PHILADELPHIA — As I walked through the Dufala Brothers new show, Waste Dreams, currently on view at the Fleisher/Ollman Gallery in Philadelphia, I had the feeling of a dream in which I seemed to recognize everything, but none of the dimensions were right and nothing could be used for its intended purpose.
Nearest the gallery doors is “Long Chuck Sole” (2010), a nearly eight-foot version of a Chuck Taylor sneaker sole. “Long Chuck Sole” toys with the expression, “big shoes to fill” while insisting on the impossibility of walking a mile in another’s shoes. The work also demonstrates the Dufala Brothers’ wry take on the dystopia of consumer culture.
The brothers, Steven and Billy, practice in a variety of media and develop their work more in conversation with each other than in direct collaboration. Steven produces drawings, watercolors, and set design. Billy works mostly with sculpture, and over the past few years, he’s been working out of a studio at Revolution Recovery, a recycling facility located in Tacony, a section of Northeast Philadelphia. Much of his work utilizes materials found there. For an idea of what might end up at Revolution, just look around you right now. You might find records, books, and mirrors, as well as lumber and rebar. On one visit to the facility, Billy showed me a Donald Trump doll from the ‘80s. Working at Revolution, he told me, often shows him how small the world actually is, and continually forces him to confront the tendency to become sentimental about the objects in our lives.
One of the standout sculptures, “Copper Bale” (2015), is a 1500-pound rectangle of copper tubing, calcified joints and tattered insulation; a sticker still on one of the pipes reads “Vacuum.” These materials have clearly defined functions in the buildings where we work and live, but they aren’t likely to conjure much in the way of sentimentality or nostalgia. Instead, there is a labyrinthine compression to this work that makes me feel as I squat alongside it that I might be crushed under its weight.
Billy isn’t interested in throwing conundrums at the audience. For the most part, all of the materials in his works are recognizable. The viewer isn’t likely to ask what’s she’s looking at. Rather, Billy shifts our context for these materials and alters how we see them. This doesn’t mean he always knows how a work will look when he’s done. To make “Copper Bale,” he placed all of the materials in an industrial baler. How the materials became arranged was up to the physics of chance. Even his application of the patina was somewhat improvisatory. There was high humidity when he applied it, which he thought compromised its look. On the verge of sandblasting it off, he decided to wait another day, the humidity dropped, and he ended up with a look that satisfied him.
On the walls surrounding the sculptures are a series of watercolors by Steven. Initially, these works seem abstract compared with the sculptures, but the watercolors’ reiteration of waves from picture to picture pushes them towards specificity. The repetition is both comforting and pleasurable, particularly when the artist incorporates bright reds, greens, and yellows into the predominately muted and earthy palette. But take into account some of the titles, “Blooming Slick,” “Vertical Slick, Grey Water,” and “Dirty Water Combination” (all 2015), and you realize that in the watercolors, the color effects of the pigments are inseparable from that of pollutants.
One of the most humorous works in the show, “Tic Tac Toe” (2015) is located in the back left corner of the gallery, a 22:05 video playing on a flat screen. When the video begins, the viewer sees a large tic-tac toe chart chalked out on a concrete yard and a large steam shovel grasping a jig holding compressed drywall, which it uses as an outsized piece of chalk to play tic-tac-toe. The footage was shot at Revolution, so the background consists of all manner of demolition waste – metal framing, drywall, and lumber, among other things. From time to time tattered sheets of paper will blow across the yard. There is also the sound of the machine and the jig’s heavy spring after Billy has finished a line. With the changing, but mostly gray light against the industrial setting, it’s easy to imagine this tic-tac-toe game as played by a lonely man at the end of the world, desperate to pass the time. He has no opponent so he complicates this simple game by using a machine as an intermediary. Can he make it work? Will the gas run out?
“Cinder Blocks” (2015), in the corner opposite “Tic Tac Toe,” considers construction rather than destruction. The materials consist of demolition waste and wood glue – not the standard makeup of cinder blocks — which raises a number of questions about the integrity of the construction industry. To underscore this point, one of the two blocks is curved, as if it’s giving in to the weight of its surrounding structure. During a visit to Billy’s studio while he was working on “Cinder Blocks,” he told me he was thinking of the rapid development in China and the frequent news reports about buildings collapsing from poor construction. In some cities, he said, there are companies putting up 10 houses per day by using non-standard building materials as a cost-saving measure. This allows the companies to turn a nice profit while keeping the house prices low. Profit with a human cost.
Nestled up to “Cinder Blocks” are two chairs made from milled, wooden Philadelphia police barricades. The wood has not been refinished. They are yellow and blue, and look worn from heavy use. They seem a set, but are titled separately, “Adirondack Chair” (2015) for each. The titles and the pairing seem harmless and traditional. But the materials shift our attention away from languorous summer afternoons. The middle boards, right where the spine of the sitter would rest, are the words, “POLICE LIMIT.” In light of the Black Lives Matter movement, these chairs are haunting, but if they aren’t suggestive enough, they are placed in front of a Samsung flat-screen TV, which was retrieved from Revolution, showing footage from the recycling center. There are no human forms in the video, in which the camera slowly pans over the contours of the detritus.
Waste Dreams concerns itself with what our culture has consumed. It recasts our appetites back to us, compresses our built environments, tests our attention levels, and shows how closely leisure aligns with permission. Quite a few of these works could complete the phrase, “Last night I had a dream…” – “…that I was playing tic-tac toe at the end of the world” — “… that I was inside a police barricade.” But these dreams are real, not just in the Dufala Brothers’ show, but out on the streets. The Dufalas have simply suspended them before us so that we won’t have to mumble, “And that’s all I remember. I’m not sure what happened next.”
The Dufala Brothers: Waste Dreams continues at Fleisher/Ollman Gallery (1216 Arch Street, 5A, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania) through November 11.