'Keith Edmier 1991–2007' at the Center for Curatorial Studies at Bard College

Lyra Kilston

Tags: New York, Review

Reviews / 17.01.2008
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'I confess I do not believe in time,' wrote Nabokov in his autobiography Speak, Memory, which describes a childhood filled with unresolved longings and impressions, so intricately recalled that almost no lapse is apparent between the author and his younger self. Similar chronological play and obsessive backwards glances come to mind upon viewing the exhibition 'Keith Edmier 1991-2007', a show so anchored in the artist's youthful earnestness that I could almost smell nervous 12-year-old boy sweat in the pristine galleries. Although, considering Edmier's subject matter and 1970s Midwest childhood, perhaps it's more appropriate to invoke the nostalgia in heartland rock songs like Bruce Springsteen's 'Glory Days' or Bryan Adams's 'Summer of '69'. Either the wistful or anthem-belting will do, really, to sum up the New York-based artist's largest survey to date.

Keith Edmier, Victoria Regia (First Night Bloom), 1998, polyester resin, silicone rubber, dental acrylic, acrylic paint, polyurethane, pollen and steel, 284 x 325 x 338cm

While working as a dental assistant and a special effects designer for horror and science fiction movies, Edmier gained expertise in casting dental acrylic, polyurethane, and silicon, labor-intensive processes whose results range from a crude, wax-like surface, to the smooth opacity of glass. His sculptures, like those of Robert Gober or Charles Ray, are figurative and mostly scale replicas of existing objects, laden with heady metaphor. Throughout this survey, an aesthetic of kitsch reigns, with Edmier's work awkwardly toeing the line between contagious ardor and off-putting sentimentality. Over 35 sculptures and installations brim with his trademark remembrance of things past, including cast flowers (the memorial plant of choice), seahorses, family members, childhood heroes, and other familiar objects;Beverly Edmier 1967 (1998) depicts his pregnant mother clad in Jackie O's pink Chanel suit, with the artist visible in utero through translucent rose-colored plastic.

Like Matthew Barney, who he worked for in the 1990s, Edmier is interested in the mechanics of reproductive systems and reversed gender roles. In his moldmaking and casting processes, sexual anatomy is echoed as penetrating parts of the mold end up casting cavities, and hollows become protrusions. While Barney honed in on the cremaster muscle, Edmier looks to seahorses (the males give birth) and flowers that procreate asexually, like the primordial-looking black and yellow flower depicted inCycas Orgeny (2003-04). But while one never doubts Barney's serious (if baffling) intentions, Edmier's subjects are usually couched in irony and pop culture, which, combined with their often slick, cartoonish surface (for example, Sunflower [1996] looms fantastically tall and seems crudely sculpted from Play-Doh), makes it hard to take what are described as profoundly personal works very seriously. Lightness is fine, but the conflation of real sentiment and kitsch humor can also cancel each other out, as they sometimes do here. On the other hand, if one's attachment and nostalgia are for a moment that was itself kitschy, as in Edmier's case, perhaps it's a different story, and the tacky and the poignant entwine seamlessly. We can't all reminisce about precious childhoods in the Russian countryside, after all. For Bryan Adams, it's his 'old six-string', for Edmier, it's about watching Evel Knievel on TV.

Edmier's most recent work, Bremen Towne(2006-07) is an impressive life-size recreation of the interior of his autumnal-hued childhood home in 1970s suburban Chicago. From flocked black and gold wallpaper to patterned linoleum and faux-jeweled light fixtures, each detail is exact, and wandering through the low-ceilinged mustard-colored kitchen and earth-toned living room is effectively transporting. Working from family snapshots, Edmier commissioned replicas of several art posters that had hung on the walls-images of Picasso, Dali, and Renoir paintings share domestic space with an extra-large, extra-corny wooden fork-and-spoon kitchen decoration, and one can imagine that Renoir's feathery portrait of a young girl was equally significant to the young Edmier's developing aesthetic as the campy shag carpet on the floor. By recreating the pristine newness of the freshly decorated home, and not including the daily detritus his family would soon generate, Bremen Towne evocatively functions as an empty vessel for the accumulation of memories, which is, on some level, the definition of a house.

Celebrities also play a central role in Edmier's reminiscences: Farrah Fawcett, Janis Joplin, Evel Knievel, John Lennon, and others whose tragic deaths or thrilling figures impressed themselves on the young artist become a kind of screen for his projected yearnings and awe. In Frank Veteran 1980 (2001-04), a tape player Edmier has coated with pink cast polyurethane plays Dr. Frank Veteran's moving account of failing to revive Lennon after he was shot, and the list of materials for the work includes human blood. Some of Edmier's flower sculptures are also described to contain pollen or ash. Such flirtations with organic materials conjure the sentimental works of Dario Robleto, who also includes surprising elements in his mixed-media sculptures (pulverized wisdom teeth, for example). Both attempt to induce emotional responses through unseen materials, yet the gesture easily becomes mawkish, and in Edmier's case the ingredients fail to deliver the emotional resonance they may hold for him. Are they attempts at universality? Is the human blood supposed to be our own? The danger with nostalgia is that it hovers delicately between a shared language and something so deeply personal that its translation is easily doomed to failure. Despite the impressive exactitude of Edmier's many large and intricate cast sculptures, the work that struck me most was the humblest and homeliest. Untitled (1992) is a small, misshapen piecrust made out of melted blue crayons. Here, in the finger-made indentations along the ridge of the waxy, slightly lopsided circle, a profound longing is emitted, ragged, imperfect, and somehow, at last translated.

- Lyra Kilston