Clark Russell's 'Riddleville' Questions the Meaning of Stuff | Art Review | Seven Days | Vermont's Independent Voice

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Clark Russell's 'Riddleville' Questions the Meaning of Stuff


Published October 19, 2022 at 10:00 a.m.

Details of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Details of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation

The Amy E. Tarrant Gallery at the Flynn has been largely empty since the start of the pandemic. Now, the space is so full that it draws gaping passersby to its large windows facing Burlington's Main Street. What's there? "Riddleville," a solo show by local artist Clark Russell.

The installation resembles a crowded city of towers, pilasters and wall panels bearing hundreds of individual arrangements of cast-off figurines, old toys, junk and scraps. The work contains so much stuff, in fact, that it may be more useful to ask what's not there.

Parts of circuit boards, old phone key pads, towel racks, electrical plates, door hinges, faucets, sink drains and every imaginable piece of hardware line the lumber posts that form the 105-inch-tall towers and 96-inch-tall pilasters. Abstract paintings form the variably sized panels' backgrounds. Scrap-metal bases anchor the freestanding towers.

Metal platforms that resemble branches on the towers and shelves on the panels support intriguing scenarios, each glued in place to a base, or "stage," as Russell calls it. In one scenario, a small headless model of Auguste Rodin's sculpture "The Thinker" faces an antique gas mask with punctured glass eye lenses.

Another scene positions two Snow White figurines, one toting a machine gun, opposite two SpongeBob SquarePants toys, as if to discipline the make-believe boys. In yet another, a model train on a track is bisected by a smaller train, while a stranded turtle watches from below.

Some scenarios — such as a plastic cup stuffed with a deflated plastic globe and a plastic straw — clearly function as commentary on the threatened environment. Indeed, the entire installation captures the overwhelming reality of consumer culture, which threatens to subsume us. Viewers can literally lose their way in it: Look from one scenario to another, and it's almost impossible to find the first again.

Detail of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Detail of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation

Other scenarios are more obscure. What to make of a chorus line of dinosaurs, sharks and porpoises mounted by their mouths on chess pieces? Or the Joseph Cornell-like box made from a metal electrical node box containing a sand dollar, stacked bits of hardware and a tiny male figure toiling atop one stack?

Still more scenarios seem merely to explore abstract relations between objects. Upended glasses or cups are topped with parts of light fixtures or vice versa. The curve of a metal pipe connects a pressure gauge to an elegant finial. A large plastic egg dwarfs the tiny Eiffel Tower it tops. And, hang on, is that a Simon Pearce glass sailboat?

"Riddleville" makes clear that, while consumer culture may be hastening the destruction of Earth, we humans can't help but love our stuff — even, and perhaps especially, when it's rescued from the dump. Those Spiderman figurines that are having so much fun blowing up the world recall and ultimately memorialize childhood's engrossing games.

Installed by Russell with help from Flynn producer Amy Harting and facilities manager Andrew Hard, "Riddleville" was still incomplete the morning of its soft opening on October 6. Russell met Seven Days in the gallery that day toting a glue gun: He was planning to make 11 more scenarios after the interview. His studio and apartment, upstairs in a building adjacent to the Flynn, are filled with rescued objects from ReSOURCE, friends and dumpsters.

Russell explained that he started making "Riddleville" in the 1980s but created most of the installation in the past three years, when COVID-19 prompted many people to purge items from their homes. Eventually, while moving found objects to his pantry shelves, he realized that the act reminded him of the exodus of city dwellers to the suburbs. Russell grew up in the St. Louis, Mo., suburb of Clayton, one of the 90 municipalities of St. Louis County. For him, the towers represent those suburbs.

The tower nearest to the lobby symbolizes the suburb of Ferguson, the artist said. On a platform at eye level, a squat Black figurine faces an array of cop cars, a reference to the 2014 killing of 18-year-old Michael Brown by police officer Darren Wilson. But Russell admits to having lost track of the municipalities or suburbs most towers represent.

Though remarkably voluble and something of a wordsmith, Russell is wary of reducing his intention to language. (He had to force himself to write an artist's statement, he said.) Sure, the installation alludes to his environmental concerns, as well his lifelong opposition to racism and misogyny, he said. But he ultimately pleaded to a kind of "cloud of unknowing," to borrow an anonymous 14th-century mystic's description.

Detail of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation - LUKE AWTRY
  • Luke Awtry
  • Detail of Clark Russell's "Riddleville" installation

"When I create these scenarios, I'm almost in a dream state," Russell said. "It's as much self-discovery as something for other people to discover.

"I'm just a medium," he added.

"Riddleville" has received an unusually enthusiastic reception. So many people were trying to see into the gallery at night, for example, that Russell and the Flynn team decided to leave the interior lights on every evening.

Russell is both delighted and "a little chagrined" at the attention. For 35 years before "Riddleville" took over his practice, he made abstract wall sculptures from found and altered metal pieces, spending inordinate amounts of time on each composition. Yet those works, which Russell said are "far more dear" to him, have never garnered the attention that this installation has.

In the end, he believes "Riddleville" is a reflection of "how I see the world: It's a complicated, layered place." The sculpture, he added, "verges on a public service."

"Riddleville" by Clark Russell is on view through November 19 at Amy E. Tarrant Gallery, the Flynn, in Burlington. Russell is in the gallery to answer visitors' questions during Friday and Saturday hours and before every Main Stage show.

The original print version of this article was headlined "Consumer City | Clark Russell's installation at the Flynn questions the meaning of stuff"

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