by Mark McGowan
It almost defies words.
There are plenty of nouns and adjectives to describe what currently consumes the Jack Olson Gallery but, no matter how they are arranged or employed, they fall woefully short in attempting to capture everything the visual spectacle offers the eyes and the imagination.
Red shopping carts from Lowe’s, sliced open to become a couch with a cushion fashioned from plastic bags. White lab shirts buttoned together to form curtains. Retro suitcases are dressers. An old radiator, standing on its side as the base of a sink. A porcelain bathtub, cut in half, mounted on legs, its two parts welded together back to back to fashion a “conversational” chair for two.
In the center of the room stands a house of sorts. Doors don’t open – there are several, complete with windows, but they’re acting as walls. Ceiling tiles and donated zinc lithographic plates also serve as walls in support of the ceiling, part of which is made of corrugated plastic. A geodesic dome that seems to once have been a playground jungle gym covers the front room.
There’s no electricity, but light streams in through all the windows. The gleams pass through lacy and translucent clothing, projecting cool patterns on the walls and even the guests. Hungry residents can cook on a crude barbecue grill just outside the structure but reachable from inside through a wooden shutter that lifts up.
Entrance to this magical place is gained through the side rail of a baby’s crib that acts as a door. First, though, visitors probably should ring the door bell – a few hardware nuts that clank around inside a glass bottle when the cord is yanked.
Welcome to “HOME,” an experimental installation on view in the Visual Arts Building through Wednesday, March 24. It’s part of the interdisciplinary ARTLab initiative of the NIU School of Art, which this year is focused on “Globalism and Culture.”
The internationally renowned artist team of Alain Guerra and NIU alum Neraldo de la Paz came to DeKalb last month to paw through Dumpsters and gather materials, including tires and boxes and wood and just about anything else they could find.
Working with students in ART 680 (the ARTLab seminar) they built a functional “global village.” Inspired by temporary structures from nomadic, indigenous and homeless people, it offers solutions for sleeping, eating and social interaction. It also offers criticism on consumerism.
More simply, though, this is “repurposing” – finding new and unexpected uses for old stuff.
“This evokes questions about what it means to be at home in an increasingly global society. It draws in people to think about where they feel at home,” says Barbara Jaffee, an associate professor of art history. “I feel very at home in this space.”
For Guerra de la Paz, a Cuban-born, Miami-based team, the project itself lingered just outside their own concept of home.
The two typically use discarded clothing and repurposed materials to create lyrical yet sobering commentary on consumption, the environment and social conflict. Their works create a dialogue of materials opposed to each other.
Yet their very partnership brought its own lesson to the NIU students, art professors say: Art school is usually about “finding your own voice, discovering your special little genius.” To work as a team is to “give up part of your ownership.” Collaboration is an “amazing act of generosity.”
“That’s not only in art but in life,” Guerra says of “losing your ego. You need to be firm about what you want but be considerate about what others want.”
The Jack Olson Gallery is free and open to the public from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday through Thursday and from 10 a.m. to noon Friday. Call (815) 753-4521, e-mail ARTLab@niu.edu or visit http://ARTlab.niu.edu for more information.