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Lead Pencil Studio's 'After' raises questions

Annie Han and Daniel Mihaylo founded the design team Lead Pencil Studio in 1997 and have been busy designing architecture, furniture and site-specific art installations ever since. Boise Art Museum's Sculpture Court and Garden provide the setting for their latest project, After.

Like all good conceptual artists, they'd like their work to raise important questions. However, a few of their previous projects have recently done so in ways that must have been unpleasant.

It began with an e-mail from the director of an exhibition space in Seattle showcasing the art collection of Bill and Ruth True, which read, "Hi Scott. We came across this image of Mariele Neudecker's 2000 work The Internal Slipping Out into the World at Large at Barbara Thumm's gallery, and am [sic] troubled by the resemblance between it and the LPS work Bill and Ruth are acquiring. What do you think?"

The issue flared up in some Seattle art blogs and more of Lead Pencil Studio's work came under scrutiny. In the following days, there was talk of some of the work being "tainted." What could be worse for an artist than an accusation of copying? In her piece, "Gray Area," written for Seattle alt-weekly The Stranger, Jen Graves (who has written extensively on LPS) laid out the details and effectively tamped out any concerns about the actual crime of copying, but I don't think it completely relieved the queasiness True must have been feeling. Something is not quite right about work that is susceptible to such uncanny visual coincidence.

In her story, Graves points out that there were significant differences in the ideas behind the Neudecker piece and the one by LPS, a fact that might relieve concerns about copying, but it raises other concerns. Such as, how can artistic visions of very different origins coincidentally converge on the plane of the visual so uncannily? The short answer is, they can't. But work that operates in the realm of design, and "references" or advertises intellectual enterprises more than it embodies them, can and sometimes does suffer from uncomfortable resemblances.

In 2004, the same year LPS filled Suyama Space with green and white filaments, Predock Frane Architects filled a gallery at the Venice Biennale with green and white filaments. LPS chalked it up to coincidence.

Good for them, except that all these coincidences start to add up. One begins to see the possible pitfalls of artwork that is more referential than it is realized.

click to enlarge Lead Pencil Studio: Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo installation detail, After, Boise Art Museum, 2008. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOISE ART MUSEUM

No one is going to coincidentally remake the gas station sequence in Matthew Barney's Cremaster 2. Why is that? Crafted aesthetic experience is just a more sustained effort than conceptual referencing and is therefore less likely to accidentally slip into mimicry of the intended or unintended variety.

Mimicry has always been an important part of the conceptual art genre, where aesthetic experience is subordinated to a mental effect, in which, what is important to the work are the issues that are raised when a mimicked piece of life is suddenly granted the status of art. Your attention isn't absorbed by the work; it's deflected into ideas. Lead Pencil Studio operates in the same vein, with the addition of a designer's aesthetic. The effect in their work is softened by pleasing design elements. But the intellectual enterprise is still advertised more than embodied.

Graves contributed a satisfying piece to Believer magazine about the duo's most celebrated work, Maryhill Double. The Double was a volumetric copy of the Maryhill Museum and was built using scaffolding and blue construction netting. It faced the original Maryhill Museum (a brief history of which was given to visitors of the Double) from across the Columbia River Gorge. The striking thing about Grave's essay is that it wouldn't really suffer if the small amount she wrote about LPS's actual piece of temporary sculpture were edited out. In the end the essay is really about Sam Hill, the person behind the original Maryhill Museum, and the imposing environment of the Columbia River Gorge itself. It's the wind, the landscape, the sky and the hubris of Sam Hill that are so compelling. Most of the important questions people give the Double credit for raising are already forcefully raised by the museum. Not surprisingly, their most successful artistic embodiment is both a kind of copy and a kind of non-embodiment. The Double, by reducing the museum down to a volume of pure hubris, necessarily embraces its own artistic hubris. In the end, the gorge reigns supreme. They referred to their piece as a temporary space for nothing in the middle of nowhere; it was zoned as a temporary billboard.

Work like this has a plea in it: to be more interested, to look at things again, to get inside that receptive mood that one adopts before art. It asks us to think, just stop for a minute and think. Often there is no attempt to aesthetically embody this command at all. It's just a bed sitting in a gallery and it's art—now what? We don't feel communicated with, we feel stranded in the expanse of a suggested topic.

click to enlarge Lead Pencil Studio: Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo installation detail, After, Boise Art Museum, 2008. - PHOTO COURTESY OF BOISE ART MUSEUM

LPS softens this command by turning it into a more pleasing suggestion. They use their talents in design to gently nudge us toward important issues or questions, but it still has a tendency to feel less like we're being communicated with, less like we're looking at the realization of an artistic vision, and more like we're looking at a savvy advertisement for luxury objects.

The installation at BAM is in two parts that are conceptually related. Inside, a half-constructed room is made of suspended Styrofoam walls. Below the floating partial walls is an expanse of pea gravel. Using a plaster substance to hold the gravel up around the space a foundation would intrude into, the rectangular shape of the room is implied. Outside is a billboard covered in layers of degrading paper and the equally ephemeral promises of real estate advertising. Surprisingly, the piece lacks the pleasing graphic design elements they are known for. The indoor portion has an especially eerie lack of visual interest. As part of what appears to be a comment on the influence of our throw-away culture in the fields of architecture and real estate, maybe its supposed to be stale. From some of the show's supporting materials: "For BAM's exhibition Han and Mihaylo will be creating a site-specific installation exposing contemporary thought around the impermanence of architectural structures and their impact on our collective memories."

If one were standing inside their implied living space, the peeling billboard and its promises could be seen looking in one direction and the large wall text introducing the piece's aspirations could be seen looking in the other. The billboard promises, "Your Own Piece of Blue Sky!" The wall text tells us the artists are exploring the complex systems involved in the production of space. In other words, advertising dominates the view.

After is on display through May 2009. Boise Art Museum, 670 Julia Davis Dr., 208-345-8330, boiseartmuseum.org.

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