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Art Without Artists messes with your head at NCSU's Gregg Museum

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Last summer, beachcombing with my 6-year-old daughter turned out to be a provocative experience.

Like anyone, I scan the sand for washed-up objects of unusual color, shape, pattern and texture. My personal beachcombing lens filters "boring" objects from "interesting" ones, which spring out to my eyes from the rubble. My daughter, however, thinks beachcombing is just picking up shells. That's a shell, so hand it to dad. I had to teach her about what I was looking for, and she had to decide if there were things I excluded as boring that were nonetheless interesting to her.

It made me consider that lens I snap into place at the beach. Where did my aesthetic rules come from, exactly? How do they continue to change? What other lenses do I deploy, and what prompts their deployment?

The Gregg Museum of Art and Design at N.C. State has opened an even more provocative exhibition that serves as a laboratory for working on these questions. Art Without Artists gathers more than 160 found, manufactured and handmade objects never intended for display in an art museum. Curators John Foster, from whose St. Louis collection many of these objects are borrowed, and Roger Manley, director of the Gregg, brought this show together to bash away at your ideas of what's art and what's not.

There's an industrial balloon-making form, a cross-section of a mineralized pipe, and an axe and bedroll crudely swathed into a backpack with rope. There are wooden bootjacks for wedging off cowboy boots, stones and crystals of various shapes and a player piano roll. There are bricks that, while drying, captured animal footprints. There's a hot water bottle shaped like a cat.

It's as if your aesthetic sense were a contestant on Wipeout. Hey, that green fireplace bellows looks very artfully like a face, that's cool. Then, whammy!—you're decked by a pair of vintage firefighter masks. The masks just look like masks. Why don't they also cause your art sense to prickle like when you looked at the bellows?

"My main goal for this exhibition is that people would walk out of here and say 'Whoa, that looks like art. Maybe that's art.' And so on," Manley says. Translation: The Gregg wants to mess with your head.

While choosing objects from Foster's collection, Manley also put out a public call for oddments and allsorts that might apply. So, how did he sort through all the stuff that came in the door? "The main criterion was what I call 'flipping': if it could be one object at one moment and then an art object in the same moment," Manley explains.

The gallery text credits Marcel Duchamp's century-old readymades—for which the artist chose commercial and industrial objects and placed them in art contexts, most notoriously submitting an upside-down urinal to the 1917 Society of Independent Artists show in Paris—with irreparably complicating aesthetic judgment and the definition of art. Or maybe "complicating" is the wrong word—perhaps "individualizing" is more correct.

Art Without Artists flips the readymade provocation around. Instead of asking the Duchampian question "What is art?" the Gregg show takes that question as foundational and asks instead "What isn't art?" Messy philosophical stuff.

But North Carolinians shouldn't be too thrown by Art Without Artists. Maybe you've been to Murfreesboro's Brady C. Jefcoat Museum of Americana or the downright weird Belhaven Memorial Museum near the coast. Do some digging and you'll find collections like these in every backwater and metropolis. It's where the idea of the museum comes from in the first place. Idiosyncratic cabinets of curiosities—the kunstkammer of Renaissance Europe—outgrew their drawers to fill rooms and then buildings. Fine art followed souvenir oddities and specimens from the natural world into the museum.

You will find misses in Art Without Artists. A pine tree's knot that's sort of shaped like a bird, an old Russian postcard, a picture of a man raising an aperitif to the photographer—these don't flip for me. But that realization is data on the personal diagnostic report that I leave the gallery with.

The Gregg has also opened two smaller shows that resonate with Art Without Artists. Durham-based environmental artist Bryant Holsenbeck has transformed the museum foyer into a dazzling representation of a natural ecosystem by using some of the materials that most commonly threaten it. Working with NCSU students and community members, Holsenbeck summoned about a day's worth of the university's recyclables—5,000 plastic bottles and ten times as many caps and lids. Entitled Streaming: New Art from Old Bottles, it's a daunting wonderland of single-use plastic trees, creeks and a thundercloud comprised of those snap-on cup tops and straws that are always underfoot in parking lots. Holsenbeck hopes that the generation of student engineers, artists and designers she worked with will produce alternatives to our accumulating plastic world.

Spirit—Fire—Shake! presents the shrine-like "focal objects" of Renée Stout, Kevin Sampson and Odinga Tyehimba. These three contemporary African-American artists assemble objects into arcane and personal sculptures and installations that convey intense spiritual feelings. The visual density their artifacts have in common speaks to the highly synthetic, almost performative thought that goes into their making.

Sampson was a cop and sketch artist in Newark for almost 20 years but experienced a kind of psychic break when one of his children died. Since then he's accumulated thrift-store and trash objects into ultra-signifying memorials to family members and friends, as well as more allegorical works that address social issues such as the tabletop "The Treaty of Tordesillas."

Stout—and her fortuneteller alter ego Fatima Mayfield—has the most polished look of the trio and exhibits some skill and training as a painter, albeit using furniture as a base surface. "The Rootwoman's Worktable" infests the top of a vanity with about 40 small bottles of indeterminate contents and displays gauges and dials on its front. A chalkboard replaces its mirror, scrawled with witch doctor instructions. The effect is one part whimsy to two parts dark purpose, with perhaps a dash of the contrived.

The most dramatic piece in Spirit—Fire—Shake! is Durham artist Tyehimba's sculptural installation "Rebel Shrine," which combines hewn, colorful wooden totems and statuary within an architecturally framed scene. Drawing his imagery from Santeria and Voodoo vocabularies, Tyehimba mashes up myth, politics and personal history within an integrated visual sensibility.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Readymade or not."

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