REVIEW OF “DIRECTIONALLY CHALLENGED” EXHIBIT BY BOB VAN DER WEGE
By David Parker, Chicago, July 2006
In his master of fine arts degree exhibition, Bob van der Wege presents an impressive body of work engaging with some deeply-felt themes that are thoroughly relevant to contemporary society.
Environmental concern is of central importance for Bob. “Artifact” shows a hollowed tree limb, torqued by nature’s hand, that is suspended as if in an elaborate hospital traction system or trade show display structure – Joni Mitchell’s “Big Yellow Taxi” and its dystopian vision of a future tree museum come to mind. The work raises the thought that we may well be headed for a day when we’ll need all our technological sophistication to preserve the remains of the natural world.
Several of Bob’s works feature the bicycle, itself a vehicle for different intentions. As it requires a sense of balance, the bicycle is an emblem for our troubled times, in which so much is off-kilter. The bicycle demands its rider to by fully aware of and responsible for his/her movement in the world, and impact thereupon. Its simple structure, existing only to facilitate our travel, invites us to project ourselves onto it, and so the bicycle functions as a stand-in for the body. And finally, it holds promise of fantastical escape ( a notion articulated perhaps more loudly by its big brother, the motorcycle).
“A Ride in the Woods” shows four bicycles that have met at a tree and have somehow joined there, each machine’s forward motion arrested in favor of a protective stance. Progress has been halted for the preservation of a tree: indeed the entire ensemble has locked up in a system frozen by nature. For Chicago viewers, this work may invoke “urbs in horto” (city in a garden_, architect Daniel Burnham’s motto for the city aas a site of an ideal and carefully-maintained balance between nature and citizenry.
Bob asks questions about “nature” and “technology”, and provokes thought via hybridization. His “Siamese Schwinns” pushes the manmade into the animal kingdom, as though something at the factory has gone horribly, wonderfully wrong. If mutations in people lead to new possibilities (good or bad), what of similar chance occurrences in the mass- produced object? What happens when the purel-functional vehicle, an extension of the body’s capabilities, takes on the characteristics of the body itself, in all its cellular unprdictability? Bob offers one answr: we get machines that serve no master but themselves and seal us out of the equation, a conclusion that brings us to take another look at the everyday objects in our lives. His “Bipolar Lady” follows this line to engage more directly with the psychological. Two bicycles form divergent planes that meet at a vertex, and the craft is so fine that we imagine axonal linkages, perhaps even the brain atop tis nervous empire. Were one to attempt to ride this contraption, the painful split-leg posture might evoke the mental distress of bipolar sufferes.
Bob takes hybridization further by directly blending nature with machine in “Cycle of Life.” A very recent work, it is an exhortation for stewardship of our planet. A unicycle with its seat replaced by a bonsai stands in perfect but precauious balance. Anyone who has attempted to ride a unicycle knows that is a devilishly tricky device to master. There can be no hands-free coasting as with a bicycle: a moment of inattention and all is lost. Similarly, bonai require daily care and watering, or the drie out in hours. The natural world literally hangs in the balance of a system that we have created. Lack of vigilance means disaster, and it can happen at any second.
Of course, the best-known bicycle (or part thereof ) in 20th century art is likely Duchamp’s “Bicycle Wheel” of 1913, and Bob has created an homage to the master with his “Duchampian Exercycle.” This piece is loaded with references while holding its own as a complete work for America today. A user takes a seat, and see his/her reflection in the side mirrors. Both connect to Duchamp’s work (your image replacing Mona Lisa and framed by Duchamp’s lewd pun regarding her “hot ass”, something to which an exerciser might aspire), and more familiar text in the other mirror regarding things not necessarily being as the seem, a Duchampian perspective for sure. The heart of the work is the graceful, towering system of bicycle wheels, driven by the cranking action of the user. Duchamp’s preoccupation with sex and its energies is evident in the “erect” shape the tower describes, as well as in the cranking action recalling the chocolate grinder of Duchamp’s most famous painting, “The Bride Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors Even, ” widely regarded as an extended exploration of multiple sexual notions. The red powder-coat paint screams California low-rider and caps off Bob’s wry comment on mainstream America’s obsession with body, image, and sexuality. This work fully crosses over into functionality, and on could imagine it in a Nieman Marcus catalog as a pricey fitness device. The piece is Bob’s last major piece in graduate school, as he sets off in search of new horizons on distant shores: if the work in the show is any indication, more surprises are ahead.
David A Parker
David Parker is an artist, writer, and independent curator in Chicago. He has also taught as adjunct art faculty at Northern Illinois University.