Open Sesame

Geoff DeMark finds the extraordinary while dissecting everyday things.

Since its inception in 1998, the Museum of Contemporary Art has presented its Hazmat Gallery as a raw space for avant-garde, contemporary art. Exhibitions at the renovated warehouse with its bright blue façade and trains clacking past the windows have featured mostly group exhibitions by local and national artists. This season Hazmat's exhibition orientation will begin changing under Elizabeth Cherry, MOCA's new executive director. Cherry, whose Elizabeth Cherry Contemporary Art gallery closed last season, says that she will expand Hazmat's schedule to feature one-person exhibitions by high-profile, global, contemporary artists.

MOCA is also making a commitment to one-person exhibitions by local, emerging artists in the new Hazmat Basement Gallery, an even rawer space. Although Hazmat has had two previous shows in the basement, it will now have a regular schedule of rotating exhibitions every six weeks. The Basement Gallery door is tucked away in a corner of Hazmat's immense warehouse space. Unfinished wood stairs descend into an unfinished basement. The floors are concrete; raw wood beams and black, galvanized pipes line the ceiling. Periodically, it sounds like someone is coming downstairs, but it's just the floors creaking overhead.

The current exhibition by Geoff DeMark, dis-'ek-shen (the phonetic spelling for "dissection"), is a fitting beginning to the Hazmat Basement Gallery's first season. Since the space is lit only by lights directed at the artwork, DeMark's sculptures stand out like strange objects in the dim room. One artwork squeaks while another whirls--they are strange objects. This basement is not a place for romantic landscapes, but then Hazmat would not show romantic landscapes, not unless they were parodies.

DeMark certainly has a sense of irony about the world, and he is interested in appropriation, conceptual art and kinetic sculpture that uses technology. Definitely no romanticism here. He discovered parts for his artworks everywhere from the St. Vincent de Paul Store to a computer company's warehouse and a barbecue supply store.

In "Reverse Topography," DeMark glued several books together and then carved the edges to create the shape of the United States. He shaved the covers and pages of the books to create an appealing topography of the nation. The exposed edges of the pages are sculpted into sensual forms of grays and browns with hints of pastels. The twist is that the mountains are indented while low-lying states like Arizona are high. The work raises questions: Why should we be believe that a colored sheet of paper can reveal the reality of a land we have never seen or that it can present a scientifically accurate vision of the land we know?

In "Random Inches" DeMark uses a different form and method to continue his exploration of Americans' need to understand the world through quantification. For the piece, DeMark cut yellow metal measuring tapes into random, inch-long segments, which he then tied together using colorful metal wire. He hung the extended strip of linked measuring-tape pieces in long loops that are suspended in the air. The whole thing is connected to a machine. When you step onto the machine's platform and push its red button, the tape jangles and the machine vibrates like crazy.

Hold the button down for very long and it feels like the whole contraption is going to shake apart. The humor of "Random Inches" makes the obsessive precision of measuring tapes seems silly, but the visual appeal of the object is stronger than its conceptual basis. According to DeMark, the machine was originally one of those devices that had an attached canvas belt that was worn around the abdomen to vibrate the fat away. The connection between the measuring tape and the weight-loss machine is just fortuitous, since a different machine originally powered "Random Inches."

At first, a third work seems to involve viewer interaction. The long raised platform in "Random Images" has five rows of small, circular images mounted like large lollipops on acrylic posts. Period and contemporary pictures from magazines and books are collaged on both sides of the 140 circles. DeMark assembled images in random order: cartoons, Shakespeare, Hillary Clinton, the Sphinx, high-heeled shoes, Chinese characters, flowers, a speedometer and much more. Groups of circles keep spinning, stopping and spinning, so that seeing all of the 280 images would be a real feat.

Although initially the spinning seems to be triggered by viewer movement, this part of the mixed-media work is neither interactive nor random. The lollipop-like forms are mounted in miniature computer fans that are hooked up to two power sources placed beneath the platform. Different sections of the images spin at timed intervals using a relay switch. Parts of the artwork are random, parts of it seem to be random, and parts are highly structured.

As DeMark asked in a recent interview, "What is a truly random act?" Do such things exist? He pointed out that even "random acts of violence" involve some planning in the mind of the person who executes them. Such questions about the nature of randomness and the conceptual base for "Random Images" are more veiled than those in the other works in the exhibition, although they are accessible.

DeMark, whose Master of Fine Arts is in ceramics and sculpture, apparently set out to create visually appealing objects with a conceptual base--a difficult task. Many of DeMark's sculptures are appealing. When an artist starts appropriating everyday objects like measuring tapes and barbecue rotisseries, having a sense of irony also is a real plus. As an exhibition and a body of work, dis-'ek-shen does develop underlying thematic concepts, but individually a number of the pieces could be stronger in terms of their conceptual depth.

DeMark titled his exhibition dis-'ek-shen because in this work he wanted to take things apart and examine them. "I just look at dissection of everyday words and ideas É . [I'm] trying to look at everydayness and re-examine it." After disassembling things, DeMark does reassemble the parts into a whole, just not the same whole and not the everyday, ordinary whole. The irony is that while DeMark set out to examine things closely, the end products of his examinations (his sculptures) call the validity of the process of dissection and quantification into doubt.