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Palimpsests and Middens: Gary John Gresl at Hotcakes Gallery

My little Merriam-Webster dictionary defines “palimpsest” as “writing material used after the erasure of earlier writing.” This explanation, with its suggestion of recycling, sounds good and worthy. Alas, it doesn’t even have an entry for “midden” but my Dictionary of the Scots Language does. There, a midden is defined as “a dunghill, the place where a farmer piles his farmyard manure; a refuse-heap in general, a compost-heap; a domestic ash-pit or dusthold; a refuse-bin or its contents, the domestic rubbish put out for disposal by the local authority.” Not quite so appetizing or appealing but when applied to Gary John Gresl’s assemblage sculptures, appropriate in a very good way.

Addressing the nature of his work, Gary said, “I heard it said some decades ago, ‘Life is an expression of energy and an organization of matter.’ To that I add, ‘Art is an organization of matter, expression of energy, and the result of human emotion, thought and change.’ Experience adds patina and layers, insights and ideas... and eventually everything turns back to dust. Everything evolves.”

It is this sense of evolution, of recycling, that permeates this work. As he acknowledges, everything is made for a reason, to satisfy a specific need, role or function. The object may not always conform to this and indeed may be changed, made obsolete, or acquire a status far different beyond its original intent. An example of this would be the group photograph in The
Sleipner Family Vitrine. Perhaps initially taken to commemorate an event and its attendees, it evolves into a snapshot of a particular time, place, fashion, attitudes and beliefs.

The style and substance of Gary’s assemblages should really come as no surprise. During the many years he was the owner of the Milwaukee Antique Center, he had, naturally and perhaps enviably, first chance on much of the great stuff he and his booth owners sourced from all around the state. For the past thirty years a lot of it has accumulated in his home in Brown Deer awaiting the day it would find its new home in one of his eclectic works. Everything is here from the truly mundane to the exotic: matchbooks with pin-up girls on them, toys, old picture postcards, photographs, seashells, wooden boxes, string, darts, arrows, signage, animal horns and heads and on and on . . . This work is seriously deceptive, a casual observer might think
that it’s just a bunch of stuff glued and nailed together, eliciting the tired old phrase (that is always spoken in error) “I could do that.” Well, actually, no you couldn’t.

What Gary does is recycle things that have been condemned to the midden or refuse heap and creates, phoenix-like, new constructions, new narratives and sophisticated works of art that are at once visually compelling, aesthetically sound and structurally brilliant. This is not a lot of stuff hot-glued together, it is carefully thought out, sincere work where nothing extraneous is added and this is what ranks them above lesser assemblages.

These works truly, physically define the title of the show. While we are bombarded daily by images, many of which are ethereal in our minds, other more substantial events, people, places and things find themselves lodged in our memories and remain there, often dormant for days, months, years or even decades. Then, one unexpected day, something will trigger that memory and it will come flooding back; that is what Gary’s work does: it recycles memories, rescuing the refuse of everyday from that mental rubbish pit and bringing it pungently to the surface.

Another element with the creation of memories is that they accumulate unconsciously because they are part of our daily lives that more fully acquire significance with the passage of time, reminding us that life is fleeting and passes by all too quickly. Seizing upon this notion, one small group of work in the show is the Quicksilver series. There are five in the series, all built
around small vials of mercury (representative of how fleeting life is), surrounded by such objects as a parakeet, nude playing card, Lincoln logs, Indian references, bison horns, etc. All are small, simple and a good gateway into Gary’s thought processes vis-à-vis memory and nostalgia.

Through his long involvement with museums and galleries as a practicing artist and member of Wisconsin Painters and Sculptors, Gary is well aware of the role such institutions play in how we perceive objects. What might be dismissed on the street is given new meaning and status once within the hallowed halls of a collecting and/or exhibition space. (In another time, the objects in Grandfather’s Souvenirs may well have been in a museum, but no longer.) Individually, few of the myriad items that comprise these assemblages would make the grade to be classified as art, but once reconfigured, restructured and recontextualized, they become worthy of exhibition and perhaps addition to a permanent collection. No Dogma has a wooden
clock case, Pearly Nautilus shell, animal trap, string and arrow. Individually unremarkable, but collectively something more. (The title has to do with not following rules when it comes to making art.) For further evidence of this, see Sam Taylor Wood’s unmade bed that was exhibited in London a few years ago; we all have unmade beds at home but we don’t think of them as
museum worthy, but in a new context, they encourage new interpretations, meanings and narratives.

Narrative is a key factor in Gary’s work. In addition to the sheer appeal of many of these objects either on an aesthetic or historical level, they also tell stories that can, and do, reflect meaning or connection to both the artist’s own life and those of others. Two works in particular have family references and testify not only to the intent behind each work, but the care, attention and expense Gary goes to in acquiring and assembling these works. Visits to Aunt Caroline's House is a small work with doilies, a celluloid doll, miniature house, twig and match holder and is based around the fact that Gary had an Aunt Caroline. On the other hand, the large Grandfather's Souvenirs is constructed around an antique display cabinet with the actual skull of a fossil Cave Bear (about 30,000 years old), a Cave Bear paw, arrowheads, mammoth leg bone, a pair of crutches protruding through the top, ethnographic collectibles and a pulp 1930's magazine. This is a fantasy on Gary’s part as both his grandfathers were hard working Wisconsin farmers who didn't travel.

While these are nostalgic works (they cannot be anything else given the age of the material involved) they are contemporary because they are made today and reflect Gary’s state of mind and awareness of current events. But they raise the question of why is nostalgia so popular? Why do we so often yearn for yesteryear? Was everything so much better years ago or do we
inevitably wear rose-tinted glasses over time? When does something acquire that status of junk or kitchy and just how much of a fine line is there between the two? Answers to these are not cut and dried. Liquid Bioform has the head of a Northern Pike, sea shells, fishing lures and Jim Beam Perch figural bottle and arose out of seeing the kitschy shell souvenirs from tropical places. The Sleipner Family Vitrine features a group of people some of whom appear to be in blackface. Acceptable today? I think not. The little pin up girl matchbook covers are on one level demeaning as they objectify women as mere sex objects. On the other hand, they are undeniably witty and fun in a cheesy way and have become emblematic of a particular era. Interpretation is in the eye of the beholder and in many ways that’s how it should be with Gary’s work. We all bring different memories to this work and what will mean nothing to one viewer may cause a tidal wave of flashbacks for another. These are engaging, thoughtful and complex works to be appreciated on many levels.

Ultimately, and perhaps in spite of the underlying themes of memory, nostalgia and how we perceive, construct or interpret our past, I believe the message of this show is “carpe diem”– seize the day. The past is good, fun, important and valuable, but we should live for today. Palimpsests and Middens brings to mind a few lines from 18th century Scottish poet Robert Burns, who wrote in his epic Tam O’Shanter:

But pleasures are like poppies spread:

You seize the flower the bloom is shed;

Or like the snow falls in the river,

A moment white – then melts forever

Or like the borealis race,

That flit ere you can point their place;

Or like the rainbow’s lovely form

Evanishing amid the storm

Enjoy it while you can until January 21st at Hotcakes.

- Graeme Reid, Assistant Director, West Bend Art Museum
From "Suceptible to Images," Milwaukee online art review, 1/17/07

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