Jamie Hilder
Shelfed Gallery

Abbas Akhavan
Elizabeth Zvonar
Colleen Brown
Steven Brekelmans
Gabi Dao
Marina Roy

 

I have an ongoing performance project where I get too close to artworks. It began with a Jeff Koons painting, where I was using my little finger to point out how both shiny and flat a section appeared. I was trying to see the section from the side, to understand its depth – or astonishing lack of it – so my face was only a few centimetres from the painting. A guard’s voice addressed me as “sir” and told me to please step back from the painting. It happened again with a James Ensor drawing that I discovered, upon scrutiny, was also a collage. That one was under glass, so I don’t know what the problem was, besides finger- or face-print cleaning. It happened with a Richard Artschwager formica sculpture, except this time it wasn’t a voice but an alarm in the gallery, followed by the chortle of a museum guard after I jumped back. Most recently I was asked to move back to a minimum of “18 inches” from a Matthew Barney sculpture of bronzed water. I feel like there’s something important to see inside those 18 inches, though. If it weren’t for guards, I would have an ongoing practice of looking calmly and actively at artworks from very close up.

So it’s odd to be required to touch artwork. Colleen Brown’s pocket sculptures aren’t made for display. The way they are presented in the box is interesting, and funny, like much of her work. I once stood in front of one of her sculptures and chuckled without knowing why. But the pocket sculptures aren’t at home in the box, or on the shelf. They are made for the active space of pockets, to be admired and probed with fingers, not squinting eyes.

My fingers’ favorites:

Moore---Three-Piece-Sculpture---Vertebrae-1968-9
Henry Moore, Vertebrae (1968-9)

1. The wooden piece that looks like a miniature Henry Moore, with a hole in it. It feels like it has been worked by hands before, made smooth and grooved by repeated nervous rubbing. To participate in that rubbing, to make a surface even smoother by the 1000 grit sandpaper of a fingerprint, is to enact a kind of erosion. Our bodies are mostly water; they move fluidly amongst and over things, taking traces with them. I think of the things in my life that I’ve worn in, or worn out, that I’ve made smooth: jeans and sweatshirts’ elbows; a path in my apartment’s floor, begun by previous tenants but continued by my steps; various tools from various jobs; wooden pencils, though that’s only a memory; various stick-shifts; shoes, with their tales of a pronated gait.

2. The piece of wood that is melded with lead and rubber. One side of the wood is smooth, one side rough with grain, and the lead it is embedded in feels cooler to the touch. The painted portion of the lead is slightly smoother, the acrylic acting like a thin layer of gum or silly putty. The acrylic takes the wear of fingers more than the lead and the wood. I feel like it wouldn’t be long before I would wear through it.

3. The longer sculptures require coat pockets, which means they’re seasonal. The one that looks and feels like a dried apricot on a popsicle stick with soft doll’s hair cascading from it caused me a lot of distress. I was regularly surprised by its texture, the way I would be if – having not purchased or been around dried apricots for some time – I suddenly encountered one in a coat pocket. But I also once carried this sculpture in a coat whose pockets were neither deep nor vertical, and was constantly anxious about snapping it. Despite the sculptures being made for pockets, they still – as purposeful and meaningful objects – require a care not usually paid to keys, coins, phones, wallets, scrap paper, Kleenex, or whatever else pockets are full of. It’s odd forgetting to care about something, then being reminded by touch when I am feeling for something else or trying to warm or still my hands.

The longer sculpture that appears to be a photographer’s shutter trigger terminating in a gum eraser is odd. The eraser catches on pocket fabric, making the body aware of pockets when it otherwise wouldn’t be, and I feel the urge to pick at it. I can remember picking at erasers as a child, particularly those that had split, then rubbing them smooth again, sweeping the hamburger textured remnants off the table with the side of my hand. It makes me nervous having to both activate and care for this object in a pocket.

