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June 26, 2009 / sadhbhanu

Chrysalis Stage @ Ch’i Contemporary, Williamsburg

I walked in to the Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art Gallery in Brooklyn the other night into a garish yellow sun pretending to illuminate a glass tower of retail cubes out of which a glorious butterfly had emerged from a Chrysalis. A closer inspection of the butterfly showed it to be not exactly flourishing – its wings were woven together from recycled circuit boards and scrap pieces of catalytic converters, its tongue and antennae a fusion of engine oil and dipsticks and its mouth an antique fur trap. A few feet away stood another glass tower on top of which stood an undisturbed Chrysalis made up of varied denominations of US dollars, from which the butterfly presumably sprang. The womb of money would account for its undernourished appearance. But despite the inherent ugliness of many of the raw materials involved in this installation, it was undeniably a thing of beauty.

Joe Mangrum – Chrysalis Stage

Such is the case for all the works in this solo show by the astonishingly innovative artist, Joe Mangrum. In the center of the room stood a glass pyramid, supported by gold bricks and plastic encased dollar bills – a signature feature of Mangrum’s work – which he uses repeatedly to contrast the imposed structure of technology and power with naturally occurring phenomena. On the floor were unassumingly intricate sand paintings, which he told me were made by allowing ‘different colored sands to pour through the heart line of his palm in a sunwise motion to create patterns.’ Although each work stands alone, they are also interconnected by the theme of Chrsalis, a protected stage of development. Looming over the exhibition stood a life size portrait of President Obama, still in the pupal stage of his presidency, carrying a white dog as a symbol of the innocently hopeful US electorate.

Around the walls there were several exquisite drawings, as well as some traditional paintings. As I looked around at these more conventional works, it felt like the artist was just showing off. – He too, like other visionaries, can do the grunt stuff as well as the best of them. The overriding impression that you walk away with, however, is that there is no object – edible or inedible, animate or inanimate, dead or alive – that is safe from being transformed into a work of art.

After painting for 15 years, Mangrum felt the need to explore new ways to bring his art to a wider audience and so began creating installations in public places like sidewalks and parks. These installations, usually assuming the form of a Mandala, are spontaneously assembled out of whatever materials the artist can get his hands on – orchids, daisies, dried lentils, fava beans – and give new meaning to the phrase – a visual feast. His driving force appears to be the desire to make people think and one way or another his work has an impact on those who witness it. Sometimes very positive, moving people to tears, sometimes not so positive when the witness is an officer of the law. Joe has been arrested six times for vandalism. No small irony considering the so called vandal’s intent.

After a while Joe began to integrate man made materials into his nature inspired work, juxtaposing non earth friendly goods such as tires, oil canisters and circuit boards with their more life affirming counterparts – fruits, legumes, foliage and vegetables. It is this juxtaposition that gives Mangrum’s work a raw political edge.

False wealth is a recurring theme in his installations. “Real wealth is the resources that we have,” he said to me when I met him at the Chi gallery, “if we don’t sustain those resources there is no real wealth. It is out of this concern for the unsustainable behavior of his fellow man vis á vis the environment and the economy that the center piece of his current exhibition, titled Retail Transmutation IV, was born. It is the fourth installation in a series that began its life in 2008 as a caterpillar. Back then the caterpillar struggled to maintain its identity with the natural world while being trapped into the glass cylinder. Now a year later the caterpillar has metamorphosed into a butterfly with issues.

Integral to Mangrum’s work, particularly at the midnight hour when an installation is in its final stages, is the writer, Deborah Mangrum Price. Deborah has pulled many all nighters in their seven years together to ensure that Mangrum’s complex and elaborate vision is realized and confessed to sometimes nearing a nervous breakdown as a project is brought to fruition. Of course there are advantages to being with someone who doesn’t know how to do things by halves. A few years ago on Valentine’s day, when Joe decided to propose, he enlisted 300 red roses to advance his case. Needless to say when presented with this abundant offering, Deborah said yes.

Chrysalis Stage is currently showing at Ch’i Contemporary Fine Art in Williamsburg, Brooklyn until July 10th, 2009.

Sadhbh Walshe

One Comment

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  1. / Feb 23 2013 4:44p02

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