The Mechanics of Futility: Brown and Browning’s Conflict of Interest at High Tide

By Meredith Sellers

 

The gallery feels like a construction site. Or a parking lot. Or perhaps the parking lot of a construction site. It is a sort of continuum between order and chaos. Wires hang taut from the ceiling in three rows, suspending pieces of drywall framed out in aluminum, each holding a photograph pinned with thumbtacks, anchored to the floor by two more wires and a rectangular concrete block. A sheet of aluminum is stretched into a curve with bungee cords across the top of an I-beam constructed from drywall, as it leans against the wall at a nearly impossible angle. On another end of the gallery, an I-beam made of chipboard is propped on a piece of wood like a seesaw. A stack of cinder blocks is connected to another bungee that grips the handle of a broken shovel, secured to the I-beam by a single clamp. By the door, a few arrows are embedded in the wall, shot across the gallery with a crossbow. It’s a precarious situation.

The works are part of Conflict of Interest by Brown and Browning at High Tide, co-curated with Leks Kamihira. Brown and Browning are Everett Brown and Rachel Browning, two graduates of Cooper Union who have been making site-specific collaborative works together since 2012. Rather than hang the photographs on the wall and fill the floor with sculptures as might be expected, Brown and Browning call attention to the construct of the white cube gallery by making the photographs into objects that you are forced to navigate around, and leaning the sculptures against the walls. The photos are beautiful, saturated with color, depicting either a lush forest, or the kind of blighted beauty of an urban street, but each contains an intervention – a sculpture tenuously anchored to the landscape. This set of sculptures are tension-based constructions of everyday materials like plywood, rope, bricks, ladders, cinderblocks, buckets, sticks, clamps, and netting. Described as animal traps, the sculptures curiously lack bait, and seem more likely to maim an unsuspecting Homo sapiens than to lure an animal.

The photographed works are temporal, existing in their physical form for a few brief moments, just enough time to document them before deconstructing. Created over the span of several months between New York City, Philadelphia, Baltimore, and Chattanooga, Tennessee, the photographs of these installations impart an absurdist humor. One depicts an ordered street with the monotonous bricks and rigidly corrugated siding of a building, a roll up door, a streetlight with street signs, and a fire hydrant. On the sidewalk in front of it, a metal rod is propped at an angle jutting out from the fire hydrant. A thin plank of wood extends from the base of the streetlight, supporting the rod. A second plank is strapped to the streetlight with a yellow ratchet strap, and curves down to meet the rod at a nearly 90-degree angle, anchored by a bright blue broken shovel handle. The installation imposes a kind of new geometry on the landscape in the form of a kludgy and feckless contraption.

The dysfunctional ineptitude of the traps is intriguing. The hasty but well-engineered construction of the objects suggests a care and calculation, a madness in the vein of a Looney Tunes villain. If in the photographs the implied violence is humorous and quirky, in the gallery the physicality of the sculptures is threatening and anxious. A rope could break, a piece of wood might snap, clamp may loosen, and the entire thing would come crashing down in an instant. Tension is high, each step potentially perilous. The press release for the show quotes an anecdote from Agnes Martin found in her monograph Paintings, Writings, Remembrances. She discusses shooting squirrels who are eating the vegetables she’s growing in her garden. “I’ve learned from them what an enemy truly is – it’s a conflict of interest – they don’t mean me harm and vice versa, but we have a conflict of interest and I have to kill them. I don’t find that terrible do you? Why should we evade the truth – there is no such thing as non-violence. We teach children to be non-violent and it’s not the truth. Violence is a part of life and it must be faced.”

Violence, for Brown and Browning, takes on the form not of a knife or a gun, but rather the materials of building, of structure, of productive, utilitarian use. “Refuse of our built environment,” as Rachel Browning puts it. Violence is as quotidian, as boring, as common as these materials, readily purchased from your nearest Home Depot. Browning said, “I’m interested in the meaning of a tool. If you use a shovel to kill a man, does the shovel change? Do all shovels change? If you use a gun as a bud vase does the gun change?” There is a Duchampian complexity in these questions, which immediately put me in mind of “In Advance of the Broken Arm,” the 1915 Duchamp readymade that is a simple snow shovel suspended from the ceiling, but functions as a thought experiment in object association. Like some of Duchamp’s other works, such as the chocolate grinder, Brown and Browning’s work shows a fixation on the machine, the inveterate metaphor for capitalist production – in their case stripped down to its barest form of a handful of objects weighted by tension and gravity.

What is the use-value of a sculpture, of a trap that doesn’t trap? These primitive mechanizations are an exercise in what Brown and Browning call “utility/futility.” The sculptures are clumsy killing machines, testing the limits of the materials they’re constructed from, as well as the wariness of the viewer. They are the existential embodiment of the question all artists find themselves facing at moments of doubt – what is the purpose of this object?

 


Meredith Sellers is an artist, writer, and educator living and working in Philadelphia. She is an editor for Title Magazine, a freelance art writer for Hyperallergic, and works at the Mütter Museum as the Arts Coordinator for Center for Education and Public Initiatives. She has exhibited her work at ICA Philadelphia, Lord Ludd Gallery, and Vox Populi, among others. Sellers has worked as a guest lecturer at the University of Pennsylvania, Temple University, Moore College of Art and Fleisher Art Memorial; teaching for the City of Philadelphia Mural Arts Program and the Free Library of Philadelphia.