Imagine you haven’t seen your kid for a while, that he’s disappeared after school into the recesses of the house, which is now suspiciously quiet. So you mount the stairs to his room, knock and open the door. There he sits on his floor, surrounded by shreds and shards, his hands upon a unique invention that is, without doubt, art.
This is the art made by Justin Anthony, Missoula sculptor and artist, now on exhibit at the Dana Gallery. In this collection of nearly two dozen pieces, Anthony has, like a genius child, assembled small sculptures of fanciful invention that reflect an escape from the adult world of work, industry and responsibility.
His pieces range from unlikely trophies to whimsical pull toys, from alien animals to wonderfully irrelevant lamps. He explores the tensions between duty and enjoyment in each piece, for he collects the flotsam of daily life and renders it delightfully, giving the dead and discarded debris of industry new energy.
We entrust an artist to create, and Anthony’s sculptures do indeed seem animated by his breath. While reminiscent of childhood play, the pieces are also serious reimaginings of reliable tools. With his affection for vacuum cleaner parts, old faucets and ceramic light sockets, Anthony takes overlooked, forgotten objects and turns them into something beautiful that wasn’t there before.
In “Dear Trophy,” a pair of real antlers has been smoothed and painted gold, then hung dripping with hollow bullet casings. Hair on this fantasy game is suggested by tight wire coils salvaged from a recycling bin, again dripping, and the head is an actual deer skull painted a passionate shiny red. Each element speaks up for itself (antler, bullet) and also speaks of a past (animal, fired shot) and then, too, evokes in graphic artistry the act of killing and mounting a head. Each element is responsible for part of a narrative, a story that is capricious and at the same time firm.
“War Toy (Fire Boat)” assembles ancient cast iron and brass gaskets into an inviting toy that beckons the human touch. As your hand reaches for it, you are undecided as to whether to play with it or simply wonder at its bright surfaces. Anthony has exerted considerable effort with chemicals and solvents to bring a luxurious new shine to his materials. He has painted this and many other small pieces in fire-engine red, a true red of patriotic association, of childhood interest in real engines. The dense, shiny black he uses evokes factory stairwells or municipal guard rails.
Anthony uses a host of sturdy American materials, such as cast iron, steel, copper and chrome. He uses faucets, handles, gaskets, bolts and, quite marvelously, an ancient tea kettle—“Breakfast Light” is one in a series of screwball lamps. This one places the bulb inside the kettle, cuts out the kettle’s bottom and mounts the whole thing on an arched piece of coiled tubing attached to the handle of an iron skillet, in which something shiny and coiled cooks. “Enlarged Bug Light” marries a disused camera to an archaic piece of vacuum machinery to make an animal. A pair of absurd feelers bursts up, ending in large, rounded metal shades that shield the bulbs. A tongue and tail (extending, naturally, into the necessary electrical cord) complete the creature.
Anthony’s pieces are intended for domestic space, invoking as they do nursery and kitchen, though they bear the mark of much larger American pieces, like David Smith’s massive yet gently flowing outdoor sculpture. Unlike Smith’s abstractions, however, Anthony’s pieces are resolutely concrete, solid and unique imaginings of things we think of with tired familiarity, if we think of them at all. Missing from this exhibition, unfortunately, are Anthony’s animals, cartoonish wolves and dogs that seem sprung from crazy springs, popped right out of some mixed-up fairy tale.
Anthony insists that we imagine his process, something we can’t help thinking about as we explore his construction of these unlikely pieces. To be aware of their assembly is also to wonder about taking them apart, about the act of freeing these elements from their former identities and giving them a new context. They find new purpose and new meaning once they are reassembled. The show, which is up through the middle of next month, is an ode to the act of transformation, each piece a pointed reminder of how something can go from being to changing, then from becoming to, again, being. In his note for the show, Anthony says his work is influenced by “a desire to take things apart and make new wholes.” His pieces instruct us to consider the ordinary in an extraordinary light.
Almost all the pieces appear to be mechanical, rigged with chains, mounted on wheels. They look as if they should work; they beg for life, possessed of a certain movement. The airplane of “War Toy (Bright Bomber)” soars steadily into the air, an arch of shiny metal pipe carrying it aloft. The show as a whole puts you in mind of those magical fantasies, as though once the gallery is closed and its door locked, the pieces might burst into life with clicks and cranks, spring into a secret, giddy playtime of their own invention. Who can resist such dance and optimism, such childlike pleasure in the most weighty aspects of this modern world?
Justin Anthony’s constructions are on display at the Dana Gallery, 123 West Broadway, through Nov. 15. Call 721-3154 for more information.