It’s not the most profound thing to say that we humans like the look of things. The whole notion of doing things like “getting to the heart of the matter,” or seeking out the “essence of things” is really just a load of philosophical bollocks, don’t you think? We are visual, aural and tactile beings that seem to prefer to skim along the surface, take in the touchy-feely-smelly-tasty-noisy patinas of the world. We do seem largely estranged from seeking meaning in and from depth – even if it were indeed possible.
So we do tend to get excited about patinas of all sorts, don’t we? Our whole notion of beauty, when you come right down to it, is built around surface appeal, around superficial attractiveness. There are of course whole industries that have risen around this, endlessly marketing the facades of things to us. And even if at some “deeper” aesthetic level, we might find ourselves, say, looking close-up at the brushstrokes of a painting, wanting to comprehend how this accumulation coalesces into an aesthetic whole, in the end it’s still all about surface stuff.
Okay, so perhaps I’m stretching things a bit, but I have my reasons. They’re twofold, actually: Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky.
Canadian artists both, amongst their larger aesthetic efforts (which includes photography), they’ve built a body of sculptural work aesthetically centered on the object as little more than a thing of patinas. Literally. Both are MFA graduates from the University of British Columbia in Vancouver, and have collaborated for years. The appropriately titled Veneers is the body of work in question, one that is relatively recent, and, well, truly empty at the core.
Take me at my word, for Weppler and Mahovsky have constructed aesthetic artefacts that, while having a mimetic, outward resemblance to everyday objects, are in fact utterly superficial. They are truly nothing more than fragile constructions of veneers, that thin wooden stuff so often used in the making of furniture to disguise, for instance, an inexpensive material beneath (after all, it’s the surface that counts, right?). Their work literally encompasses absence, void, for inside there is nothing there.
Here’s one: The Visitors (all works referred to are 2014). It’s a wooden door, typically exhibited as an object resting on the gallery floor leaning up against a wall. Seemingly comprised of multiple boards arranged vertically and held together with a couple of horizontal elements, it’s actually entirely made of veneers taken from (of all things) wine casks used in the aging of Scotch whisky (Glenfiddich, to be precise). From these thin shavings, Weppler and Mahovsky painstaking recreated wooden boards and the consequent artefactual door sculpture, a truly fragile thing not of any real strength against the elements but merely aping the appearance of such.
Bad Neighbour takes this to the extreme. It’s a self-supporting sculpture – a fence, really, complete with posts and vertical boards mounted along its length. Pretty non-descript and ordinary. But it’s a rickety looking thing; boards are cracked, longitudinal wooden patches (representations of hollow doors, actually) have been applied in places, and there are even lean-to boards helping hold it all up, set to offer this artefact a bit more of the support it clearly appears to need. And oh yeah: there’s a four-drawer cabinet attached on one side as well.
I’m doing the work a descriptive injustice; it’s far richer, far more aesthetically nuanced than I can possibly convey or connote. The point is that it’s all, of course, a sham, for everything here is insubstantial, again made entirely of veneers assembled to represent objects of substance and integrity – to stand in place of, to merely visually suggest, the real thing. Only the representation of the hollow-frame door has any trueness to its subject. The central tenet, here, is the evacuation of the metaphorical meat of things.
In an extension of this approach toward representation of the object, Weppler and Mahovsky did a series of pieces that could be likened to the shells of displaced objects.
What leaf, what mushroom?, comprises for all intents and purposes a dessicated sculptural birdcage, seemingly about to collapse into itself, and a shopping cart, which has already done just that, lying virtually flattened on the gallery floor. It’s as if Weppler and Mahovsky carefully gutted these artefacts of their “essences,” leaving behind empty and dead husks collapsing under their own weight. Hanging Up My Boots is titularly literal: a pair of high-top boots hanging by their laces from a hook on the wall. But these “boots” are shells, actually made of single sheet of thin, patinated copper foil. So too Rotten Squash (Living Inside This Shell), a floor-mounted piece comprising a ring of squashes, connective vines, and garden stakes (and, for oddly added measure, a single coat hanger), again all made from a single sheet of the same copper foil.
So Weppler and Mahovsky have created a body of marrowless sculptural artefacts, empty vessels, as it were. Which brings to the fore a possible interpretive stance, one born of the practice of ceramics and the realm of the vessel in which clay materially articulates and gives utile shape to the void that is the very point of the exercise.
Emptiness, of course, has its uses, can become the space we fill with intention, purpose, thought, wishes, fears – an absence in which we can aesthetically invest. As creatures adept at pattern recognition, we’re also pretty damn good at finding (or even creating) meaning where none may be overtly present. So tucked away beneath the thin, fragile, patinated surfaces of the recent sculpture of Rhonda Weppler and Trevor Mahovsky might be just such space, roomy enough for meaning to be wrought.
On second thought, maybe we are pretty good at looking beneath the surface of things.
By Gil McElroy