Found objects find new attention: Hirshhorn Gallery exhibit brings detritus to life

Fashion recycles itself every 15 to 20 years, and what was once old becomes new again – that’s why you can’t walk down a street today without spotting a pair of leggings. Art is not as cyclical, but some of the artists featured in the Hirshhorn’s latest exhibit, “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas,” are attempting to revert that trend.

Walking through the Hirshhorn’s circular galleries is a little bit of d?j? vu all over again. Some of the sculptures seem all too familiar, but at the same time, foreign. Take Mark Handforth’s works, for example. His massive structures encompass the steel beams of David Smith, the fluorescent tubes of Dan Flavin, and even the delicate balance of Alexander Calder’s hanging mobiles. These all look brand-new when juxtaposed with his unexpected found-object sculpture made from a painted chain and a bent-up metal trashcan, which looks menacing despite the rainbow colors of the links.

Found objects seem to be the most popular form of construction in this show. Isa Genzken works almost exclusively in found objects, decorating her colorful pedestals with plastic figurines, artificial grass, old chairs, and assorted stuff from a garage sale or grandma’s attic. Her gleeful festooning of a classic museum pedestal is

supposed to comment on the rigidity of museums, but the pieces are so Day-Glo colorful and busy that they are rendered almost incoherent. It’s Dada gone awry.

Andrea Cohen, on the other hand, is able to use found objects to her advantage. Her precarious constructions are spindly sculptures of branches, wire, bubble wrap, papier-mache and even floam – the stuff that pool floaties are made of. Yet in Cohen’s work, instead of presenting the object as it is (i.e., a plastic turtle perched atop Genzken’s sculpture “Empire Vampire V (C)”) Cohen presents the object as something entirely new. Tree branches are colorful support beams, foam becomes an architectural accessory, bubble wrap becomes actual bubbles.

The most dazzling found-object works are those of Bjorn Dahlem, whose sculpture “Schwartzes Loch (Black Hole)” takes up nearly an entire room. Interested in science, Dahlem’s black hole is an orb composed of chairs, laundry baskets, children’s playthings, fluorescent lights and other assorted detritus. Wooden beams extend from the nucleus of the sculpture to the furthest corners of the room, making the sculpture more interactive – viewers must duck over and under parts of it to get through the room.

These sculptors, featured in the exhibit along with Mark Handforth, Charles Long, Franz West, Evan Holloway, Mindy Shapiro and Rachel Harrison, are supposed to represent the uncertain future of sculpture. But what’s next in the sculptural world doesn’t seem so uncertain, based on what the Hirshhorn has selected. The readymade, or found object is back, but this time it is much more colorful, and in some cases, much less meaningful. It’s the art world’s way of bringing back the legging.

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