by David M. Roth
The title of Ann Weber’s current exhibition, Happiest Days of Our Lives, will likely turn some heads. Or, at the very least, leave people scratching their heads, as it appears to run counter to what many of us feel about the current political crisis. Turns out, Weber borrowed the title from a track that appears on Pink Floyd’s 1979 album The Wall, a rock opera about an alienated musician. Her motivation? “Being an optimist,” she explains in a video “is a radical idea because…people have lost sight of…what art and living a positive life” can achieve, adding that, as a Midwesterner (who five years ago relocated to LA after 30 years in the Bay Area), she maintains “a very positive outlook.”
How that squares with the song itself is unclear. Read the lyrics and you learn that it is about a sadistic schoolmaster and his equally cruel wife, a fact that ought to give pause to anyone inclined to take titles at face value! Be that as it may, the exhibition elicits an ecstatic response, calling to mind an early encounter I had with the artist’s work at Montalvo Arts Center in Saratoga. There, in 2010, she installed several large pod-shaped pieces outdoors that looked like soft-landed space capsules. Situated on the great lawn of that Italianate estate, they were an arresting and incongruous sight.
So are the 12 sculptures that comprise this exhibition. All but one are made from cardboard boxes salvaged from retail outlets, and the resulting sculptures rank among the artist’s most exuberant and fanciful creations to date. As before, her primary tools are a box cutter and a staple gun. The first she uses to slice cardboard into strips, the second to affix the pieces to hidden armatures (also cardboard), which provide shape and support for the outlandish forms being articulated. Apart from coating the surfaces with polyurethane to keep the material from deteriorating, Weber does nothing to disguise where it came from: Vestiges of corporate logos, their telltale color schemes and cryptic barcodes remain intact, a feature that may have prompted some early critics to incorrectly brand her work as “eco-art,” a comment, perhaps, on the perils of our throwaway consumer culture. For me, at least, that association never held much sway. More relevant connections, were you to make them, would be to sculptors (Brancusi, Jean Arp, Henry Moore, Noguchi) and to 20th-century architects like Oscar Niemeyer and his descendants. Another obvious touchstone, given Weber’s methods, would be Arte Povera; yet there’s little in this work that feels impoverished or provisional. Her sculptures, despite their gawky, protuberant features, are elegant and impeccably crafted: high Modernism reformulated as riotous abstract figuration.
The works in this show, both freestanding and wall-mounted, expand on themes that Weber first explored in an earlier series called Personages. The first, which stand six to eight feet tall, allude to bodies, human and animal. They feature bulbous, pillowy shapes, see-through holes and sharp protrusions, and are designed to stand alone or connect modularly, in dyads or in an interlocking group of eight “figures,” collectively titled Gothic on Grand. (During my visit I saw them arrayed both ways and noted that despite their stature and apparent mass, gallery assistants were able to move them around effortlessly, indicating a weight of no more than a few pounds each — if that.) What’s new is that they are displayed with similarly conceived wall works that, when conjoined, stretch up to 25 feet in length. Viewing the freestanding works against these “backdrops” turns the show into a full-on theatrical experience, one that is substantially enhanced by artist’s adoption of a vastly expanded palette. Where Weber once stuck mainly to earth tones, she now employs a much wider range of colors. They form bold geometric patterns that invest the work with a jazzy, graffiti-like feel that is every bit as dazzling as the shapes they help define.
Other aspects of the artist’s MO, such as her penchant for weaving cardboard in a way that resembles basketry, remain unchanged. There is, however, one recent innovation worth noting: Weber has taken to stapling together hundreds of tiny cardboard shards, which, when piled up in layers, yield frenzied visual polyrhythms that may remind you of Merz, the Dada-inspired abstract collages Kurt Schwitters made in the 1920s. It lends added visual excitement to several of the wall-mounted pieces.
Weber began her career making functional pottery in New York. The endeavor made for a successful business, but it left her unfulfilled. So, at age 35 she moved west and enrolled at what was then California College of Arts and Crafts (now CCA) where she studied ceramic sculpture with Viola Frey from whom she learned techniques for building big objects. Cardboard provided a sought-after breakthrough; it enabled her to find both her artistic voice and a way to circumvent the size constraints imposed by clay.
Selecting highlights from this exhibition would be an arbitrary exercise since what we are looking at are essentially component parts, each designed to function as part of a larger, integrated project. The only exception is a bronze-cast version of a work from the Personages series. It stands in an anteroom adjacent to the gallery’s storage area and consists of two columnar shapes. One is mélange of snaky, pregnant bulges. The other, an hourglass-shaped column, holds in suspension a group of fungi-like forms resembling those that sprout from tree trunks. The two stand side-by-side as if engaged in conversation. The relative absence of color and the sheer weight of the piece invite a purer kind of contemplation than do the cardboard works. Shorn of the retina-tingling features that define the cardboard pieces, it focuses our attention on the basic elements of form, space and volume, suggesting, however obliquely, that it might be possible for unalike beings to communicate and find common ground. Whether that equates to happiness, I can’t say. But it’s a start. Whatever ills may be plaguing the world, the exhibition makes clear that Weber, at least, is enjoying some of the happiest days of her life.