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Brand New Bags

Art Review


Published December 21, 2005 at 5:00 a.m.

EXHIBIT: "Fifty-Fifty," an exhibit of custom handbags, or "sk8bags," from the Beck(y) label. Pursuit Gallery, Burlington. Through December.

ARTWORK Untitled bags by Michiko Stehrenberger

The exhibition "Fifty-Fifty" at Pursuit Gallery on Burlington's waterfront deviates from the standard two-dimensional art show. Its 32 custom-made handbags and "sk8bags" feature images contributed by "action sports" designers nationwide, though predominantly from the West Coast. The loosely defined moniker "action sports" includes skateboarding, snowboarding, wakeboarding and whatever sports appeal to the generation that came of age in the 1990s. Designers within that milieu play a major role in defining the look of present-day pop culture.New York designer Beck Hickey recruited 38 artists, who contributed two images each to "Fifty-Fifty." Handbags from her label, called Beck(y), are fashioned from used skateboards and "plush, high-end fabrics." Black satin is the material of choice for the linings of the handbags shown here. The boards were chopped into 8-by-9-inch segments, then refinished and made into bags. Hickey played a dual role: as the curator, and as a collaborator who edited submissions with a table saw.

Seattle designer Michiko Stehrenberger's color combination of white, crimson, black and fluorescent green give her images -- a sultry, green-eyed woman and a 21st-century odalisque -- a punchy presence. While hers are typical pop images, they are actually strengthened by being cropped and turned into handbags. "Artwork changes when the context shifts," Hickey notes, and Stehrenberger's iconographic females add weight to this observation.

Wesley Martin rendered red-and-black Pueblo pottery designs on his skateboard. The timeless motifs possess personal significance: With a Native American father, Martin cites "reservation life" among his influences.

Klutch -- a.k.a. Russell Short, a 44-year-old stencil graffitist in Portland, Oregon -- contributed one of the most painterly designs. His black-and-purple, fuzzy-edged abstraction is sprayed over aqua splatters on a light blue background; tightly compacted on a skateboard segment, the image is dramatic.

Los Angeles artist and skateboarder Clint Peterson also produced a nonobjective design, of fluorescent green striations on a scratched white surface. The scuffed-up handbag replicates skateboard scars. Peterson's second design is a naturalistic portrait of a man with a flat-top haircut. He's sideways on the white handbag, just underneath the phrase "Square Head Mr. Jenkins."

A handbag is by definition baggage, and in covering one with family photographs an artist's personal baggage, so to speak, can be carried around for all to see. San Francisco artist Dylan Maddux created one of the most original bags in the show, affixed with color and black-and-white snapshots of familial scenes, a cityscape and partial nudes.

A black-and-white nighttime cityscape by New York photographer Ruvan Wijesooriya is the central image of a bag festooned with sequined fabric and stripes of lilac, orange, forest green and light blue. Wijesooriya's cityscape describes a three-lane boulevard stretching deeply into two-point perspective.

Before coming to Burlington, "Fifty-Fifty" appeared at Powerhouse Gallery in New York City and Lab 101 Gallery in Culver City, California. The West Coast show culminated in a handbag auction with half the proceeds earmarked for Adaptive Action Sports, a nonprofit for sports enthusiasts with physical disabilities. The same 50-50 split applies to proceeds from Pursuit Gallery.