A Minute is Just a Little Night at Mad Art Gallery

An enormous and strapping husky in a hot wooly coat was attending the gallery. As I took inventory of the artworks that clung to the perimeter of the room, his wild black eyes regarded me cautiously from just outside the double wide glass doors leading to the gallery floor. His tongue dangled boorishly from his powerful jowls, doubtless a masquerade of false stupidity, a front that dared me to step one toe out of line, because his ears were fuzzy triangles and his eyes were sharp. He heard and saw everything.

I came to see Mad Art Gallery’s latest exhibition, A Minute is Just a Little Night, which opened July 11th and brought together a trio of St. Louis-based artists—John Early, Tuan Nguyen, and Daniel Stumeier. Standing not too near the canine, I took it all in from the vantage point of the doorway. I saw a well-ordered, and mathematically curated arrangement of objects and installations. The gallery was hollow, the artwork drawn magnetically to the room’s three walls not occupied by a stage.

I moved clockwise through the room and was met by a wooden side table with two folded-in leaves. One of the table’s drawers had been pulled wide open, the appendage threatening to topple to the floor under the weight of the object inside. The inhabitant was a fat slab of wood shaped about like the head of The Scream. Carved into its middle was a small black crater coated in graphite, dirty and glittering. The gallery placard described one of Nguyen’s sculptures—Hole, pencil on wood, 2014, $200. Four variations of the amorphous Hole hung on the wall a few feet away. Atop the table sat Early’s Rainbow Train Track, two strands of yarn cross-stitched horizontally across the middle of a framed canvas. A royal blue line stops when it meets a sunny yellow one, forming a horizon line across a beige landscape. I am struck by its similarity to the opening chapter in Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five in which the narrator uses his daughter’s crayons, “a different color for each main character,” to doodle in a colorful wax stripe a gripping narrative of WWII, loss, destruction, being and time on the back of a roll of wallpaper. Above and to the right of this curious arrangement was Stumeier’s Pink Towel, which is exactly what you think it is, torn, stained, and tacked to the wall.

Several of Nguyen’s sculptures stood conspicuously in front of electrical sockets and were dressed in heavy graphite coats. Against the far wall was a series of floor-dwelling objects lined up in a row and molded into a cone, a ball, a square-ish bump. The arrangement might have been a narrative, and each object could have been morphing into the next, as the numerically progressing title suggests, but that conclusion alone is too easy. Nguyen lined them up against one wall using the room’s electrical sockets as units of distance. The objects in front of the sockets had either the possibility for activation, or else were tiny actors portraying the grumpy black remains of an electrical shock. Excluding Apple (sawdust, gesso, paint), a rotting, papier-mâché-like half-eaten fruit, they were all coated in graphite, twinkling in black eclipse. Graphite is the elemental identical twin of diamond, but the stuff of pencils is the far commoner sibling. It’s possible that Nguyen’s veiled objects are at least partly an effort to bring the viewer at once to the 2D drawing plane and the 3D sculptural plane, and it wouldn’t be the only time an artist has chosen graphite as a symbolic sculptural device (see graphite-enthusiast Diana Shpungin).

Each artwork was labeled and priced individually, but the products of one artist socialized with those of the others—they touched, looked each other up and down, conversed—so it soon became a private game of guessing whose work was whose:

A shrewd eye was sometimes necessary to tell a Stumeier from an Early. Like Vonnegut, each of these artists had apparently siphoned off the majority of an arts and crafts supply box from some unsuspecting child—a couple of sticky markers during naptime, a spool of scratchy red yarn when little so-and-so turned his back to sip from a juice box. In First “a”, Early presents a cross-stitched replica of his son’s first interpretation of the capital letter “A”. The character leans dangerously on its left side, is drawn with all the steadiness of a seismograph, and is a weirdly endearing effort on the part of this father-son team. Surely many homes that radiate down the block to the left and right side of that place where Early is a husband and father are treasure troves of construction papers inscribed with the letter “A” again and again and again. Daddys save things that the child has made and touched. My own parents, proud, sentimental, goo-prone have a collection of Valentine’s Day cards stuck in cookbooks, frightening smeary Crayola drawings archived in Rubbermaid tubs on the top shelves of closets in bedrooms-turned-guest-rooms. But then there are Dads, probably those who are artists, who take saving a step further, and savor the banal items touched by the center of their universe. Early’s cross-stitched canvases are strangely nostalgic; they are moments of nostalgia before its time, objects immediately and perpetually nostalgic for a child not yet grown old. Stumeier’s Low Places 1-6, a series of framed legal pads, seem to echo Early’s plagiarisms of his own child’s work, but the inspiration behind Stumeier’s child-like scribbles is anonymous. Others of Early’s sculptures, Untitled (cairns) (colorful, plastic tiered cakes that reference this popular children’s toy), Secondary Color (orange ball), and Boomerang Box, are an appreciated break from the aching cross-stitched canvases; these sculptures are like toys, they play along.

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