“You Got a Line; I Got a Pole,” The New Orleans Art Review

You Got a Line; I Got a Pole


Installations emerged from Pop Art means of removing art from the two dimensional space of illusion into the three dimensional space of the natural world. It had long existed in popular form as Saint Joseph altars, Mardi Gras floats, and church retablos. Traditional categories that considered two-dimensional art as painting and all else as some form of sculpture were defied in the process. The viewer could no longer stand at the distance of the voyeur who transforms art into the object of desire to he experienced through aesthetic sensation or the artifact to be interpreted. This defiance of conventional taxonomies now demanded that we respond to the work as part of our experience and could even be extended to the transformation of the viewer into a performer.

We can now become participants in the work. Our subjective responses transform our role into that of a co-creator. For the artist the possibilities of expression were extended to include new materials, ideas, an media that contribute their own character to the experience. The artist can proceed with no limitations beyond the necessity of making the installation “work”. He must succeed in involving the viewer, us, as a participant beyond that of the passive observer. At the same time the viewer must bring with her a willing suspension of disbelief if she is to become a participant and creator.

The two installations now at the Contemporary Arts Center represent two methods of composing an installation piece. Steve Rucker’s Fish Farm Blues is a simulation of a memory where the viewer stands beyond the space of the installation, walks around it, even going outside from where it can be seen through windows on the street. It is only from this outside place that the scale difference makes its sense known.

Fish Farm Blues includes musical references to Southern blues we are told. It took several minutes before I realized where I stood in relation to what I was seeing. I had eaten from the side of the mushrooms that the hookah-smoking caterpillar had warned Alice would make her smaller. But I did not remember saying the “Magic words of pooh pooh piffles, make me just as small as Sniffles.” With a sudden shift in scale, I was now standing on the bottom of a fish farm pond. A large school of some of the most interesting fish I had ever seen was darting about along the bottom, swirling about like the breath of the blues harp man exhaled and inhaled through the reeds of his music machine. One large group swam from left to right, another from far wall to near, the way a school of fish or a crowd of kids leaving at the end of spring school most naturally do.

At this point I became caught up in the scene even thought I could hear muffled conversations from the reception desk across the floor behind me like muted words hear while swimming underwater at the crowded summer swimming pool. The few pedestrians passing by outside the windows and the cars driving down the street did not distract my mind but were only noted in passing. This experience reminded me of nothing so much as painting by Richard Dadd that I had just shown in class earlier that day, The Fairy Feller’s Masterstroke. The scene of a woodchopper preparing to split open a hazelnut with his broad axe included figures of Titania and Oberon from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream along with assorted elves and fairies and a trumpet-sounding grasshopper. We see them standing in their cramped and narrow space through the long stems and bearded heads of Timothy grass in the foreground. The effect of this surrealistic scene painted before Freud was even ten years old, let alone surrealism itself, was magnified by the almost photorealistic manner of the early Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood style.

Ruckers installations achieves its effects in a somewhat different way and that may be due the fact that Dadd was considered insane while Rucker is not. Dadd had believed that devils were persecuting him before the murdered his father, a feat wich earned him lifetime passage in the infamous work. Bedlam where he painted this work. One might argue that working in a university, and living in Louisiana and New Orleans is not that much different but that would be the subject for another essay. We have already digressed perhaps too much. Rucker has created such a monumental scale that distractions do not distract. This is a totally different feat that perhaps reflects the communal nature of the work made with the assistance of art student help.

The effective scale of this installation piece is defined by the large red and white plastic bobbers suspended just below the ceiling. Anyone who has ever visited the fishing tackle section in a local sporting good store or the small bait store near one’s favorite fishing hole will recognize them. They are held in one hand with index and middle finger as the thumb pushes on the plastic cylinder, extending the small wire hook on the other side which is hooked over the fishing line at just the right distance from the hook end of the line. Do you remember how you had to move it several times so that the bobber would stand upright? That was one of the major problems of my childhood years. Almost as difficult a problem as playing a slide trombone. These bobbers play the same role in the piece in defining its relation to the viewer. Without them we would he looking across and down on the schooling fish from the position of the distant and dominating voyeur.

