Tony Feher, Des Moines Art Center
May 11 - September 2, 1012
Review by guest contributor Benjamin Gardner
May 16, 2012
Tony Feher’s works—plastic bottles, pennies, marbles, dyed water, and other objects of the everyday—are simultaneously referred to as unconventional (in the sense of art materials) and ordinary (i.e. conventional). Without a doubt, the most difficult part of Feher’s work is whether it transcends its materialness or not; or, if it even should try to transcend materiality. Looking at the exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center, mid-career survey of the artist’s work, I would contend that how the viewer places the materials determines the aesthetic experience of the work—individually and as a collection of work in close proximity.
Calling Feher’s materials unconventional is a bit like saying that video and film are “new media”—with the first footage being shot with a motion picture camera dating to 1888, film should be commonly accepted in art as a medium. Likewise, ordinary objects have been frequently used and should not really surprise us. One might argue that it is not Feher’s objects’ ordinariness, but rather that they are mass-produced. As much as we might like to maintain the mystique of painting or other fine art practices, those materials are typically mass-produced and distributed to art supply stores all over the world. Feher’s work at the Art Center asks the viewer to be willing to engage with the use of the objects in a different manner all together—the idea that these objects have use, and their usefulness in a museum setting is at least partially metaphoric and/or symbolic
This is not to say that Feher does not have a sense of humor, or that the materials contained within the exhibition are strictly philosophical in nature; certainly the way that Feher carries himself, presented the work at the Conversations on Art talk, and the way he titles his work shows that the symbolic can sometimes be lighthearted and humorous. I found the work at the Art Center to fall into two basic categories of materials, however, and this might be a way to developing Feher’s sense of materials and their use and any abstract meaning that might connect to Feher’s material empathy. Feher’s works at the art center are, in general, either a container or, alternatively, that which is contained.
The containers are readily visible and throughout the exhibition, and they are combined with that which is contained in a number of pieces, too; Round Things with a Hole in the Middle of Most of the Time, 1990-1991 and Untitled, 1993 (cement with an upside down glass bottle with engine coolant in it) are two of the pieces that handle this intersection of container and contained particularly well. Viewers should be willing, though, to consider the broader senses of containment in the exhibition. Eight White Elements, 2001, a stack of white Styrofoam pieces, are also containers; the various pieces constructed of plastic beverage crates are containers for containers, and Untitled, 2009, a gold mylar emergency blanket is presented as a container—the possibility of being used for warmth, or the way it is wrapped in the exhibition, turning within itself, almost as an infinity symbol with a body-like physicality.
The contained is equally as complex and interesting to discover in Feher’s work. In Untitled, 2007 mylar potato chip bags are turned inside out and perforated to acknowledge the material and, to a limited extent, negate the labeling of the bags. Small flecks of color show through, though, letting the viewer know that there is something contained beyond a gallery wall. We are looking at the inside of these bags as the object—in a sense they flip the entirety of the gallery space as the contained within the potato chip bag. Not only is the transition from inside and outside confused, but what the bags contain is a transition, a movement, and something that changes as opposed to being static.
Most of the linear work in the exhibition, however, is anything but contained: a line stretches in Just So, 2002, like a wave with the rising and falling levels of dyed water but the line is directional, and does not close to form a shape. There are a number of pieces using wire, string, and other linear elements that are open-ended and focus simply on the architecture of a singular line as a gesture. The more simplistic of these line-based works are not as strong as the pieces that are bundled, collected, folded, and combined with other layers of object-ness.
Perhaps the most striking thing about Tony Feher’s exhibition at the Des Moines Art Center is the sheer quantity of work; I fully expected to walk in to a stark gallery with lots of room for each of the pieces to breath—the space is full, to a point where the exhibition spills out into the other galleries. It works for Feher’s pieces; each one has its own reductive aesthetic and, as a large set of work, there is a playful synchronization of the work that forms a collection of color, plastic, paper, and Styrofoam—a sort of archive, contained within the museum, of a disposable culture.
For more information, visit the Des Moines Art Center.
Benjamin Gardner is an artist living and working in Des Moines, Iowa. He is also an Assistant Professor of Art + Design at Drake University where he teaches drawing classes as well as courses that explore personal identity theories, existentialism, and ideas of place, space, and living. Additionally, Ben spends a lot of time growing food, looking at the sky, and reading about folklore and superstition. He maintains a website that collects artist’s writings (Methodsofbeing.com) and the first book from his independent publishing company Wrenwood Press will be released in June 2012. You can see Ben’s studio work at benjaminagardner.com.