Civilization and its Malcontents

The atmosphere inside Bridgeport Art Gallery’s fourth floor showroom was disconcertingly upbeat for an exhibit titled “Anxious Object.” Guests bounced from sculpture to sculpture at the opening reception, nibbling on chunks of cheese and sipping cups of wine as they gawked and gabbed. The exhibit features the work of eight different artists whose sculptures, while made out of driftwood, oil barrels, and other bits of what is ostensibly trash, are meant to raise powerful questions of the nature of art and the politics of our time.

The artists themselves, identified by the stickers on their shirts, moved around the space, interacting with patrons. Sharon Gilmore’s works lined the wall at the far right of the gallery space. Brass met copper met shells in her chimerical creatures, all arranged to appear to be breaching the edge of the white wall in lieu of a sea.

In contrast to the bold lines of her work, Gilmore herself was a study in subtlety, from her close-cropped white hair to her thick black turtleneck. Soft-spoken and slight, she hovered around her works, discussing the inspiration she found in Native American spirituality and the surprises that come from working with found objects. Though her collection had an oceanic theme, she hadn’t intentionally set out to do so; “I usually use birds instead of fish, but these seemed to work.”

Incorporating found objects could be uncomfortable in some ways, she realized. One piece incorporated the shards of a blue bottle. When the pieces she had on hand proved insufficient, Gilmore found herself trolling liquor stores for bottles on a Sunday morning. “I explained to the clerk what I needed it for, and she looked at me like, ‘sure, lady,'” Gilmore said, and shrugged.

Past Gilmore, Matt Runfola, his blue jeans embodying the casual mood, declared the superiority of his art over Mike Helbing’s. “Yours doesn’t even work,” he said, pointing to Helbing’s unplugged fountain, then, glancing at my notebook and grinning he announced, “Don’t write that down.”

Both Helbing and Runfola work with metal, though with different types. Runfola’s contribution to the show, a twenty-two piece series titled “self-absorption,” used denser, darker steel, with vaguely humanoid figures arranged so that their featureless faces never look at each other. Helbing, on the other hand, takes a more playful approach, and tends to use shinier metals.

“I like stainless steel,” he said, raising one pointed eyebrow in the direction of a fountain made primarily of silverware. “It doesn’t go away unless someone steals it.”

Not all the sculptures were metal. Rita Grendze worked entirely with books, including a pile of paint-spattered tomes in various languages and a line of books attached along an entire wall, those at the right closed and tied shut and those to the left coverless and spineless, reduced to collections of pages scattering upwards to the ceiling. Lisa Lima’s works, in the far corner, used thread and cloth to make delicate organic shapes. Sara Barnhart Fields incorporated the remains of a chair into her female figure. The chair was adorned with painted rainbow knee socks that cheerfully clashed with the diamond-patterned socks Fields herself sported.

The most blatantly political of the works were the plastic bag creations of Mary Ellen Croteau. “I want to make people think about plastic,” she said, pointing to the 227-foot long braid of plastic bags she had found just in her home. She had been told that the pile of plastic bags at the braid’s roots made her work look messy.

“That’s kind of the point! Plastic’s made out of petroleum. That’s why we’re going to Iraq to kill people, so we can have oil to throw away.” She paused in her emphatic hand gestures to glance sheepishly at the plastic cup in her hand. “We don’t even think about it.”

The objects of the exhibit title–weird to whimsical to wry–were on full display, but the anxiety was somewhat lacking. While many of the works were intended to create unease, many others celebrated the bizarre union of artist intention and serendipitous discovery. Helbing gestured to his giant turtle-shaped fountain made from half the bowl of a steam cooker. “I couldn’t make that by myself. It evolved in the making.”

Bridgeport Art Center, 1200 W. 35th St. Hours vary. Through December 21. Free. (773)247-3000. bridgeportart.com