Fine Art

Matthew Schlagbaum’s massive wall piece highlights an otherwise dull exhibit

Schlagbaum’s “Everything” at CAC
Photo: Cheryl Nishi
Dawn-Michelle Baude

Two and a half stars

It’s What’s on the Outside That Counts Through November 7; Wednesday-Saturday, 2-7 p.m.; Sunday, 11 a.m.-3 p.m. Contemporary Arts Center, 382-3886.

The idea is ripe: an exhibit using gold-colored works to comment on superficiality in Las Vegas, a city synonymous with gold and superficiality. But the sculptures and works-on-paper in Chicagoan Matthew Schlagbaum’s It’s What’s on the Outside That Counts cheerfully mirrors back (groan) what locals know too well. Gold is so shiny and pretty; it comes in many forms; it appeals to the populace; it symbolizes greed and excess; it’s associated with Christmas; it has a long history and so on. The clichés in this show hang awkwardly like so many heavy gold chains.

With one exception—“Everything.” This mysterious, and somewhat uncanny, wall piece quietly dominates the exhibition. And that’s hard to do, because a clunky gold-foil-and-chicken-wire “nugget” sculpture hogs the view. One of the drawbacks, in fact, of Schlagbaum’s show stems from the hanging. The “Everything” sculpture would have more power in an uncluttered gallery. It’s big—225 inches by 96 inches—and stretches along the wall in a cascade of intriguing dips, juts and rises that seemingly transform in front of the eyes.

More bas-relief than curtain, “Everything” is composed of hand-laminated gold-leaf squares, each bearing the accidents of its making. Gold leaf often misbehaves—it tears, clogs, refuses to lie flat. The lamination process adds rimple and rumple to each individual square. When the squares are assembled into a grid, the result is a beautifully textured work with a strange liquidity. It seems to transition among the elements, changing from water to mineral and back again. A raft of art interpretation flows in its wake, fueled by discussions of light and shadow, surface and depth, flatness and volume, materiality and illusion—the “everything” that the cultural currency of gold suggests.

Other works with fetching titles, such as “The Aspirations of the Yearning Individual in a Valueless World,” are less convincing. Schlagbaum attaches gold-leaf squares with an interesting array of kitschy refrigerator magnets to galvanized steel, but no matter how much that gold leaf flutters, the statement on travel and mediocrity lacks oomph. And “If It Looks Like a Duck and Swims Like a Duck It Might Be a Loon” is a golden homage to Christmas crafts that seems dated.

Having a visiting artist mount a show about gold and superficiality in Las Vegas was perhaps compromised from the outset. It appears we’ll have to wait a bit longer for the glimmer of a Las Vegas statement to emerge.

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