As contemporary art has largely abandoned the traditional "realistic" depiction of the natural world, it also has embraced lowly manufactured items to convey the old modernist message of art's power to remake the world, but with playful postmodern irony. The sculpture of Oakland's Robert Ortbal and the collages of Seattle's Robert Yoder at Traywick Contemporary both explore how humans and nature interact: Ortbal defamiliarizes the plant kingdom with his witty, bizarre models and mock-floral arrangements in Neverland, its title perhaps a reference to Barrie's and Disney's magical kingdoms. Yoder constructs abstracted landscapes full of architectural motifs and spatial inconsistencies that seem to be exploding (though without violence), their fragments floating gravity-free, in The Shingle Factory, a bow to Duchamp's "Nude Descending a Staircase," so memorably mocked in 1913 by The New York Times as "an explosion in a shingle factory."
Ortbal's materials — wire, flocking, latex tool handle dip, Styrofoam balls, glossy stickers, mirrored mylar, plastic grapes, resin — derive from hardware stores and perhaps from florists' and decorators' establishments, but the artist imbues his synthetic fabrications with an uncanny poetry. They're both absurd in their exuberant vitality and sculpturally intriguing, whether based on botany or chemistry ("Architecture of a Scent: Ginger," "Mistletoe"), old technology ("Satellite"), or merely improvised from unusual materials without premeditation. In "Cartographer's Dilemma," Ortbal carves the edges of two cartoonishly blob-shaped foam panels into scalloped, cratered forms, which appear to have been nibbled by children. The hinged panels are covered in mirrored mylar and grooved with rectangles suggesting bricks or state boundaries, so the nibbled splatter, hinged like a diptych, becomes both map and mirror — a nice reprise of themes from Jasper Johns (including his obscure 1961 "Painting Bitten by a Man" with its incisor scars).
Yoder's aesthetic salvaging in the past has included Lego blocks and highway signs, but here he focuses on collaged elements from magazines, adhesive vinyl, and tape. Because the vinyl and tape assume polygonal forms that suggest perspective, we read them as architectural renderings divested of the usual trees, cars, and stylish couples, but the space in these collage drawings is contradictory, reflecting multiple perspective viewpoints, as in Analytical Cubism. Yoder: "The architecture is starting to disintegrate, not violently, but actively." At their best these pieces are explosively graceful, the shards held in perfect balance, enveloped within the white space they define and delimit, Big Bangs in miniature. Both exhibits run through September 27 at Traywick Contemporary (895 Colusa Ave., Berkeley). Traywick.com or 510-527-1214.
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