Brian Jungen, Cetology, 2002, plastic chairs, 5' 3 5⁄8“ × 41' 4 1⁄4” × 5' 6 3⁄8".

Brian Jungen, Cetology, 2002, plastic chairs, 5' 3 5⁄8“ × 41' 4 1⁄4” × 5' 6 3⁄8".

Brian Jungen

Brian Jungen’s long-awaited exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario—curated with great flair by Kitty Scott—began in a playful setting reminiscent of a basketball court, complete with multihued vinyl lines applied to black gym flooring, within which Jungen’s trademark soft sculptures were distributed like team members. Freed from the constraints of a vitrine, the series “Prototype for New Understanding,” 1998–2005, in which Jungen repurposes Nike Air Jordan sneakers as Northwest Coast masks, could be closely scrutinized. These intricately tailored works are feats of crafted composition, with their willowy strands of human hair, tongues (referring, of course, to both human and shoe anatomies), prominent fastenings (which can come across as piercings), and logos (often positioned as eyes and depicting Jordan making a jump shot). Collectively, these features reference obsessive celebrity worship, s/m (with the leather bindings implying the inhibition of senses), and cultures and customs associated with masquerade (present and historic, within social, art, or sporting contexts).

Beyond this court-based display were a host of works that did not incorporate athletic goods and were accordingly less identifiable with the Jungen brand. Five examples from his jerry can sculptures, 2008–13, were placed in a row on a single plinth. Each consisted of a plastic tank—the type used for transporting water or fuel—into which the artist had laboriously drilled tiny holes in designs recalling the beadwork of Cree and Dené tribes. As did the “Prototype” series, the jerry can pieces encouraged viewers to contemplate how the objects might perform or be (mis)used—as fountains, for instance, the perforated vessels filled with water, or as commentaries on the lives of those in rural areas, where gas stations may be few but land is often exploited for energy resources.

An insightful collection of images, playing on monitors in a darkened space near the show’s entrance, provided biographical context for Jungen’s processes, documenting the lives of his family members, mostly from the Doig River Nation, as well as the artist’s travels and working methods, particularly his skill at hybridizing and converting found materials. One of the most notable results of Jungen’s transformative uses of existing materials was the massive hanging sculpture Cetology, 2002, composed of dissected white-plastic patio chairs reassembled (with plastic ties and screws) to approximate a whale skeleton. With its rib cage splayed open, the creature is both hulking and subtle—a stack of armrests delicately connotes a pectoral fin. With its form, material, and presence in the gallery, the work mounted a heavy critique of environmental destruction, consumer waste, and the institutional practices of natural-history museums.

Yet, as this exhibition demonstrated, Jungen’s interest in the collapse of the natural and artificial, the precious and pedestrian, is also the result of an effort to fathom (or conjure) the spiritual realm. In the mammoth mural-size work Five Year Universe, 2011, for instance, Jungen applied silver ink to five elk hides—from which central circular forms had previously been cut to make drums—and then pressed them onto twenty individual pieces of black foam that, fitted together, form an expansive sequence of prints. The resulting composite picture suggests celestial eclipses or cosmic voids. Another particularly potent example was Eero, 2011, part of a group of assemblages combining modernist furniture and animal skins. Here, Jungen covered a Womb chair (of Eero Saarinen’s 1940s design) with a tanned elk hide sewn together with tarred twine. The work invoked a host of other profound processes and rituals: the stitching of skin after a birth or injury; the protection of fetishized commodities or goods for an afterlife, or of a baby in a womb; and the offering of an animal or object to higher powers (or perhaps to a collector). That such rituals are common to nearly every society and are evoked by such restrained gestures speaks to the uncommon potency of Jungen’s work.