Art writing favors easy categorization. “Emerging,” “folk,” “female” and a host of other descriptors serve to neatly group artists. These adjectives, however, can be reductive and distract from the primacy of the work itself.
In his solo show at Swan Coach House Gallery through June 1, BORN, formerly identified as a street artist and the 2012-13 recipient of the Emerging Artist Award from the Forward Arts Foundation, shows that those titles are no longer sufficient to describe his work. The qualifiers fall away, allowing this contemplative body of work to be recognized for its formal properties and confluence of heady themes.
The works created for this exhibition range from a free-standing totem to wall-mounted assemblages and sculptures, all crafted from salvaged wood and metal methodically incised and treated by the artist. The exhibition title, “WABI SABI,” after the Japanese aesthetic of imperfection and impermanence, is in alignment with the weathered nature of the materials. But the most cohesive theme is related to music, specifically the structure of musical instruments.
Two of the nine pieces are titled “Instrument.” One suggests a rusted, weathered mandolin turned inside out. Curvilinear shapes create a frame, with regular pocks and cuts like notes on sheet music or the finger holes on a flute. “KV62,” a sculpture named after the archaeological classification of King Tut’s tomb, looks like a keyboard spliced with a harp, because of the regular lines produced by staining and paint and the crib-like poles of wood in the upper half of the piece.
These works lack strings, or mime them with slats; none is capable of making music. As the show’s title indicates, BORN is not interested in crafting perfect objects or exact representations. Rather than creating utilitarian devices, he has crafted assemblages that focus on the idea of formal harmony by riffing off of the precision and elegance of musical instruments. Such instruments must be perfect, fine-tuned machines to create a pure sound, and they are also wonderful aesthetic objects. “KV62” alludes to the musical instruments found in Egyptian tombs; intended to serve the deceased in the afterlife, they are fascinating for their age, materials and formal properties.
“Nebulous,” the most intriguing piece in the show, successfully connects the theme of musical instruments with a more amorphous system. The precise anatomy of a piano is compared to the flows and channels of weather systems. Shaped like a keyboard on one end with a dustpan-like appendage on the other, the two halves converge at the center. Taut metal strings attached to a brick-red board at the right of the piece graduate into a white cumulus-like covering that leads to a group of white sticks shooting out the left side like rain.
The idea of pianos as man-made melodious machines with temperamental qualities — susceptible to humidity, water damage, rot — easily relates to the rough and worn materials used in BORN’s work. This weathering of materials leads to the furious and uncontrollable nature of storm systems and wind patterns. Though storm systems can be observed and visualized, they cannot be controlled and often leave us at their mercy. BORN asks us to accept our status as helpless and enjoy the impermanence of it all.
Not all the works here are as successful, however. “B,” “O,” “R,” “N,” wooden letters that spell the artist’s name, and “Champion,” a ravaged painting on wood, rely too heavily on their frames for structure. This formal confinement makes these pieces seem trivial in comparison with the more irregularly shaped ones.
As BORN’s work leaves the outmoded monikers of “street art” and “emerging” behind, perhaps traditional gallery formats should be disregarded as well. His best sculptures are self-styled wooden forms that create linear systems that extend from the center out, rather than existing within contrived boundaries.