New York

Don Sunseri, Don Celender and Jerry Kearns

O.K. Harris Works of Art

Don Sunseri’s sculpture made from twigs, sticks and rocks bespeaks a neopastoral hippie esthetic that refuses to die. It’s the appeal of art-making from a populist position, canny but modest, modernism in a folksy vernacular. Here the upshot is a confusion about the origin of these things. Are they by one hand or are they incidentally sculptural craftwork and carpentry culled from a rural village? Riser looks like two bridgeboards (not risers) from a staircase, and Pole predicts a road sign. In some works, Sunseri uses forms and materials to refer to childhood. His seven Arrows might have been picked up outside a schoolhouse. Modeling clay, not paint, is used to color wood planks.

Sunseri’s formal usages imply that a lot of his works are grounded in an analogy to human development. Passage is basically a freestanding enlargement of Entry. Together they could connote stages of life: Entry (obvious) and Passage (rites of, i.e., adolescence). In both works two planks attached to spindly sticks are colored with a thin skin of modeling clay. Plasticene comes in a range of dull muted colors not unlike the palette favored by Brice Marden and other slab painters. A leaning action which is in the nature of the twig holds Entry against the wall. The same lean makes the two “paintings” in Passage literally recede from inspection, since they bend away from a spectator standing between them. Passage is an image of gawkiness, supported not by the wall but by two rather arbitrary metal braces.

Diary of an Early American Boy, a piece Sunseri made for the above mentioned Clocktower “Toys” show, explicitly alludes to childhood. This corner arrangement of small bed, night table and a couple of playthings made from rocks, twigs and logs might be obliquely autobiographical (recalling a time of Daniel Booneskin caps and cork ball muskets). At least it’s a basis for structuring an anthropomorphic iconography of Americana into Sunseri’s work through his choice of materials—“jes’ whittlin’.”

Don Celender is perhaps one of the earliest of what Edit DeAk called “the art rats,” artist-entertainers whose material is the personalities and procedures of the art world itself. In 1971 he made a set of Art Ball Cards based on baseball cards, and later a set based on football cards. Celender’s gallery exhibitions are not shows so much as announcements that he has published another book, among them Political Art Movement/Religious Art Movement/Affluent Art Movement/Academic Art Movement/Corporate Art Movement/Cultural Art Movement/Mass Media Art Movement/Organizational Art Movement (1969–71), Olympics of Art (1974), and Observation and Scholarship Examination for Art Historians, Museum Directors, Artists, Dealers, and Collectors (1975). In these books largely empirical setups enframe Celender’s fancies. The proposals sent out to “individuals and organizations occupying key positions in American Society” (representing, by the way, both traditional and modern art patron groups) mostly suggest massive schemes of decoration that are grotesque and impossible. The responses to Celender’s deadpan presumptions are the yield of his method. The letters are bemused, outraged or mere pro forma bureaucratic dismissals.

The Examination is multiple choice, favoring those with an eidetic memory for details in American paintings and the lives of European artists. Jim Dine’s reply to Kenneth Koch’s “Test in Art” makes the point that exams are a chance for the taker to make some kind of accommodation to what the givers think is important. In this case it’s what Celender thinks is amusing.

Celender mishandles and misconstrues art and things art related for comic effect. Jerry Kearns is more directly concerned with the way a media format secretes a particular conception of reality and human personality. (TV game shows are good examples, and they’re frequently satirized because of it.) Kearns’s show last year demonstrated how experience is flattened in print. He simply laid out photostats of a year of small town newspaper clippings, “Dog of the Week” and “Businessman of the Week.” Method and material—a type of homely commemoration—are matched; both are banal mechanics that enforce a specious commonality.

This year Kearns offered Western New England Quarterly as a sort of redress. The magazine includes stories, recollections and poems written by 13 women, most of them housewives. The work was gathered by normal publishing industry method. A fiction reader for Good Housekeeping passed unsolicited manuscripts (called “slush”) on to Kearns, choosing those she thought “most illustrative of a turn of mind which usually goes unrecorded.” The prose styles are mostly naive. The writers express a gut sincerity in novelistic clichés—“This story was hammered on the anvil of my heart because it is true.” I find the several stories of wives struggling to accommodate themselves to morose disenchanted husbands particularly saddening. “So occupation housewife signed with pride,/Reporting to my boss here at my side.” Kearns’s slick gallery presentation, like Celender’s, mainly announced the publication. Each author’s photo, autobiographical sketch and typescript is box framed, implying an artifactual or found nature to the material that is beside the point of the Quarterly.

Alan Moore