A number of artists these days are making what you might call sciency abstraction, graphing and mapping, their work inspired by science but usually not quite science. Abstraction came to seem egotistically melodramatic or hollowly formal at the end of modernism, so they aim to ground it in worldly data. In Goldman’s back corner, Boston artist Sheila Gallagher presents drawings created by machines that recorded her eye movements as she scanned photos of female athletes. Here and there you can pick out the shape of Michelle Kwan or some tennis or gymnastics star, but often they’re overwhelmed by jagged scratchy webs of line.
In May, Goldman showed Cambridge artist Hannah Burr’s abstract concoctions of cards and ribbon, their compositions driven by quotidian observations Burr had charted according to a barely decipherable rubric. At MassArt’s MFA candidates exhibition in April, Nathalie Miebach exhibited an abstract sculpture of basketry and styrofoam balls that somehow graphed Antarctic tidal rhythms. Boston-born, Brooklyn-based Josiah McElheny showed a sculpture in New York in May that diagrammed the Big Bang while evoking the space-age chandeliers at the Metropolitan Opera House.
On a recent Tuesday, Fruin arrived via the Chinatown bus to hang his show. When I showed up, the shaggy-haired, easy-going 32-year-old white guy was working out the placement of his flags and quilts and unpacking a box of broken Jack Daniel’s whiskey bottles. A few years back, his quilts prompted him to begin “looking at what the larger meaning was of addiction and vices and repetition. I found them all to be pretty similar, all these drives that just function to complete themselves in a way.”
He was also seeking a way to avoid being pinned as just the drug-bag guy. He painted and etched naked ladies onto Heineken bottles and boxes to talk about how beer is marketed as an elixir to help men get laid. He reshaped the wax seals from Maker’s Mark bottles into frozen bloody red drips, punning on shots of whiskey and gun shots. And he got bars near his Brooklyn studio to hold onto empty Jack Daniel’s bottles for him that he smashed to fashion “the most perfect menacing” bar-fight weapon, highlighting the brand’s “cool outlaw image.” At Goldman, he hung 26 jagged bottles in a cluster along with one he’d bronzed and fit with a leather holster. “You can wear it around and be ready for a fight.”
But these pieces are less interesting because the ideas are less interesting. They have the same limitation as his recent quilt Hastle Whitey, which was inspired by a sticker spoofing the White Castle logo that he pulled off a telephone pole. It’s composed of found stuff: drug bags, a basketball card, clothing labels, a business card for an adult video maker, a fake $20 bill, a package for a “money bill sport-rag tie-down cap.” He says, “I was thinking of all the things white people would fear of an emerging black class.”
More circumscribed than his best work, these pieces tip into cliché — gun violence, white stereotypes of blacks, imagined bar brawls. It’s good to see artists pushing into new areas, and with Whitey, Fruin addresses the underlying racial and class issues that his drug-bag pieces never quite get at. But his finest quilts are successful because they aren’t easily reduced to slogan or stereotype; they sustain interest by both being beautiful to the eye and opening up our thinking. The individual bags, with their evidence of mysterious, misbegotten pasts, confront us with the reality of drug use, not some cheesy invented scenario. They bring us back to actual neighborhoods and actual people, our neighbors, our friends, ourselves.