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Mundane and marvelous, mixed

News & Reviews | ART REVIEW

Sculptor Patrick Nickell transforms the ordinary -- string, tape -- into the extraordinary.

May 29, 2003|Christopher Knight | Times Staff Writer

When sculptor Patrick Nickell has a show, it often looks as if the art has been put together from whatever could be scavenged out in the gallery's back room. Cardboard, rough plywood, crumpled newspaper, string, masking tape, glue, plastic wrap, house paint, marking pen -- the ingredients Nickell uses for his work all tend to have one thing in common. They're the materials most artists use to crate, pack and ship their sculptures (and paintings) to an exhibition.

A sly polemic is at work here. In our highly mobile, internationally minded culture, where works of art seem always on the move, the throwaway container provides him with a shrewd artistic vocabulary. At a time when slick, big-budget production values support what some claim as the most important art, Nickell's sculpture revels in do-it-yourself elan. Bricolage for a Home Depot era, his work gives value to the overlooked and the homemade.

Nickell, 42, is now the subject of a richly satisfying survey exhibition at Cal State L.A.'s Luckman Gallery. Luckman curator Julie Joyce has brought together 37 sculptures made since 1987 for the show, aptly titled "Built for Speed," and she's produced a succinct catalog with an insightful essay by Anne Ayres, director of the gallery at Otis College of Art and Design. Nickell's work, keenly attuned to art's shifting fortunes in the contemporary world, is marked by aesthetic wit and intelligence.

The go-go 1980s were a pivotal period for art -- for good and for ill -- and were clearly critical to forming Nickell's idiosyncratic sensibility. Think about all that happened during that tumultuous decade.

Single object sculpture began to be replaced by installation art. Shopping started to edge out making as the installation artist's method. Painting returned with a vengeance, defying claims about its death. Drawing, the medium that most closely traces the movement of unfolding artistic thought, assumed new stature in a scene that grew from the revolution launched by Conceptual art. And camera work, both still and video, began to assert itself as the most authentically contemporary medium.

Big money also flooded into the market for new art. Expensive fabrication, with the artist functioning as a designer rather than a manufacturer, became commonplace. New York lost the rarefied position it assumed after World War II as the sole center for the routine production of important art, as Europe and Los Angeles entered the internationalizing scene.

All of these shifts, in one form or another, can be detected in the pleasantly ramshackle forms Nickell's sculpture has taken. Nickell was an art student when the cataclysmic shift was underway. He finished at Claremont Graduate School (now Claremont Graduate University) in 1985, his first solo show came in 1988 and he began to exhibit regularly in 1990.

A core concern of his work is the process of making art, an attitude fundamental to the Post-minimalist aesthetic that has long guided contemporary artists. The sculptures' shapes -- a 7-foot tall asterisk, a 6-foot squiggle, little clusters of circles or loops, linear tangles, rows of rickety rectangles, rudimentary flowers, lumpy targets -- appear to derive from doodles. His work exhibits an unusual tension between two and three dimensions.

A doodle is an absent-minded form of drawing. Call it Conceptual art for dummies.

Playing against type is also a venerable artistic strategy, and Nickell employs it with skill. He makes objects, but their installation is unusual. All but six of the sculptures at Luckman hang from the walls, where paintings normally reside, and some seem to collapse in on themselves. Sculpture's traditional concern with mass is regularly subverted by transparency and lightness, while the anthropomorphic urge to stand up on the floor is replaced by giving in to the pull of gravity.

A small work from 1992 is emblematic. Little rings made from cardboard strips are linked together in an equally imperfect circle. Each ring is wrapped in plastic, creating a narrow volume of contained space. The larger circle has been folded in half, and it's suspended from the wall by a length of string. Light passes through the rings and circle, casting dappled shadows across the wall.

The work is a marvel of elegant economy, blending aspects of drawing, painting and sculpture into something without a name. Issues of identity, which were moving to the foreground of artistic discourse in the early '90s, are deftly thrown into doubt.

The scruffiness of Nickell's material is also bracing. In "Digging for Gold," he's stuffed a cardboard wheel with crumpled newspaper, festooned its nominal axle with talismans of cardboard and plastic and attached it to the wall. Duchamp's famous "Bicycle Wheel" is here transformed into an ornamental whatzit.

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