Elaine Bradford and Seth Mittag: Fictitious Realities/ Realistic Fictions
Art Palace, Austin
Closed October 8, 2008
by Josh Rios
Fictitious Realities/Realistic Fictions at Art Palace features the latest work by Seth Mittag and Elaine Bradford, artists who share a connection to Houston, but perhaps little else. Bradford continues to deliver her cute, yet unnerving, crocheted taxidermic wildlife, which suggest paradoxical feelings of comfort and warmth alongside suffocation and restriction. Mittag, on the other hand, explores memory and perception through installation and photography that dwell on the dark side of class awareness and childhood. While the individual work is neither harmed nor benefitted by this uneasy pairing, there is little going on between these two artists to spark a dialectical synthesis. In fact, the title of the show seems to be doing most of the heavy lifting. The viewer is likely to become frustrated or, worse, indifferent, while attempting to satisfy the expectation of reflection set up by the title. In an installation by Bradford in the gallery’s entrance, several spheres hang from the ceiling like enlarged Christmas decorations that have been embellished with miniature plastic landscaping. The cosmic and the model are conflated, while bright, crocheted squirrels cling to, grow out of and perhaps protect the ornamented planets. Sadly, the little planets and the clinging wildlife never become overwhelmingly unified. Added together, the two things do not quite transcend the sum of their parts.
Just past these hanging geographies, in the smaller of the two main rooms, is Mittag's Loss, Collection and Search for the Archetype (2008), a child-size living room, partly fabricated and partly made from purchased objects. A smaller-than-life-size television shows a static, backlit transparency of a young boy being taught how to drink a beer by an adult male. Sculpted beer cans, cigarette butts and ubiquitous fast food packaging litter the room along with other fabricated objects associated with cheap, easy satisfaction. The beer can and French fry sculptures, without ever being explicit, offer just enough tactile information to allow the viewer to make the association between the sculptures and specific brands. The crushed cans are mostly white with just a few thin red lines in the right places to insinuate Budweiser and the French fry boxes are that primary red that recalls both McDonalds and Wendy’s.
There is an economy of ambiguity present in Mittag’s detritus, which implicates the viewer in the act of remembering. Not unlike walking a tight rope, Mittag withholds and supplies information in a precarious balance that keeps the viewer invested and attempting to connect the dots. The cans and packaging are abstractions of real habits and real products. This ambiguity is working in the individual sculptural elements as well as the staged scenarios. Each individual object draws the viewer into a wide web of relationships and associations.
In this same room are three photographs of some of these sculptural elements placed in real settings. Untitled (Fridge) (2008) depicts one of Mittag’s sculptural beer cans and a fabricated slice of yellow cheese placed in an empty refrigerator. Although the photos have a familiarity, brought out by their snapshot quality, there is something haunting, strange and yet correct about the double removal of the resulting image in the refrigerator. The invisible mediation of the snapshot works in tension against the sculptural objects as they reference and parody reality.
If there is some relation between these two artists, the stretch is not so much challenging as it is unproductive. Each of the artists brings something worth contemplating: Bradford brings wonderment, fantasy and a strangely dark cuteness, while Mittag focuses on purging childhood and the relationship between invention, reconstruction and actuality. But ultimately the real fiction of the exhibition is in the coherence of the pairing.
Josh Rios is a working artist, student of art history and co-founder of Okay Mountain gallery.