Saturday, October 1, 2011

Bryan Christiansen's Nature Preserve

by Stephen Cummings

Bryan Christiansen, 2011, Doe (Floral Sofa)

If Bryan Christiansen's exhibition at Stremmel Gallery in Reno challenges anything, I suppose it's Stremmel's status as a purveyor of hotel wall decorations priced for the wealthy, art-inexperienced. (Unfortunately, he's paired with John Randall Nelson.) That's a little simplistic, but it's fair to say that Stremmel is at least not on the cutting edge — such as it is. With pretty pictures, and pleasant sculptures, this isn't a place to go to see what's going on; it's a place to go to pick up something Westerny, or something with nice colors; it's a place you've seen before if you've wandered on vacation through some vaguely artsy quarter in a tourist district. Happily, Christiansen's work bucks the trend of the expected. It's nice, yes, even pretty, but there's less pretension here. Add to that a little lighthearted self-awareness, and this artist is well deserving of the recognition Nevada Museum of Art offered in 2010.

NMA has compared Christiansen's sculptures to Bruce Conner and Ed Kienholz, although with some serious caveats that rightly show the artists to be pretty much wholly dissimilar. These creatures are much too sweet to draw parallels to such brutal assemblages as theirs. (Was a comparison to Deborah Butterfield too obvious?) There also, judging from the current work, seems to be little basis for the notion that these pieces "represent Christiansen's own triumph of the present over the past and his strength to confront some of life's most challenging contradictions." (Seriously, what does "[his] own triumph of the present over the past" even mean?)

What the museum did get right in describing these works is the phrase "exquisitely crafted". Christiansen's frozen menagerie is like something Richard Jackson might make if he could ever let go of his grumpiness. The forms are, again, sweet, and cleanly put together, but absent is the heaping bowlful of irony. A couch is a deer and that's all there is to it.

Ok, so there's some irony. What Brad Bynum described as "a neat inversion of hunting" yields beasts resurrected from discarded human detritus, Christiansen stalking the streets and alleyways to find it. The hunted has become . . . well, the hunted. Timorous, elegant creatures have become stilted, ornamental furniture, and furniture here is taxidermy. It's a little like Claes Oldenburg's soft sculptures, being both representation and stubbornly not. Then there's also the "hide" of an armchair, splayed out as if a trophy rug, and a trio of framed "hide" pieces, prodding the nature of stretched artist supports. These are whimsical things; puns in physical form.

Piecing together living forms from scrap is hardly unique in the artsy crafty West, but Christiansen's work hints at an awareness of his surroundings. His exploration is one of made and found and what's made and what's found and what's to be made of what's found. It's an exploration that raises the bar for Stremmel, and is a welcome development in Reno. Bryan Christiansen may be making pretty animals, but he would appear to be more than just a craftsman.

See more work from Bryan Christiansen on the GO SEE ART Flickr page.

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