Down and Dirty at Duck Creek Arts

Installation view, photo courtesy of Gary Mamay

Down and Dirty, recent works by Bonnie Rychlak and Jeanne Silverthorne on view at Duck Creek Arts in East Hampton, NY, is a vaudevillian collection of subtly crafted works that tickle our collective psyche. The narrative of banal objects formed largely from wax and rubber elicits empathy, provokes thought and causes laughter, a complex jumble visually and emotionally. Arranged on the floor in the massive wooden barn, rejecting the hierarchical placement of art on pedestals, the works address a child-sized viewer, or perhaps an imp. They deftly implicate our inner child. The worn wood panels and flooring of the barn are complicit with Rychlak’s and Silverthorne’s works, collaborating to generate an experience in which the “feeling” or “haptic” sense is awakened, enriching the viewing experience. That Down and Dirty also blurs the boundaries between the works of the two artists is gleefully conspiratorial, the word defined here as “to breathe together.” It is a feminist gesture which includes an actual collaborative work titled Grate of Unintentional Consequences.

The fleshy wax and rubber used by the artists are conventionally “poorer” sculptural materials than the steel, bronze or aluminum associated with permanence and the monumental. Both are sculptor’s materials for casting and mold-making, comprising the negatives in these processes, behind the scenes in the studio. Here they are “positives,” both Rychlak and Silverthorne exploiting the soft/hard nature of the materials. The sensual natures of rubber and wax express some kind of slow-mo molecular activity, arrested motion. Metaphors of embalming, baffling or muffling sound, the packing and protecting of other more “valuable” objects are all engaged.

Jeanne Silverthorne, Poppy Juice, photo courtesy of the artist and Duck Creek Arts

The slapstick exchange between the works in Down and Dirty with one another, with their surroundings in the barn, with their counterparts in real life occurs among banal artifacts such as drains, grates, cellar doors, packing crates, bare light bulbs, buckets of wood slats and bent nails.

Down and Dirty offers a Home Depot noir in which ordinary domestic elements frustrate conventional utility and instead instigate psychological trauma. Drains, for Rychlak are alternately mandalas for contemplation and portals to the unconscious that forebode danger and the unknown. The water in the drain does not, in fact, go down. In another, a mirror reflects back our own image. These everyday items of hardware signify the unstable link between the private and the public. The intimacy of our bathtub or kitchen sink is an agreement made with the state, its civil infrastructure and public utilities that underpin our daily life. The wires in the walls, the plumbing beneath the floors, the closed door all channel a collective fear of the unknown. Bruce Chatwin described the saber tooth tiger sleeping deep in the cave as the source of our childhood fears of objects in darkened rooms becoming animated and threatening.

Ordinary expectations of the inert and the organic are subverted in a playful physics via the appearance of cartoonish dandelions, insects, faux bois planks, liquid droplets hung in mid-air, the spark of a lit fuse, the juice of pierced fruit, slumped floorboards. The ultimate decay of all materials is prefigured, organic processes determinedly having their way: the fly appearing on the overripe fruit, pigments contaminating the waxy materials, evoking mold. In these simulacra, the human figure is indicated everywhere: the scale of the objects, the reminder of the ultimate decay of the body.

However, the memento mori here is on a manageable scale, its darker shadings diluted, and seemingly straight out of the Warner Brothers’ ACME catalog. Wile E. Coyote, he of the perpetual mortal accident and recovery, whose silhouette is featured in Silverthorne’s work (albeit with breasts) signals the futility of human action. Her studio flotsam of crates, bare bulbs and humble wooden floorboards is also invaded by miniscule irritants from nature: a fly, caterpillars. The shop class woodworking rendered in rubber is a platform for gag store skeletons. The tragic becomes quotidian. The kitschy machine-manufactured cloth used by Rychlak to provide soft supports in several works radiates a homely familiarity while quoting genuine handcrafted tapestry. The actual hardware door latch in her “Follie Vault” expresses the conflicted messaging in this work, in which a cellar door may signal protection or portend terror. The signposts of ordinary life brace us against the unknown, or do they?

Bonnie Rychlak, Yoga Drain, photo courtesy of the artist

Another temporary bulwark against the unknown is humor. The pervasive relationship of humor to anxiety is present in these works, offering catharsis. The comedic may turn fraught or violent, expressed perfectly in Jeanne Silverthorne’s Banana Peel! There is the merest sliver that divides the pratfall from the tragedy. As in Lenny Bruce’s “We’re all gonna dieeee…..!” a gleeful exhalation of tension is shared.

The interplay of dichotomies is at work everywhere in Down and Dirty: the real and the unreal, hard and soft, comedic and tragic. As conceptual sculpture, the works are consummately hand-crafted object lessons. The work in Down and Dirty takes evident delight in the everyday apocalyptic, the lack of human control to contain forces of nature and the built environment. The evidence can be found lurking in the corner of any basement or bathroom, street corner or storage unit.

Jeanne Silverthorne, Moth and Bulb, photo courtesy of Duck Creek Arts

Down and Dirty was exhibited at Dodd Galleries, Lamar Dodd School of Art, University of Georgia. A catalog is available with essays by Katie Geha and Terrie Sultan

All image credits: Gary Mamay

Down and Dirty, Bonnie Rychlak and Jeanne Silverthorne at Duck Creek Arts through June 6th, 2021

for more info:Jess Frost, Executive Director The Arts Center at Duck Creek PO Box 590 / 127 Squaw Road Springs, New York 11937

Michelle Weinberg is an artist who writes about art. She is the recipient of fellowships from Pollock-Krasner Foundation, MacDowell Colony, Millay Colony, South Florida Cultural Consortium, Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Studios at MASS MoCA, 100West Corsicana in TX, and more. She is a consultant to museums and non-profits, developing exhibitions, education programming and publications. She is Creative Director of Girls’ Club in Fort Lauderdale since 2007, and has edited and contributed essays to numerous catalogs there. Previous writing assignments include Tema Celeste, ArtLurker, Perrotin Bing magazine, Delicious Line, Miami New Times and more. @mwinkblue