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Joe Sola’s recent exhibition at Tif Sigfrids, Mertzbau (featuring the late artist, Albert Mertz), cycles through ideas in threes. The press release claims that Mertzbau is “a celebration of art, trash, life, and the slippery distinction between the three.” A third artist, the inimitable Kurt Schwitters, is present in spirit alone—Schwitters’ grand work, Merzbau (1937), in which he transformed most of his family home in Hanover, serves as the inspiration and bridge connecting Sola and Mertz. For this semi-collaborative presentation, Sola utilizes 419 salvaged wooden chairs to form three tunnels, the light at the end of each is a distinct work by Mertz. The title of the show adds Mertz’s “t” to the aforementioned Schwitters work—a subtle linguistic gesture that the Granddaddy of Dada would no doubt appreciate.
Sigfrids has whited out the exterior windows to her Hollywood storefront and put a compact piece of cardboard on display, which contains a quote by Schwitters transcribed by Mertz in 1948. It reads: “Being active in several different art forms was a matter of necessity for me as an artist. My goal with the ‘Merzkunst’ was the total work of art that comprises all other forms of art in one artistic unity.” By both revoking viewership from the street and offering only a cryptic clue, Sigfrids has set a situational stage for multi-generational works to perform.
However, this stage is cluttered to capacity with chairs collected from city streets, precariously balanced in a thoroughly conceived frenzy. Dinged and dented, functional or fragile, garish yet gratifying—these pieces of furniture are no longer meant to be sat on and are not really meant to be seen, either. Despite the exhibition being billed as a solo show by Joe Sola, featuring Albert Mertz, Sola has chosen to play the role of supporting actor, using his contribution to highlight Mertz’s oddly enchanting, more nuanced works. Individually and collectively, these works are emblematic of Mertz’s consistent yet varied practice.
The first Mertz work on view, Untitled (Red/Blue on homemade stretchers) (1971), is a small and seemingly slapdash minimalist painting of two squares on a ratty primed canvas; staples protrude around the sides and strings sneak from behind. The next, Untitled (framed landscape painting) (1979), is an innocuously compelling rural scene covered in blue dots and contained within a weathered frame, dotted in red. The third and last, Untitled (Chicago-Caesar) (1981), was made a decade after the first on display and uses a book cover by California crime novelist W.R. Burnett as the central icon, surrounded by vague earth tones, dotted and lined with more of his signature blue and red.
These three paintings don’t waste anything: materials, time, or effort. They concisely communicate what they need to with just enough panache, rigor, and savvy. They do not reveal too much too quickly, nor do they go out of their way to conceal any information either. Sola, for his part, counters this approach with his audacious assemblage. By creating this absurdist environment for his predecessor to shine within, Sola graciously pays homage to a brilliant and overlooked talent.
Humor is a crucial aspect of Sola’s work, and here, the over-the-top physical comedy of the installation shakes the body and rattles the mind. One walks in and out of these tunnels, tuning in and out of infinite tone zones. Is this safe? Is this sane? Is this good? Is this bad? None of these questions are justifiably answerable. At a certain point, it must be understood that not all inquiries can be qualified or quantified; instead, perhaps the value of the question can rest within the constant shifts in confusion and discovery surrounding its loose punctuation.
So then, what can we learn from Schwitters? Art is trash; trash is art. Art is life; life is art. Life is also trash, and the slippery cycle goes on. And what can we learn from Mertzbau? More or less the same. Think outside this exhibition, and the idea of “the exhibition.” We will continue to slip up and repeat for as long as our lives allow us to go on. When we nosedive into the most foul of piles, it is immediately a horrid sensory nightmare, but then gradually, our sense of hope and idealism becomes heightened. This show strongly suggests one to take the leap, with Mertz in one ear, whispering, “Don’t fear death,” and Sola in the other, whispering, “For now, just don’t fear bedbugs.”