Attached to the lines hanging down are round split shot sinkers, the most affordable kind. These are the old, original design with the split that could be opened by pressing thumb and forefinger together at each end of the cut. After carefully placing it at the best distance hook and bobber, the two sides are pressed together to secure it on the line. I remember when we tried to make our own the way they made shot from towers by carefully dropping small amounts and allowing them to fall to the ground. The laws of physics were supposed to shape them before they hit the ground. My friend Blaine and I only succeeded in spilling molten lead on my mother’s canning stove and clogging its gas jets while simultaneously streaking the side of our newly painted house, and breaking the beautiful little Japanese vase filled with violets and lilies of the valley that my mother had been given by her mother. The real problem with those split shots was to have enough weight to make the bobber stand up straight without sinking below the water line. Of course, when they started making the shot with little tabs, the opening of them was easier but you still had to use your teeth to close it just right. From the end of the line a large hook rests on the ground.

These personal reminiscences are interwoven with art historical memories in this experience of the Fish Farm Blues, or maybe we should say Fish Farm Bottom Blues. Calder’s circus comes to mind. This playful mind converted from children’s toymaker to Surrealist created many inventive shapes that are the ancestors, to my mind, of Steve Rucker’s work. These were the Surrealists who explored the enigmas of mind that ranged from the carnival critters of Miro to the paranoic visions of Dalí. The change in scale that was so apparent in Dadd was perhaps even more startling in Oldenburg”s Neo-Dada Pop Art works. Toothpaste tubes as large as men were carried down New York City streets. Icons of popular culture, those objects that represent some of our most widely held values in the modern world, were translated into new materials and gigantic scale. Soft vinyl automobile engines hung like half pulled taffy from their suspending strings. A gigantic clothespin or lipstick tube might rise like a skyscraper into the air as we are reminded of the great significance of the commonplace. Ke Francis, too, comes to mind with his large Southern folklore rooms inspired by the heart of popular culture in the U.S.A. lf not the world, Elvistown.

Childhood memories of fishing trips are translated into installation form through which the viewer can weave their own. Nine piles of white stone chips define a rhythmic bass. Long florescent tubes supply a humming monotone melody of light in reversing the illumination to a fish-eye view. Long reeds grow from black, yellow, red, green and blue ceramic roots. A large two foot harp suggests the solo sounds of the Fish Farm Harp Blues. Colorful ceramic fish with heads and tails connected with barbed wire spines swim-walk above on the farm pond floor. Like dorsal fins rising into the watery air, long wood stakes, bias cut and painted with stripes alternating black and white form rhythmic patterns echoing the swimming movements of the fish. From their ends extends a long looped rod holding a mirrored triangle in a colorful ceramic fist that matches the roots below. Like a school of fish flowing, swirling, turning, veering like the breathing music of the blues harp blues, the harmonica plays the Fish Farm Blues. Melodies are but another form of memories in the fishing stream of consciousness that forms our individual identity. I will be humming the tune of this installation for quite some time.

The other installation piece by Mitchell Gaudet has been placed in the comer space of the CAC. Gaudet too has drawn on his background of New Orleans Mardi Gras and the Southern Gothic woven with his most recent personal art history. The pieces include, as describes in the brief artist’s statement, a recycled 1992 CAC work, another from the Arthur Roger Gallery, and the beginning pieces of his next work using cast iron fire place frames from old New Orleans homes. There are twelve of these hanging on a wall in various states of rust, corrosion, and dirty, rusted and worn away paint.

A well-worn church pew is placed against the adjacent wall. Fifty-eight light to medium blue cast glass tomb shapes are lined up along the bench. They are shaped like the large decomposing that seams to be the central focus of the space. This large form is about eight feet high, two feet wide, and nine feet long, a large sheet metal, shape standing, on a two-tiered base. Patched together sheets of metal are heavily corroded with rust and the wooden frame of the base is breaking apart. Bits of dried vines and accumulations of dirt and rust complete the effect of moldering decay. An eight foot long nailed sheet horn is suspended above the floor. Its beaten surfaces, folded edges, and rusty nails representing the artist’s careful craft.

This conflation brings together the artist’s and New Orleans history, those huge installations we called cemeteries and private homes before they got another name. What I find most interesting though are the cast glass pieces that remind me of the souvenirs that tourists buy as memories of their visits here. I wonder what the work involving fireplaces will be? lt is good to have Louisiana artists to see.