BALTIMORE — The centerpiece of the back wall is all black, rectangular, with pole-like extensions jutting downward from each bottom vertex. A quick glance from the front of the room to see what “Goliath” (2017) looks like before eventually making your way toward it, or keeping it in your peripheral vision along the way, reveals that its outline resembles that of a flat-screen TV turned off, nonfunctional. At least that’s what you want to think it resembles. The pieces in Dre Britton’s Structural Integrity each allude to kinesthetic possibilities and futures — expansion, escapism — yet everything is stiff, frozen in time. “Goliath” poses as a portal into relevance, a false promise of being able to tune into a television network that’s keeping you up to date, in touch with the future. In reality, this is just an expansive slab of vinyl.
Salvaging furniture from on the streets of Baltimore, Britton breaks down quotidian structures and rebuilds them into new ones, yielding constructions that are both vaguely familiar and vaguely alien. Structures like “Passenger” (2016) feature deformed chairs, but it’s dizzying to try to figure out how you’d theoretically inhabit one of them: The cushions are slanted, the backrests are gone, your legs would get splintered from dangling them against coarse wood. There are, at most, two or three different tones of wood used throughout Structural Integrity; black materials, such as the vinyl of “Goliath,” are another constant. However, the implied consumerist purposes that each piece might serve are completely varied — even though the structures within which they’re contained disable their fulfillment. Through this inability to fulfill such intended purposes, the pieces question neoliberalist quixotism: that which is used to fuel sermons on improvement and innovation, but to varnish over structural flaws as well.
“Shadowboxing” (2017) is a deliberately pointless structure. Its crux is a series of frames within frames, and the farthest back is a square with columns of springs tethering opposite sides, trapping a strip of black cloth behind it. The whole thing looks like a petrified SpongeBob, the frames within frames posing as an interminably dropped jaw. Dedicating a gigantic utility to shadowboxing is counterintuitive to the exercise itself, though how would you even go about testing its purpose, hypothetically speaking? Are you supposed to punch into the shallow tunnel made by the jawdrop? If you were to hit the back of it by accident, you’d just bruise your knuckles along its springs. “Shadowboxing” illustrates bodily improvement as a microcosm of all forms of (what we perceive as) improvement: commentary on the frivolous, hyperbolic enhancements made to activities intended to be basic — such as punching the air.
“Reflex” (2017) and “Extend/Retract” (2016) are both pointless as well, but they disguise that aspect by falsely offering kinesthetic possibilities. The former is an amalgamation of couch recliner, ladder parts, and bits of wood; the latter is couch frame, attic door parts, and bits of wood. Britton contextualizes furniture that beckons human interaction, like unfolding or opening something up: Here’s the notion that the viewer could be responsible for setting off a unique mechanism or outcome by yanking at the ladder in “Reflex” or heaving upward the ladder-looking element (presumably made from a couch frame) of “Extend/Retract.” But upon closer inspection, this kitschy, naïve notion is really a ploy. Because if you opened the ladder in “Reflex,” the cushion of a couch recliner and the frame to which it’s attached would instantly get suspended, then likely tip forward and snap off. Similarly, part of a couch frame would get twisted and ripped out in “Extend/Retract.”
When situations in our daily lives seem impossible, typically deeper analysis will eventually allow possible solutions to reveal themselves. Britton inverts this sentiment, rendering ostensibly possible situations with impossible solutions. Structural Integrity doesn’t offer the kinds of illusions that can never be “solved”; while they do trick the eye at first, they are actually possible to decipher. In this thematic regard, there’s stability, but in the structures themselves, there is not. Britton’s pieces reflect the impractical, unstable architectural projects gentrifying cities like his native Baltimore (how could the community see long-lasting benefits from, say, a gigantic Caribbean lagoon simulacra?), making the internal ugliness more readily visible. They forsake what’s in the title of his exhibition, deceptively feigning as if they bear it.
Structural Integrity continues at The Silber Art Gallery in the Goucher College Athenaeum (1021 Dulaney Valley Road, