Washington, DC

Jeff Spaulding

G Fine Art

It would sometimes be comforting to think of borders as consistently clear and absolute, but the border between what we see and what we think we see, for one, is rather less certain. In his recent show “Mine” at G Fine Art, Jeff Spaulding compellingly investigated this strain of perceptual equivocation via a collection of compact sculptures constructed from (mostly) found objects. In a recent interview, Spaulding professed to be intrigued with how an object might represent two things at once while maintaining a balance of meaning between them, one that could shift from “playful to dangerous, comical to sexual, humorous to violent.” To that end, he conjures piquant deceptions that establish borders as loci of ambiguity. They become sources of anxious misperceptions, stings of recognition, and, on occasion, a good chuckle.

The exhibition’s title, “Mine,” is likewise irresolute, potentially referring at once to possession, to the act of mining (that is, delving deeply into something), and, more disturbingly, to an explosive device. The objects he finds (and occasionally fishes out of the Potomac River) are laden with associations that are hard to disguise, modify, or erase. Spaulding’s inventive combinations, however, produce a visual legerdemain that strips each object of its original meaning, frequently to the point of eradication, substituting a sly absurdity. An orange plastic slide bound to a pink plastic ovoid form by a metal piercing, for example, becomes a tongue poised to lick a mound of flesh—a breast? a testicle?—in the delightfully salacious Pierce (all works 2006). In a duality characteristic of Spaulding’s work, the sculpture’s candy colors and playfulness are offset by the inherently violent nature of the piercing.

Similarly, Adrift, six yellow plastic bowling pins nestled in a pair of inner tubes, suggests a group of figures at sea (calling to mind the children’s poem “Rub-a-Dub-Dub, Three Men in a Tub”), along with Harold E. Edgerton’s iconic photograph Milkdrop Coronet, 1957. Spaulding himself says he finds a certain humor in the figures bobbing along, but “then you start to have a certain type of sympathy for them because they’re adrift, . . . where did they come from, where will they go . . . are they just eternally here?” Seven bright red, bulbous objects clustered in a green metal Christmas-tree stand in Mine form an offbeat bouquet. But the work also recalls the antipersonnel mines disguised as toys that Russian troops deployed during their failed war with Afghanistan. Indeed, in a brilliantly disturbing installation, the sculptures arrayed on the gallery floor here became a de facto minefield.

Mounted at eye level on one of the gallery’s walls were two stuffed toy animals, Northern Skin and Southern Skin, turned inside out, a simple inversion that transforms objects associated with childhood innocence into symbols of victimization. Mounted on two other walls, a group of globular pink plaster forms (and four charcoal and acrylic drawings thereof ) resembled the Venus of Willendorf tumbling through space, evocative of both carefree somersaults and bodies falling from the World Trade Center. Spaulding is in some senses a stranger with candy, luring viewers with seemingly simple sculptures in cheerful colors. Dwell on them, however, and unsettling implications emerge. It is in this deadly ambiguity that the energy of the work resides.

Nord Wennerstrom