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Gary John Gresl: An Assembler

by Kat Kneevers, October 4, 2012

Gary John Gresl's "possible solo finale" exhibition, “An Assembler,” brings together more than three dozen of his assemblages and photographs. The effect is like walking through an array of grottos or shrines, in part a cabinet of curiosities as well as altars of fear and desire.

Gresl is known for large-scale sculptural works, dense with material originating in nature and the man-made world. Animal skulls and taxidermy are prominently used, whether in the form of open-mouthed fish or endlessly staring deer heads. These details do not necessarily jump out at first, subsumed as they are at times by other textures like shells or stones, pine cones or pennies.

The combinations of inanimate and formerly animate objects tread lightly between sculpture and still life. They include a nod to the historical reference of the memento mori, a reminder of mortality commonly symbolized by a skull, a little note on the transience of this world. Nature plays a strong role in Gresl's assemblages, but so does the stuff of the man-made world. Manufactured goods like wooden nickels and pointy objects such as nails are embedded over and over in his sculptures. There is a delight in the mass-produced plenty, but also an edge of obsession at the repeated appearances.

The assemblages are often put together in polished wood cases or built up on free-standing supports, but their contours are hard to define. The compositions reach out into space, with things like oars, poles, lights, branches and arrows sticking into the air, expanding the reach of art into the viewer's space with the sprawl of their indeterminate boundaries.

A piece like Backyard Growth is a small but illustrative combination of these tendencies. A rough wooden stump of a base, which still seems to sport some prominent mushroom growth, has a surface decorated with metal door handles, feathered darts, a small skull, and a series of nails projecting from the wood. From the top is a long, red, serpentine tube, on the end of which is a fly-fishing lure.

The details suggest a keen interest in the outdoors, in hunting and fishing particularly. But as one goes through these works, the shrine-like atmosphere reacts more acutely with the aggressive spearing by darts, arrows, nails and other sharp implements. Nature is abundant and mystical, but an attempt at collecting, at control, is made.

Bare-breasted female torsos appear over and over, sometimes hidden amid other objects, other times placed as compositional focal points. The fragmentary figure, an excerpt of the body sans head, strikes a surrealistic note, deployed like Max Ernst or Salvador Dalí.

These figures appear most notably in Gresl's photographs. In comparison to the weighty assemblages, the photographs appear almost stark, though that is certainly a relative call, and reveal Gresl introducing sculptural objects in the lived world. The assemblages run counter to this strategy, as they take materials from that world to create a hermetic environment of their own.

“Gary John Gresl: An Assembler” continues through Oct. 27 at the Marian Gallery on the campus of Mount Mary College, 2900 N. Menomonee River Parkway.

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