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Monumental: Cardboard Stack.

Waste Not

By Nadine Wasserman

Jason Middlebrook: Live With Less

University Art Museum, University at Albany, through April 5

Years from now, when archaeol- ogists dig up the remnants of our consumer driven society, they might ponder our demise much like we ponder that of the dinosaurs. And while patiently sifting through our massive piles of garbage they might quietly curse us and ask: “Why did they need so much damn stuff?!”

Jason Middlebrook is clearly of the same mind, hence the title of his show. His exhibition features many works that consider our wastefulness and its impact on the landscape. The most powerful piece in the show is the floor to ceiling sculpture Cardboard Stack. This dynamic sculpture, rising 35 feet, is a tornado of flattened cardboard boxes. Made from boxes accumulated over two months time, it represents the amount of goods shipped to campus in that period. Not only is it visually striking, but it gives the viewer pause, and that is the artist’s point. He wants us to think about the amount of waste we generate and to contemplate the possibilities of reducing it, or at the very least, of transforming it into something aesthetically useful.

Cardboard is everywhere in this exhibition, as are other easily acquired materials gleaned from trash heaps or harvested from the environment. But other than Cardboard Stack the cardboard work is the weakest link. While Pile of Buildings, a miniature cityscape twinkling in its own darkened space is a fun piece that the artist made in collaboration with students, it doesn’t add much to the discourse. It is a variation on a theme that is more capably covered in the paintings titled Stacked Night Sky. The entryway aggregation of cardboard missives, titled Five Years—Five Drawing Books, is a particularly unfortunate addition. Meant to elucidate the artist’s thoughts, ideas, ruminations, insecurities, and triumphs, it was really just an unnecessary distraction from the impact of Cardboard Stack.

The remaining three-dimensional works in the exhibition use the eccentric space of the museum to great effect. Wood from Around the World Mobile is a Calderesque sculpture that dangles driftwood from the ceiling. Accenting this piece from below is Twenty-five Shelves with Cast Concrete Bottles, each bottle set neatly on a cardboard shelf customized to fit into the window recesses. More concrete bottles congregate in the corner nearby. These bottles are echoed in other places where they support one of three wooden benches and one among several wooden planks that line up against two walls. Middlebrook decorates his benches and various planks with bright dots and colored lines that mimic and complement the natural patterns of the wood. Made from walnut, poplar, Douglas fir, cottonwood, cherry, and cedar, they are decorative but also totemic. They are reminders of our synchronous yet disjunctive relationship to nature.

The geometric patterns of the benches and planks are repeated in a number of Middlebrook’s works on paper. Inspired by his interests in ecology, geology, geography, and the environment, various themes emerge. One such theme is the blighted landscape brought about by power grids, urban sprawl, and accumulating debris. Getting Off the Grid Is Hard To Do and Live With Less comment on our out-of-whack relationship to nature. But Middlebrook complicates the statement by exploring aesthetics itself and by asking what constitutes beauty. One really lovely piece in the exhibition is The Difference Between Soil & Dirt. This relatively small piece is a beautifully drawn philosophical rumination on our ecological “footprint.” Other pieces, like Vein, Debris Field, and APL #1 Discovering Fossils, delve beneath the surface and expose cells, roots, geological layers, and fossils.

While there is much to contemplate here, the exhibition could do with a bit of editing. Yes, the University Art Museum can seem a daunting venue to try to fill, but some of the work included seemed like it was just there to fill up space. It’s ironic that a show called Live With Less would benefit by following the modernist motto that “less is more.”


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