New York

“American Bricolage”

Like flâner, bricoler is one of those French verbs for which there is no real equivalent in English. The flaneur strolls through city streets without a destination; the bricoleur cobbles together bizarrely functional if totally impractical objects from materials at hand, more muddled inventor or dotty visionary than strategic entrepreneur. Both activities carry a hint of the subversive—particularly in this country, home of assembly-line efficiency, planned obsolescence, and automobile addiction.

Indeed, coming on the heels of a surging ’90s economy that begat art distinguished by its slick good looks (a quality increasingly extended to artists as well), Tom Sachs and David Leiber’s show was a prescient about-face, charting the undercurrent among artists who have shunned professionalism in favor of an inspired amateurism. As if to assert its nationality, “American Bricolage” began with Greg Colson’s The Bills Americans Hate Paying, 2000, a charmingly modest painted-wood pie chart. This brand of USA Today-style populism found a fantastical counterpoint looming across the gallery in Tim Hawkinson’s Bagpipe, 1998, an enormous plastic bag held together by a web of string, with pipes made of cardboard and plastic bottles wheezing out doleful, almost unrecognizable renditions of tunes like “Irish Spring.”

More literally figurative, as well as narrative, were H.C. Westermann’s Battle to the Death in the Ice House, 1971, and Hope Atherton’s Black Hawk Descending, 2000. In Westermann’s piece, a suicide tableau plays out inside a doorless but many-windowed, doll-size cabin. Atherton, the youngest artist in the show (and the only female), brought together Gothic sensibilities, heavy-metal/sci-fi fantasy, and high-school diorama in a piece constructed inside an old glass cabinet: In a frozen wilderness, a buxom nude woman writhes at the end of a chain binding her to a tree stump, while a hawk, actually made from turkey feathers, perches ominously on the cabinet.

Several other works also revolved around the idea of containment, such as Jon Kessler’s oracular Still Life (with pork chop), 1994, a cylinder with blinking lights and a door that periodically slid up to reveal a snail hovering above a plate of shiny fake food. The bricoleur may be a purveyor of cryptic magic (a pork chop? A snail?), but he also can’t resist showing off his handiwork: Still Life’s inner mechanisms are exposed through a glass window in back, as are the hardware-store workings of Sachs’s Lil’ T’s Toilet Town, 2000, one of his complex, operable re-creations of a minuscule bathroom. Among artists who practice what Sachs likes to call “hobby crafts,” Toland Grinnell occupied a place of honor in the show as a master artisan (and perfectionist dandy). His Friendship’s Palace, 2000, is an elegant steamer trunk customized as a mansion for a jet-setting gerbil, outfitted with a miniature Impressionist art collection and an elaborate setup allowing the rodent to take tea with its doting if imbalanced owner.

The exhibition nominated Alexander Calder as the granddaddy of American bricolage with Birds, c. 1938, a trio of tin-and-wire sculptures that seemed more like folk art than bricolage. But Sachs, in his section of the handmade catalogue (itself a clever work of bricolage, by Todd Alden), includes a photo of Calder’s Toaster from the same period. While this amusing wood-and-wire contraption was not in the show, it captures the idea of bricolage as more concerned with creativity and resourcefulness than practicality, as jerry-rigged ingenuity in all its humble outrageousness.

Julie Caniglia