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Gambit Weekly Lost and Found

By D. Eric Bookhardt

NOVEMBER 3, 1997:  Irwin Kremen's East by West shows the artist's true direction.

When Marcel Duchamp exhibited urinals and bicycle wheels as "ready-made" artworks way back in the early days of the century, most people thought he'd slipped a gear. And indeed most people remain baffled by Duchamp even now. Similar sentiments sometimes apply to Bob Tannen for related, if subtly different, reasons.

Bafflement was a common reaction to Tannen's big survey show when it opened at the newly renovated Contemporary Arts Center back in 1990. Tannen and Duchamp are both known for found-object sculpture, and both are, in a sense, philosophers as much as artists, so Duchamp's ghost was an unseen presence.

Despite all that, comparisons between Tannen and Duchamp are useful for their contrasts as much as for their similarities. For one thing, Tannen is, and has been, prolific. His home on Esplanade Avenue (that place with what looks like gigantic, tin monopoly pieces in the front yard) is crammed with odd and eccentric things -- mostly found objects that he reworked to his own liking. If Duchamp's work amounted to a terse last word on a particular art epoch, Tannen's work is like a series of nonverbal nuances and gestures that seem to make comments and ask questions about art and reality, the viewer and the viewed.

All of this is amply evident at Shooting Star, where curious and unusual objects abound. Actually, only half of the show is made up of Tannen's stuff; the other half comprises work by his artist friends, including items from his personal collection.

Bob Tannen and Friends at Shooting Star, Irwin Kremen at the Contemporary Arts Center, all through Nov. 15

A brief scan of the rear gallery reveals some shot-up ballistic sculpture by William Burroughs and David Bradshaw, some visionary paintings of flying saucers by Martin Green, and works by Peter Halley, Noel Rockmore, Clifton Webb, Lynda Benglis, John Scott and others. Charles Bendzans' superb painting Guy With His Head On Fire is prominently enshrined in the bathroom.

Curiously, it all seems to almost blend together so that the interior of the gallery looks a lot like the inside of Tannen's house. Take, for instance, the coat hangers. Most homes have coat hangers, but Tannen, unlike Duchamp, is not content to let normal utilitarian objects look like themselves. Instead, Tannen's coat hangers are bent, pulled and mangled in ways that confound our usual expectations. So what we see might be a bunch of old coat hangers -- or then again, it might be something concocted by a Miro or Calder after an especially hard night.

And while Tannen's Zen-like ink paintings resemble "art that looks like art," much of the sculpture resembles "junk that looks like junk," which could cause considerable confusion in this city of inveterate pack rats where the biggest retail strip is Magazine Street.

This stands in stark contrast to Irwin Kremen's collages and sculpture at the Contemporary Arts Center, which appear polished and pristine despite their humble, junk yard origins. Although much of his work evokes classic mid-century abstraction, Kremen, who holds a doctorate in psychology, only began his art career some 30 years ago when he was already a middle-aged psychology professor at Duke University. Hence, he is a most unusual art-world phenomenon: a PhD self-taught artist.

Seemingly an extension of abstract expressionism, Kremen's work becomes unexpectedly sensual when seen close up. Materials transcend their initially familiar art-world appearance with a delicacy or otherworldliness that inspires speculation about their origin. What is this stuff anyway? As a matter of fact, Kremen manicures odd bits, distressed road signs, posters and even wasp nests into strange new substances. (His tapestries of flat, reconfigured wasp nests look especially esoteric, like antique art papers crafted for long-forgotten East Asian emperors.)

His sculpture also mixes the pristine and the prosaic, the brutal and the sublime, utilizing "found objects" in an unusually integral manner. Refuting found-object critiques by art "purists" and their media handmaidens, Kremen notes that "words are also found objects" as are paints, brushes, marble or bronze. All are selectively "found" and utilized. In Kremen's seductive universe, used materials are chosen for their textural "experience" in the way that words or pigments are chosen for their specific effects.

Tannen, on the other hand, sometimes contorts this entire process by placing "fine art" inside "found objects," so a peanut butter jar may turn out to contain some precious objet like a bit of rare George Ohr pottery -- a playful charade that questions how we evaluate art (not to mention peanut butter jars). So his work is a silent interrogatory that asks: Is it art because it is a "precious object?" Or is art the creative process itself? Or is it, perhaps, the act of poetic perception? Your call ...

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