Santiago Cucullu's take on Easy-E and other topics is hard to figure.

Not So Easy-E 

Santiago Cucullu's take on Easy-E and other topics is hard to figure.

For Santiago Cucullu, disparate ideas and seemingly unrelated things not only are easily stitched together, but also make sense. Rapper Easy-E blends seamlessly with an anarchist library in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and while that pairing may seem idiosyncratic to the viewer, for Cucullu it's a natural fit. Often his aim is to reclaim history's linear authority by restating it on his own terms through his own prism of experiences. By reclaiming history through personal memory and free association, Cucullu deflates notions of hierarchy and authority.

Here's the problem. How do the rest of us make sense of histories and unrelated concepts that may be meaningless to us? Can we know the intricate politics of every country on Earth? No, sharp as we are. So when an artist like Cucullu interprets histories, politics and personal mythologies through unrelated references and ambiguous touchstones, and does it in specifically obscure ways, it can be tough to follow. And when the pieces are so minimal — made of wood and plastic strips — our attention drifts, naturally.

Cucullu was born in 1969 in Buenos Aires, Argentina, and currently lives in Milwaukee, Wisconsin. He is known for his assemblages using everyday material, and particularly for creating large, site-specific installations in which a wall becomes his canvas. This exhibition at Dolphin, while sparse, maintains the theatricality implicit in much of his work. Some of the work is monumental, such as the wall pieces made of adhesive vinyl or contact paper; they have a sort of film-screen fictive imagery and clout. In other pieces, such as "Store Front," Cucullu uses limited materials to create a mise-en-scène. It's composed of a handmade-looking wood door frame; blue plastic strips hang from it, suggesting a portal. It's crude but elicits some intrigue. Similarly, the "Please Love Me Placards (signs for Architecture)," are lowly wood signs painted simply with "please love me."

The giant laser-cut adhesive vinyl "Easy-E Pours Old English on Tatlin's Monument as Agents Examine a Prison Escape Tunnel" is typical of Cucullu's work. Images in a lean semi-realist style, mixed with abstract passages and coupled with the mysterious title, push the work into the territory of existential theater. But it's visually hard to read, and the obscure title is confusing if you don't know the artist's narrative. We might know who Easy-E and Tatlin are, but throw us a bone. Without a larger context in which to place the work and its story, it doesn't make sense. It looks good, though.

And Cucullu's work can be likable in its use of familiar everyday material, its hand-built qualities and concrete workmanship. In "Flipped Houston Script," he worked directly on the wall, cutting out adhesive shelf paper to create a beautiful, curlicued abstract shape. The "wood toned" shelf paper conjures the 1970s, yet seems fresh and perfect for the piece. "Hollow Tree" is perhaps the most beautiful and intimate piece in the exhibition. A simple ink-on-paper drawing, its subject is exactly what the title suggests. Delicate and solemn, the drawing may be a study. Even so, it fits within the exhibition's disparate works, which each hold their own solid territory while adding up to a mostly engaging, if enigmatic, whole.

Johnny Naugahyde has new work on view here as well — seventeen leather pieces comprising the installation New Leather. If you're of a certain vintage, they may have the nostalgic look and feel of the leather goods one used to buy on car trips in such places as Nashville or Wyoming, where small change purses were tooled with decorations and scenes from these picturesque lands. Naugahyde's handiwork may suggest circular questions about craft and what it means, but forget that old conversation and enjoy the hand of the artist. He clearly and rightly takes pleasure in the work and from the jolt of irony in Naugahyde doing leather.

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