Condensed Milk

Danh Vo says, “I’m not so much concerned about things; I try not to categorize myself.” The audience nods, “mhhmm-ing” and smiling. It is, in a way, endearing. Vo sits on the stage, his legs crossed, wearing a grey shirt, charcoal blazer and white shoes that look more like socks. A coy smile flashes over his face, quickly replaced with a nonchalant, distant stare. But Hamza Walker of the Renaissance Society, the most-pitied man in the Oriental Institute’s Breasted Hall, pushes onward, trying to lead a self-aware stubborn show-pony to jump through the hoops of explanation.

Vo is, more or less, a genius. He has perturbed this room full of eager art patrons, lipstick swathed donors, and contemporary art critics into a gradual sense of appreciation and admiration. After hovering over a cluster of rusted animal traps, which Vo purposefully scattered on the Renaissance Society floor as a mosaic of teeth, chains, and hooks, his audience wants to know what it all means.

“I think, and something plops out of it,” Vo says. This ‘plopping’ ranges wildly, from a poster-like photo of the back of a young boy to a set of stacked copper bricks. The Renaissance Society feels empty; the pieces Vo presents as part of “Uterus” are sparse. The densest area of the Society’s gallery space is the entrance: the mini-hallway features several backlit displays of one-page watermarked letters to and from Henry Kissinger, most dated around 1970.

Walker puts it best: “The works are series of puzzle pieces, pieces of different puzzles.” It is a challenge to reconcile the ever-present ‘art versus artifact’ mood that weighs on the space. Even the poster advertising the show becomes a piece of art. The poster is printed on a faux-newspaper, which include Vo’s grandmother’s obituary. “The obit was not art until it was reproduced for the invitation. It was defined by a past life,” Walker explains.

Among the other curiosities is a tuft of blond hair, sewn in a strip to look like a hairpiece. “Blonde untreated hair is the best measure of humidity,” Vo says, explaining his fascination with blonde hair. “I was paying my nieces and nephews $100 to get their classmates’ blonde hair. I would pay them by the centimeter. These small girls, they like money… but they also like their blonde hair, you know?  So it was an interesting thing to see how much I paid per centimeter.” It is one of the few explanations he offers to the crowd.

Vo’s projects have not always been ‘successful’ on the first attempt. After creating a copper sculpture for a commissioner who was unsatisfied with the end result, Vo melted the metal into trapezoidal bricks, relishing the idea of reusing the substance and redeeming a blunder. “We made some mistakes. I made some mistakes,” he  admits. The solid copper bricks shine a subtle prism of colors. Vo explains, “Melted copper is very beautiful and rare, because it is so sensitive to heat.”

If “Uterus” confuses the cohesion-obsessed viewer, it is in large part because Vo utilizes the full spectrum of media: copper, photography, found objects, plastic, wood, artifacts, and prose. When Walker questions this diversity, Vo retorts, “I was never interested in presenting myself as a unified thing who presents a unified thing. As human beings, we are with differences.”

Unable to argue with such defenses, Walker lets Vo explain the­ colorful corrugated cardboard box that once housed Gordon’s Gin, and another that once held a can of condensed milk, both of which are set in a tucked away corner of the gallery. Vo explains, “I have an attraction to condensed milk.” Walker leaves it at that.

The Renaissance Society, 5811 S. Ellis Ave. Through December 16. Tuesday – Friday, 10am-5pm; Saturday-Sunday: 12-5pm. (773) 702-8670. renaissancesociety.org