New York

Ron Baron

Ron Baron describes himself as “a cultured archaeologist.” He might also be described as an obsessive recycler: in his work the most redundant objects acquire new meaning and purpose. In In Memory (all works 1994), for example, he assembles 15 fish tanks and fills them with footballs, tennis balls, sporting trophies, yearbooks, curios (including a model of the Eiffel Tower), and empty aspirin bottles. The result resembles a compact museum of private life or a volume of short stories (Baron’s “Book of Guys”) chronicling the trials and tribulations of the great white American male in the ’90s.

Of course, there is nothing new about assemblage or the readymade, and Baron is careful to acknowledge his antecedents by incorporating a distinctly Duchampian wine rack in one of the pieces, but he takes his method well beyond cliché. He is resourceful, has a keen sense of the absurd, and has a way of keeping the viewer agreeably off-balance.

In his latest show, Baron combines an ironic but affectionate celebration of dumb masculinity with a surprisingly refined estheticism and a feeling for the monumental. These qualities may derive from the ten years he worked as a ceramicist, and he remains fond of stacking plates and trays to form shapes suggestive of urns or vases. The most spectacular of these surmounts the piece called Manhole and is composed of a bristling mass of gilded trophies won in athletic competitions.

In much of Baron’s work there are elements of autobiographical narrative. In Armchair Quarterback, for example, a TV in a wheelchair shows an endless reel of the artist’s father’s home movies. Atlas takes a more oblique, allegorical approach. Whereas many of these pieces present the male as sports fan, Atlas seems more concerned with the male as office worker or executive. It consists of a kind of wasp-waisted pillar or totem, the lower half of which is largely made up of briefcases and file drawers. This serves as an oversize plinth for a small, found statuette of Atlas carrying the world on his shoulders, which in turn appears to support an improbably ponderous urn shape, towering almost to the gallery’s ceiling. You ask yourself how the thing stays up. Surely there could be no more graphic comment on the weight of the male burden? But Baron is not in the business of crude symbolism: this Atlas has a couple of youthful helpers, and the urn is, in fact, suspended from the ceiling. The piece defies gravity in more than one sense.

The oddest and most irresistible object in the show is Innerglow, a tall vase rising from a found pedestal. As you look at it you realize, with mounting disbelief, how Baron came by the empty aspirin bottles of In Memory. The vase is constructed from several thousand aspirins laboriously glued together, and a light directed down into it causes it to appear to glow softly from within like an illuminated honeycomb. Anyone who can elicit poetry from a heap of aspirins is clearly a force to be reckoned with.

John Ash