows of hinged windows and a concrete floor, echoes Kelley’s work. Within the nearly empty space, the sculptures feel somewhat abandoned, but also as though they’ve always been in a similar setting.
It is not surprising that the gleam and crumble of industry is alluring to Kelley, as he is a Michigan native and Baltimore transplant. In “Mistress Fallen Martyr,” a cast coal fender of a Ford Model T (a “Tin Lizzie”) is draped over a shiny plastic surface, supported by a shiny aluminum base, all of which sit on a black surface. The fender, a black chalky relic, rests gracefully along the narrow surface, à la Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres’ “La Grande Odalisque,” creating a distinct tension between old and new factory-made forms. Kelley heightens the tension of the piece with his clever use of coal dust mixed with resin to craft the replica auto part. At a touch, the piece disintegrates ever so slightly, leaving a black smudge on the skin. “Hypovolemic,” a black meat-grinder atop a black, upright cinder block, is also cast coal dust and resin. One side is faced in a matte red plastic. This piece is altogether more menacing. Seemingly having fallen victim to time and neglect, the severed machine part appears to have taken on a life of its own. It is only upon inspecting the materials list that it becomes clear the object was created this way.
“Spoils,” the smallest and most enticingly tactile of Kelley’s pieces, is tucked in the rear corner of the gallery. Thick, glossy plastic chunks, extracted from the mysterious “Handy Man” section of Ikea and modified by the artist with a second layer of plastic, cradle the only anatomical forms among otherwise industrial matter. A curiously fused fossilized whale vertebra and gold tooth make up the pearl to this somewhat mollusk-like structure. It seems a tiny, sparkling nod to Depression-era grave robbery and the industrial port cities hit hardest by economic decline.
The largest sculpture in the exhibition, “Gitche Gumee,” is a tangle of references and materials alike. Clean white wooden planks capped with boating teak lie in disarray over found pieces of a sunken ship’s hull. The pile is eerily pierced with a shiny, plastic arrow, handmade by the artist. Gitche Gumee, an onomatopoeia translation of the Chippewa name for Lake Superior, was coined by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow and became a household word through his poem, “The Song of Hiawatha.” This explains the arrow, but Gordon Lightfoot’s reuse of the word in his song “Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” explains the boat. His song tells an embellished tale of the November 1975 sinking of the cargo vessel SS Edmund Fitzgerald on Lake Superior.
Kelley worked with Neal Reinalda, one of Open Space’s directing members, to select works for the exhibition. Together, during studio visits, they discussed Kelley’s influences and culled through their own collection of technical and theoretical texts to create the accompanying essay and to populate the library in the rear of the gallery.
Recently, Open Space has encouraged artists to curate the library in a way that corresponds to their exhibition. For Kelley’s show, these texts include the new issue of Cabinet Magazine, Machinery: The New Messiah by Henry Ford, and “Is it OK to be a Luddite?” by Thomas Pynchon. As an additional companion text, the artist chose to reproduce pocket-size copies of E.M. Forster’s sci-fi short story “The Machine Stops” (which is in the public domain). The story is about a future in which people become so dependent upon the machine, a fictitious internet prototype, that they worship it, forgetting that they themselves created it. An apt choice to echo Riches and Ruin.
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