Dan Peterman

Museum of Contemporary Art, Chicago / Feigen Gallery

With a studio located in a Resource Recycling Center, Dan Peterman links material transformations to current environmental politics, pushing them to imaginative and artistic extremes. His grasp of complex economic systems is sophisticated; his materials, such as reused plastics and industrial waste-products, ordinary and plain. Carefully researched, site-specific and conceptually expansive, Peterman’s sculptural installations often look casual and familiar and escape the pieties of much ecological art possibly because they appear playful and peculiarly paradoxical.

He renamed recycled plastics “post-consumer plastics,” shaping them into nonfunctional octagonal tires, exaggeratedly elongated picnic tables, or countless floor panels; he melted yellow garbage sacks from Germany to make a funky set of Flintstone-style plastic tableware and utensils. But in Sulfur Cycle, a more restrained esthetic prevailed in an appropriately ambitious installation. Peterman stacked 164 sheets of drywall along the inner side of the façade of the Museum of Contemporary Art as part of an ongoing project that explores the ramifications of the 1990 Clean Air Act. As is the case with earlier work, Sulfur Cycle has both a narrative quality and the potential for sequential, elastic expansion. The synthetic gypsum wallboard is a by-product of the coal burned by electric utilities. In order to curb sulfur-dioxide emissions, which in large quantities produce acid rain, utility companies have devised methods to chemically bond limestone and sulfur so as to produce synthetic gypsum. Peterman’s six stacks of wallboard weighing six tons represent about a ton of sulfur. The arbitrary, even absurd, nature of this whole enterprise is contradicted by the aura of logical inevitability and determined paradox that surrounds it: Peterman tracks the industrial process mimicking its steps but altering its forms to capitalize on and visualize its perverse implications. If everything goes as planned, the sulfur (“a reservoir of inert pollution” according to the artist) will be archived in the very structure of the new museum now under construction several blocks away from the present location. One hundred and sixty-four sheets comprised of sulfur diverted from the atmosphere will be embedded in the walls, inserting the institution into Peterman’s procedures and securing his work a place in the new museum’s collection.

But that’s not all. Peterman’s installation jumps from a display of actual building materials to the abstraction of a market in potential pollution, wryly combining a materialist poetry with a metaphorical politics. Like other traders speculating on the emission-rights market at the Chicago Board of Trade, the artist acquired these still inexpensive emission-rights shares. For Sulfur Cycle, he transferred shares to the museum, exhibiting the certificates as part of the installation. Worrying the margins of intersecting systems and unanticipated exchanges, Peterman imports an economy of pollution into the cultural repository.

He belongs to a generation of artists weaned on the elegant vacuums of Minimalism, who seem destined to fill those containers with meaning, subjectivity, or political consciousness. In another installation at Feigen Gallery, Peterman stacked five rows of pseudo-books, actually book-shaped slices cut from planks of reprocessed plastic milk jugs, against an 87-and-one-half-foot-long wall. With a predominantly muddy palette of grays, greens, black, and an occasional red, the colorful collection of planks stood about 42 inches high, and weighed about 1200 to 1400 pounds—the amount of plastic consumed by one American in eight years, calculated at 150 pounds per year. Peterman tangles metaphors of recycling into pointless accumulations, endless deferrals of transformation, and then thematizes the very procedures of transformation for his own esthetic of the endless. With this dumb, empty archive, Peterman, a hip utopian, seems to be stocking up, conserving both art and plastic, for the millennium.

Judith Russi Kirshner