Altered Objects at Santa Clara University
By Erin Goodwin-Guerrero

(UN)COMMON: THE ART OF ALTERED OBJECTS, presented by Renee Billingslea, is a selection of mostly small sculptural works by five artists who deal mostly with a concern for justice and social equality. The exceptions are Tony May’s two small sculptures concerned with his cat and Diane Jacob’s, Repatriation, which is a large book. As it happens words and type also play a prominent role in this excellent exhibition at the Art Department’s Gallery of Art and Art History at Santa Clara University.

Billingslea’s point of departure was to gather assemblage work on a small scale, compatible with her own current sculptural direction. Artist Lisa Kokin affirms the value of “both recycled materials and a hand made quality in the digital age.” She says “I’m very low tech and appreciate labor intensity and showing the artist’s hand.” On content, she continues, “I have a continuing preoccupation with social conditions, ethical uses of photography…”


Renee Billingslea’s open books on the history of slavery and racism

Billingslea’s affinity for art that affirms life and condemns social injustice seems to have drawn her to all these works as much as the media of assemblage. Among the several artists, the repeated use of elements such as hair and discolored old books with dated commentary is uncanny. Weigh Scale by Diane Jacobs uses a small scale to compare balls of hair. It takes a great mound of black kinky hairballs to equal a single ball of straight blond hair. Billingslea’s shelf of three opened school books with names such as Three Inches High, People Colors and Amistad includes such elements as a cover lining which shows rows of seated slaves, lists of names used to denigrate all shades of African-Americans, and black kinky hair as the contents of the books.


Diane Jacob’s Weigh Scale

Two of the most moving works in the exhibition are exquisitely constructed paper mach√© men’s hats that feel dated to the thirties, forties or fifties. Renee Billingslea builds up these hats with small strips of paper that repeat the same enigmatic phrase over and over again. “I stoked the fire.” In another,”They used my chain”. Their titles, Lynching Hat #1 and Lynching Hat #2 reveal the context of the words. Billingslea found inspiration for these works in an old photograph of a crowd of men at a lynching, all wearing their Sunday-go-to-meeting hats.


Billingslea’s Lynching Hat, #2, repeats the refrain “I stoked the fire.”

One of Lisa Kokin’s wall reliefs, What I Didn’t Learn in Hebrew School, is an open textbook, old and discolored, with text, stereotyping Arab children. Kokin has pasted in photographic heads of grade school children and defiantly erased their faces, (the way we used to erase the eyes in our old texts), taking away their identity but, with some irony, making them all equal. One face has a grid stitched over it that cages it in. Other desecrations of the book include painting out the text in places, stitching the pages together and a child’s handwriting practice on the page. The mindless and sometimes destructive things children do come to mind, as well as an old encyclopedia text I once found which read “the degenerate Turk”, below an illustration of a man in Turkish attire.


Lisa Kokin’s book, What I Didn’t Learn in Hebrew School

Kokin’s comical work, The Bride’s Dowry, is made from a book of the same name. The text of the book has been cut into tiny strips that are glued one on top of the other, like Billingslea’s hats, endlessly, to construct a paper mach√© egg that protrudes from an oval cut in both the front and back cover of the book. The pregnant bride bursts out of the standing book in two directions.


The Bride’s Dowry, 2006, by Lisa Kokin

Beverly Rayner looks at our need to know and control, our tendencies to generalize, and depersonalization within the scientific method. She also looks at our hopes that the limits of mundane reality can be breached. In Mysticism and Wishful Thinking, a giant lampshade covered in heavy dark velveteen (which probably keeps us from “seeing the light”) is mounted vertically against the wall and ornamented with wishbones. Looking into the upper opening of the shade, we see the curvature of a giant lens that suggests the gypsy’s crystal ball.


Beverly Rayner’s Mysticism and Wishful Thinking

Rayner’s, DNA Samples: Specimen Group #6, 2003, is a grid of test tubes that contain tiny photographs of widely varied figures. Are we looking at them with a neutral scientific eye, or perhaps, within their confines, they are constrained to be less than their potential? I think they are figures in the trap of impersonal groupings, like the heads pasted onto the grid of paper tags that label each individual, in Renee Billinglslea’s Immigrants, 2006. Each specimen demands conformity and seems to limit identities to a preconceived mold.


Everyone is neatly labeled in Renee Billinslea’s Immigrants.

Diane Jacobs presents the pages of her book Repatriation, 2007, as a grid occupying an entire wall. Each page is designed slickly as if it were an ad, a celebration of patrimony. But the messages and images tell another story of our corrupted legacy to our children: global warming, incarcerated parents, national debt, racism and other social ills.


Tabusana’s whiskers figure prominently in Tony May’s minature Ikebana.

Tony May is an artist who is known for his many interesting and humorous manipulations of old books. (Curiously, this work is not included here.) With the same tenderness that we might save a curl from baby’s hair, May saves the long whiskers shed by his cat, Tabusana, and the cat’s claws, dropped occasionally over a period of years. In one small transparent box, with mirrors on two sides and mounted in a corner, the whiskers are a mysterious ikebana arrangement sprouting out of plastecene sphere on a cork pedestal in the center. In another small, framed wall work, Santa, 2001, May spells out Santa against a red cloth background, using the cat claws. Santa claws. May offers a small disclaimer at the bottom of Santa, that “no animals were tortured or in any way injured in the production of this work.”

This show with both the profound and the charming, is an excellent example of the amazing possibilities of assemblage.

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