New York

Brian Jungen

What separates true artistic development from mere rehashing? At what point should we expect established artists to move beyond the ideas that brought them their initial success? Brian Jungen’s second solo exhibition at Casey Kaplan Gallery prompted these and related questions. For nearly a decade, Jungen, a member of the indigenous Dane-Zaa Nation of Northern British Columbia, has explored the intersection of traditional cultures and first-world consumer economies. His breakout exhibition, at Charles H. Scott Gallery in Vancouver in 1999, featured the first of a series of sculptures made by pulling apart Air Jordan tennis shoes and restitching them into semblances of the Haida masks created by the aboriginal populations of Canada’s northwest coast. In the intervening years, Jungen has fashioned, out of golf bags, sculptures that recall totem poles; carved baseball bats to look like “talking sticks” (used by aboriginal tribes to designate the right to speak in meetings); and created a twenty-foot-tall tepee from the leather used to upholster sofas. Some artists focus exclusively upon a narrow set of concerns but manage to find nuanced and varied expressions of them. Jungen, though formally creative, seems to be on intellectual autopilot.

Many of Jungen’s fastidiously tailored objects possess an iconic power, and for someone so dedicated to sculpture, he is a canny crafter of images. He has been credited with scrutinizing the inequitable balance of power between the traditional and the new, acknowledging the adaptive reuse of commercial goods by those subject to the influence of mass culture, and allegorizing the substitution of tribal ritual with the ceremonial competition of modern sports. Also apparent is Jungen’s desire to inscribe his objects with the additional value accorded the handmade, and that doing so with anonymously produced materials is for him a political gesture.

These themes were taken up once again in this show in six “blankets” made from disassembled professional football and basketball jerseys. Woven into patterns that riff on tribal-style designs, the color combinations of familiar teams could be recognized—the navy and orange of the Chicago Bears, for example—and, by looking closely at the garments’ labels, one could discern the uniforms used in others. Some feature a tessellating pattern of players’ numbers; others are more abstract. When Jungen embarked on this path ten years ago, it could be argued, consciousness of the truly global reach of western popular culture and consumer goods was less widespread. Now that he has created all the accoutrements necessary to outfit a First Nations tourist village, it seems time for Jungen to aim for more than juxtaposition.

Dragonfly, 2008, a red five-gallon plastic jerry can of the type used for holding gasoline, incised with a delicate pattern of dragonflies, underscores the point. Here again, the work alludes to larger forces and wider issues, among them the problem of gas huffing on reservations, and the simultaneous and ironic lack of easy access to gasoline on First Nations land, despite the rich oil reserves that lie beneath them. At present, Canada’s economy is in part buoyed by the oil sands beneath Alberta’s soil, and the race to lay claim to oil in the Arctic Circle has ensnared Russia, Norway, the United States, and Canada in a geopolitical turf war. Yet this topic, despite Jungen’s effort, remains ripe for critical investigation.

Brian Sholis