Art created from found objects always triggers something childlike in me: A long stick becomes a rifle, old newspaper transforms into an airplane, a blanket and some clothespins are a fortress. The limitations of the material available force imagination into overdrive, with hands shaping something that already has an understood function into something new, fresh, different. Keeping stuff others throw away appeals to our hunter/gatherer instincts, the need to order the chaos around us, and it also makes an inherently green statement. While I suspect I'd need a Xanax to walk through artist Debbie Carlson's studio—the cable show Hoarders gives me nightmares—I thought her rigorous solo show at Irvine Fine Arts Center, “Found,” a poetic celebration of time-intensive, hands-on work.
The items Carlson has collected create a personal diary that recalls certain places and times. As with the act of writing about oneself, it requires thought and assemblage, insight and organizational skills so that the whole thing makes sense. Because the installations are completely different and adaptable to the space, they also require a certain level of ingenuity. Curator Yevgeniya Mikhailik is also an accomplished illustrator, used to the intensity of the process—concentration and long hours—so it's no surprise that she admires Carlson's efforts enough to present things in an easy-to-follow manner, without interference, posting the author's succinct statement at the front of the gallery.
The first mixed-media piece I could spot was a bird figure just around the corner from Carlson's statement, part of the larger installation Flow. Beak and crest were delivered by a taut pull of nylon to the approximate shape, with the pressing of pushpins through the material and into the wall and floor to hold it in place. The eyes and the rest of the plumage are glittery cloth that catches the light as you move, wrapped around multisided objects that give the “skin” a texture resembling small, lumpy tumors. To the left, fabric in a multitude of colors and shades suggests trees and branches, dripping moss (or water), with objects tightly wrapped in old bedsheets becoming a forest of fungi.
Around the corner, negotiate your way through the shibari complex of dropcloths, knotted ropes, rusty wire and frayed red string of Bound to get to a small blue box. Bend down to look inside, and you'll find several small mirrors reflecting on a piece of webbing, a miniature house of mirrors that resembles a family of spiders that has made an endless home inside. Above, hidden up high, is a small set of wooden steps that are painted white and sardine-can keys decorated with wire to look like miniature saplings beginning to flower. There is more hopeful environmental imagery in an untitled, distressed orange traffic cone. Run over, the tire mark over its shattered surface, the broken plastic is half-buried in real ground, soft succulents growing out of the dirt and peeking through the cracks.
The two most powerful installations are near the back: In of choice, an adult chair rests across from a child's, both without backs or seats, just the metal framing. Materials embroidered on the adult chair include a tatty mesh lifting into the air, chicken bones and red plastic ties. There's the traumatized shell of a balloon, full of holes, tied to the chair with red thread and lying in the corner behind it; an umbilical cord of poly twine connects the two chairs, the sequins and children's scissors with orange handles attached to the child's seat telling us all we need to know about parent and child, their mutual disappointments and broken dreams.
The second is Black Room, a startling installation of white wire hangers that screams abortion, Joan Crawford and child abuse. A single white chair is in the room, without a back or a seat; under one leg is a pile of used teabags that have melded together in a solid clump, colorful tags fanned out in a half-circle. The walls of the gallery are painted black, and the hangers are twisted in on themselves, covering the wall in a jagged white lightning strike, with yellow netting wrapped up inside some of them as though ghosts, a yellow bungee cord forming a solid line connecting the hangers to the chair. In place of the missing seat and back rests a small plant in a metal chrysalis, roach-clipped to white plastic ties. From the doorway of the back gallery, it's a mesmerizing piece, your eyes tracking the blankness of the chair to the bungee to the white noise of the hangers.
If there's an overwhelming feeling walking through this exhibit, it's an acknowledgment of Carlson's considerable talent for creating mood—pensive, joyful, confused—mixed with an impressed exhaustion: the volume of woman-hours behind such intensive work essentially uncountable. As with mythology's Pygmalion, she has squeezed, stitched, wrapped, yanked, twisted and wrung life from someplace it never was, and we have fallen in love.
“Found: Debbie Carlson” at Irvine Fine Arts Center, 14321 Yale Ave., Irvine, (949) 724-6880. Open Mon.-Thurs., 10 a.m.-9 p.m.; Fri., 10 a.m.-5 p.m.; Sat., 9 a.m.-5 p.m. Through Sat. Free.