The putty-knife belongs to the box, I believe, which once held a dissection kit. It’s a rational, mass-produced object, but it doesn’t invite touch in the way that the others do. The handle has been shaped to be slightly twisted, as if it had been used for too long by a hand tensed with the pressures of scientific observation. In a pocket, though, the shiny metal palette seems too delicate. I was afraid it would bend. Perhaps, then, the object appropriately communicates the fear of experimentation, of only being able to  follow a prescribed method of learning.

Colleen-01
Of the remaining sculptures, the rock with the grooves cut into it was the most comforting. Its weight made sure I knew it was there, and I remembered being a child and collecting rocks I found interesting. I miss cherishing rocks, now that I know I can’t possess them, or that they are perhaps more interesting staying where they are. This rock’s grooves point to an amateurish archeology, a counterfeit that carries the wish for another civilization – past, future, or alien – that might have cultural or ritualistic objects that make a specific kind of sense. That sense would be – ideally – less frighteningly deracinated than ours.

The portion of sheepskin jacket mounted on plastic, then Velcroed to the box: I liked it very much, but felt it could become too intimately mine if I carried it too often. I know it is from Colleen’s late father’s jacket, and I think for that reason, I kept a distance. What happens to wool as a liner is different than what happens to wool as a fondling object. It might get tangled and twisted with pocket lint. It might become sweat-felted. If it were mine to keep, I would probably pursue that transformation. But I knew that I would have to return it at some point, and while it is likely that Colleen would have appreciated and celebrated the collaboration, the duty of caring for the work I was borrowing – even if this kind of “care” is conservative (literally and ideologically) – was too strong.

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I have two touch habits that seem relevant. They also seem related to each other, a fact I was unaware of before I started thinking about Colleen’s work. The first is that, whenever I rent a car or spend time driving a newer automatic transmission vehicle, I play with the shifter button on the front of the gearshift. It’s pointless to drive with a hand on the gearshift of an automatic car; it’s a habit I developed while driving a standard. But I do default to that position. While I’m driving or waiting in traffic, I press the gearshift button slightly with my forefinger, and then slowly release in a way that it catches some of the skin of my middle, ring, or little finger, pinching it. It’s never enough of a gap to catch the skin completely, so that I could, without any pressure, stop the button from returning to its resting position. But it is significant enough that it hurts a little. I don’t know why I do it, but I have done it in every car I can remember driving.

My second habit requires a key ring. Since I have had keys, I’ve kept them in my front left pocket. In pants or jacket, they are in there with my phone, a much more recent pocket resident. My wallet lives on the right side. At one point it was in the back, but now it, too, is in the front. When I have my hands in my pockets, my fingers find the key ring, then find an end, where the keys slip on. Holding it between my thumb and forefinger, I press the stiff coiled wire up slightly, so that it sits on top of the complete ring, but doesn’t pass over it. Then, with slight pressure, I touch it to let it spring back. I think it is possible I have done this a million times in my life. My current key ring is quite thin, selected in part to facilitate this habit. But even when I carry keys that aren’t mine, when the rings are thick and sturdy, my fingers insist on trying the same movement. Sometimes I have to insert my thumbnail between the coils to gain purchase.

I wonder now if people notice my key-ring habit, and perhaps imagine it as something different. The front pants pocket as space has that sexualized residue, particularly for men. It also carries the stigma of idleness. I once worked with a housepainter whose nickname was “Pockets,” because the protestant bosses would always catch him at rest, hands in pockets. But pockets are warm, and outside is cold. Pockets – unless they’re too tight – are comfortable, and release hands from the pressures of social inclusion. Hands in pockets express a particular ease, and diminish the odd anxiety of “what to do with your hands.” Pockets are a break, a place of leisure.

For these reasons – tactile, social, neurotic – Colleen’s sculptures are disruptive, in a way that both discomfits and fascinates. They give the viewer – in an expanded sense – something to focus their hands on.