Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Todd Erickson & Faina Lerman @ CCS

Todd Erickson, Manistee River, 2010, bronze. (Photo: courtesy of CCS Center Galleries.)
Faina Lerman, Seeping In, Seeping Out: The Bubble's Inner Circle, 2010, gouache, mixed media on paper. (Photo: courtesy of CCS Center Galleries.)
A few weeks ago as part of discussing a video by Kristin Gallerneaux on Scott Hocking, I went off on this thing about a research method known as actor network theory (ANT). And although I knew it was more than a bit nerdy, it seemed appropos of Gallerneaux's tracking of Hocking so I went with it. In looking at the show currently up at CCS Center Galleries of new work by Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman, I found myself coming back to that concept. In particular, the ANT practice of tracing the connections between things and ideas, expressed as the "material-semiotic" relation, which offers a way into the work of both Erickson and Lerman, albeit from different directions.

Erickson's new work, all created in 2010, consists entirely of bronze castings of branches and twigs, twisted and bent and intertwined so as to stand up on their own, limning positive and negative sculptural space in the process. Named after rivers in Michigan, these sculptures are among the best Erickson has ever done. First of all is the sheer technical aspect of their construction: each element is flawlessly cast with incredible detail and the sculptures are seamlessly put together. But more than that, the work dispenses with the back-to-nature narrative of his earlier diorama-type stuff and simply goes back to the thing itself.

In his artist's statement, Erickson talks about memories of outdoor trips around Michigan -- canoeing, camping, hiking, and such -- that the sculptures are meant to evoke. But rather than simply collecting bits of environmental souvenirs and presenting them as mementos, Erickson takes an intermediate step, casting the material, which in the process obliterates it, leaving but a trace of the fleeting world, and his perception of it, timelessly embodied in metalwork. This turns his production from scavenging into art, fusing the thing with a concept, creating a material-semiotic relation without any expressive overload getting in the way.

Where Erickson's work seeks to arrest contingency, Lerman releases it. Her mixed-medium paintings and constructions present form and content only to subvert it, foregrounding the dependence of meaning on its material apparatus of conveyance (i.e., the medium, which as it turns out is and isn't the message). A perfect example of this is the aptly titled Seeping In, Seeping Out: The Bubble's Inner Circle (2010).  Little striped blobs scattered around the composition could be insects or just a step-and-repeat pattern of surface ornamentation. Slaps and dashes of color could be floral tendrils or simply loose gestures. The entire painting could be read as a still life or perhaps just the push-pull of painterly abstraction. The aspect ratio of the work is square, denying the ability to read it as definitively horizontal (landscape) or vertical (portrait).

In several smaller works, Lerman mixes in kitschy craft materials and found objects in another kind of subversion. Taken out of context, these bits of the broken world lose their original meaning while also short-circuiting conventional artworld systems of signification. With deliriously wacky titles like Mouse Herd (2009) and Cloud Storm Invaders (2010), they evoke a parallel universe where they somehow might make sense, a place where the connection between the thing and the idea, the material-semiotic relation, can be clarified once and for all, while at the same time proclaiming, "Yeah, good luck with that!"

As a yin and yang of aesthetic sensibilities, of ways in which to connect form and content, and thereby establish the material-semiotic relation, this show makes for some pretty satisfying viewing.

"Todd Erickson and Faina Lerman: New Work" runs until October 23 at CCS Center Galleries, located in the Manoogian Visual Resources Center, College for Creative Studies Ford Campus in Detroit (behind the Detroit Institute of Arts). Call 313 664 7800 for information.


  1. ANT=BFD.
    If only I had a PhD! Then I could be free to appreciate and value the material-semiotic relations that connect this mediator to a latent network designed for precision-targeted flinging of s*it in your direction from inside this cage. ;)

    ~Eno Laget

  2. Actually I find it pretty useful. What is an artwork if not a material-semiotic relation, a thing with a meaning? Also ANT doesn't presume to know the answer to the question it's asking as opposed to say formalist aesthetics or orthodox Marxism. It lets the object of study, in this case the artwork, lead the way. And finally is its idea that inanimate objects have agency, that is, an ability to cause an effect. An artwork is a thing with the power to move us.