The ringing of the telephone sets off a flurry of activity, the daily cycle of steam supplied to the radiators from a boiler is harnessed for other purposes, even the flushing of the gallery's toilet starts a chain of actions that supply water to a drinking fountain accessible to visitors. Steven Brower's current work, ironically titled UTILITY, exudes a disarming sui generis quality that finds its own special place in our imagination. And it provides an all too indolent art world used to safe ubiquitous white cubes a much needed jolt. At first glance the terrain of miniature models and makeshift mechanical gadgetry that fill the gallery like the junk drawer of a mad inventor, may suggest a magical realm or seem whimsically charming - yet something else is unraveling at the same time: our sense of the real is being relegated between quotation marks, disrupted by the wayward improvisations of an artist and artificer. By eroding the line between utility and futility, Brower's creation deviates just enough from reality as we know it - let's say, from what we are used to and prepared to accept - to produce a subtle but palpable shift of perspective: the gallery becomes a puzzle to be pieced together, a microcosm forcing us to re-think and re-imagine the ways by which we recognize and define aspects of our world.
Brower's work is about looking, looking and perceiving - what we see and what we don't. It is imminently seductive to the eye and, indeed, to the imagination. Yet this artist seems less preoccupied with satisfying our predilections or merely pleasing the eye: he subverts the gallery itself to his own ends - as he puts it, "wresting the facts from their context." And, in doing so, he spins it out of control. Calling to mind the oddly pertinent phantasmagoria of Bucky Fuller or Jean Tinguely, Brower connects, through a preposterous grid of copper piping and wiring, familiar utilities like running water, heat, electricity with various recognizable objects, such as an electrical mast, a time clock for registering work times or a water fountain, presenting us in the end with a wacky aesthetic and functional curiosity. But, before relegating this entanglement of intentions to the category of a "meaningful" art object, it is interesting to note the forthright adroitness by which Brower's idiosyncratic circuit incorporates several supply systems that would usually be considered "external" or not germane to the creative business of running a gallery. Nevertheless, these systems play an intimate role in its everyday reality: after all, apart from the art objects it houses, every gallery also needs light, water, heat, telephones, workers and waste disposal. The eccentric "misconstructions" of utility orchestrated by the artist are altogether too precisely determined to be an irreverent prank or playful aesthetic call.
Despite this conceptual bent, however, the installation remains a concoction, the strange brew of an artificer and tinkerer that rejects complacent clarity. By coercing familiar things and functions into unpredictable roles, these echo real life but obviously subvert common practices. The quirky elision of various functions and service systems, straying between the normative and the frivolous, together with the Lilliputian scale of the models (each lovingly crafted by the artist, who is a professional model-maker) allows Brower's work to burst out of its material concreteness and transport us into another, more obscure world, full of quizzical and precarious virtualities that help refocus our attention from compliance with conventions as we know them into freer, more independently minded territories. Stability is eclipsed by instability: we are left, literally to our own devices to navigate through the singular, self-styled ideascape-cum-obstruction course that Brower sets up in the gallery.
Echoing a Situational sensibility as well as Broodthaers' Musée d'Arte Moderne and Decor Interventions, the whole gallery, including offices, reception and bathroom are implicated in Brower's intricate scheme of things. Ten discrete objects are dispersed throughout the spaces and interconnected by a series of copper conduits that meander across both public and private areas at a level of about four feet, making walking through the space a gauntlet of obstacles. A miniature observatory a small craggy moon hanging from the ceiling, a diminutive electrical mast, a whimsical dam made from a toilet tank sitting on top of two industrial buckets that stand between an ordinary Braun coffee maker, a kiosk with details on the exhibition at the entrance, and a metal water fountain of the kind commonly found in public areas, are all placed alongside a small-scale Styrofoam architectural model of the gallery itself, to suggest little islands of singularity in a strange web of fantastic interdependencies. They are at once artificial and functional entities infused with some obscure didactic purpose of their own, coming magically to life, activated by the now of water, steam, electricity running through the network of conduits. Fresh water is poured from the bathroom and circulates into an irrigation system, the floodgates of the dam are automatically opened by the ringing of the telephone; even the steam from the radiators is accessed to operate a miniature engine that pumps water into the drinking fountain. All this might seem reminiscent of a perpetual motion machine or some fun loving childhood game, like "Operation," but this is no Disneyland flight of fancy, nor is it merely playfully surreal.
If Brower's convoluted contraption implies a functional coherence of sorts, then this is fraught with anomalies. The solar panels can only attract energy during the day although the electricity they produce powers the observatory whose sole purpose is to scrutinize a night sky. But scenarios that work at cross-purposes seem to be the leitmotif in this bizarre, tautological terrain of functions and activities. Why are these functions so topsy-turvy? Steam is used to cool water for a drinking fountain, flushing the toilet injects fresh water into the system, picking up the telephone activates the dam which releases the water... Each artwork on view in the space aids in the distribution of all the municipal utilities found in the gallery: water, heat, waste disposal, telephones, electricity are provided for the convenience of the space - for our convenience but also, more significantly to ensure its reality. And we blithely consume that reality, taking for granted the privileges of a way of life dependent, almost parasitically, on a service economy.
UTILITY leads a split existence: it quits terra firma. Magically but also quite prosaically it lures us to a chasm of the imagination where we leave the obvious far behind and discover an outsider place quixotically wandering between utility and futility. Filling the gaps in our perception with nervous romance, Brower's world of manic circuitry with all its paradoxical morphology puts an idiosyncratic spin on precedent. Its service - utility system suggests a divergent rationale - as if we were confronted by a stunning doppelganger that defied our pre-established or "meaningful" perceptions, but that is altogether too intriguing, too alluring to resist. Identities fall away from these works, and do not lead into new cohesions. Brower's concoction slips out of didactic closure and implodes the production of meaning, lodging itself in the awkward gaps between what is known and what isn't, what is seen and what might be seen. This contraption suggests both someone having fun and devising a system servicing the needs of another space and time. Brower's doppelganger goes against the belief that things can be named without any confusion, disorder or errancy; in fact it gives these possibilities free play, and along the way, perhaps, it also extends our view of what reality could be.
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