James Woodfill sends his found materials to Rehab, and we get a buzz.

Light Trip 

James Woodfill sends his found materials to Rehab, and we get a buzz.

I love James Woodfill's installations. Built imaginatively into their surroundings, they decorate the landscape quietly, not screaming to be noticed as much as whispering or humming an urban Midwestern song.

Woodfill's work in the city presents a cognitive map of Kansas City. Skyline (2002) sits atop the Sulgrave Condominium Building, a neat display of colors gracefully passing in and out of view so subtly that most Plaza shoppers don't see it. Freight House Signal Project (1997) blends into the Crossroads seamlessly, each light fixture adorning its pole in the parking lot like a forgotten remnant left by the railroad. Pulse (2003), in the stairwells at the parking garage downtown at 11th Street and Oak, drones and buzzes as rows of lights flash on and off — it's a work that pedestrians actually have to walk through. Woodfill's art is personal but public, intimate but distant, inviting the individual in even as it stands off to the side.

In Rehab, his exhibit at the Review Exhibition Space (where he's one of the studio artists), Woodfill combines his past use of plastic and his recent concern with junk metal, giving the show's title a dual meaning: He's revisiting past work while "rehabbing" the materials he has found at storage facilities, junk stores and pawnshops.

It's a giant collection of found objects: Rubbermaid storage boxes, light bulbs, televisions, vintage amplifiers and speakers, lots of beat-up metal shelving. But the individual pieces are arranged neatly, thoughtfully, symmetrically. It's as if the guy is improvising on a theme, all the separate sections and individual pieces forming one unified space, a sort of escapist folk art. Woodfill puts it another way: "I'm trying to take raw materials and build an environment," he tells me. Call it Woodfill's world.

He describes the installation vaguely: "About 15 to 70 pieces" in "four or five groupings ... it's a way of fully activating the space, with movement and sound." The piece is about 60 square feet (the studio space itself is 5,000), with two corridors meeting midway in an approximate "L" shape, and it's not more than 10 feet high. The constant buzz throughout is an alternating current of 60 hertz that's paradoxically intense and soothing.

Entering the space, viewers are faced with what looks like the installation's backside, with exposed wiring for the light bulbs. The entryway is lighted by a bare bulb attached to the top of a tall, yellow, A-shaped ladder. The left row is flanked by stacked Rubbermaid storage boxes, three units high; the top boxes each have one small hole cut in them, and the others have holes the same size projected onto them from behind as lights in the back cycle on and off.

Farther down the left-hand side, two television sets sit side by side on an industrial stand; circles of blue and green mirror the ovals moving across their screens. If viewers wander down the left path, they'll encounter worn, off-white metal shelving units (some with marker writing still visible along their hinges) and more plastic bins, opaque and milky, stacked high and securely tied down with a belt as if to stop them from blowing away or getting knocked down. The other side of the aisle is a little disorienting, with units of two light fixtures glowing dimly and flickering like candlelight. Housed within the metal structures are repeating shapes and angles. The scene is serene and contemplative — a mental rest stop.

My favorite portion is near the end, where another yellow ladder stands. On the right, two televisions show green and black squares racing across the screens like highway lane stripes passing at night. The aisle continues, with small walls built out of more metal shelving and old amplifiers. One amp has the brand name "Harmony," evoking one of the installation's themes: Woodfill presents opposing elements of light and dark, metal and plastic, movement and stillness, asking viewers to reconcile these disparate elements as a harmonious whole.

Punctuating the end of the journey, yet another ladder holds two fluorescent lights twirling slowly at its top; they spin mysteriously in a clockwise direction, casting moving shadows onto the floor. Woodfill has created an artificial world within these four walls, an odd island unto itself.

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