The Art of Brian Jungen
I always love getting the latest issue of the Smithsonian magazine and this month my reward was a teaser article about the young installation artist, Brian Jungen. More information is available at the Smithsonian website but I will give a nutshell preview here. The Smithsonian is hosting a major exhibition of Jungen's critically acclaimed work at their National Museum of the American Indian, running from October 16 2009 through August 8 of 2010 on the National Mall, Washington DC. Entitled "Brian Jungen: Strange Comfort", this is the first solo exhibit of a living Native American artist in the five-year history of the museum. Featured are the artist's iconic pieces as well as major works never before seen in the United States.
Jungen, half Swiss-Canadian and half First Nation Dunne-za Indian, has turned Pop Art upside down and inside out by creating these stunning aboriginal sculptures out of mundane modern items such as luggage, shoes, broken chairs or even garbage cans. Viewers initially wowed by the craftsmanship, beauty and imagination of the work in general, then get to the really fun part -- recognizing the everyday objects within each piece. People are naturally free to interpret the various combinations of images and objects however they please, but the artist himself has definitely invested his own specific ideas about how aboriginal and Western culture connect in each one of the works on display.
So, let's go on a mini-tour.
Prototypes for New Understanding (1998-2005)
The ceremonial masks pictured above were inspired by the colors of Nike Air Jordans which also are the colors of the Haida, an indigenous people of the Pacific Northwest. Meticulously fashioned from deconstructed athletic shoes, there are 23 in the series (corresponding to basketball legend Michael Jordan's number). In fact, Jordan owns one of the sculptures. Jungen says he was impressed by how these shoes are revered and displayed in our American culture almost like museum objects. Also, his use of sports equipment gently satirizes the use by professional teams of the names: Indians, Chiefs, Redskins and Braves.
This is one of my favorites. It is the centerpiece of the exhibit, installed in the Potomac Atrium, the museum's soaring rotunda. A dramatically suspended mobile, 26 by 20 feet, it includes five animals native to Australia, the shark, possum, sea eagle, emu and crocodile (the latter three pictured above). Jungen actually camped out on Syndey's Cockatoo Island (directly in line with Sydney International Airport), gazed up at a night sky filled with stars and aircraft, and was inspired to create the sculptures in a mobile, reflecting the animals that Australia's aborigines saw in the constellations. And, of course, the materials he chose for this piece were luggage parts.
Another of my favorites, one of Jungen's whale sculptures. The artist was reading about the history of whaling at the time he discovered what to him was a huge treasure ... a bunch of broken white molded-plastic patio chairs in a trash heap. And thus we have The Shapeshifter above, one of three exquisite 21- to 40-foot-long whale skeletons, worthy of display in any natural history museum.
I couldn't find a story for this piece, but it captures the image of a handsome Indian Chieftan in a suit of armor, and it is constructed on a dress form entirely out of baseball gloves.
Personally, without over-intellectualizing this artist's philosophy or motives as some try to do, I simply enjoy seeing such entertaining and inventive work. Especially in a collecton like this. People like Brian Jungen are constantly pushing the boundaries of art expression, keeping us on edge and paving the way for the next exciting artists who will, in turn, stimulate us with even newer ideas.
Strange Comfort, indeed.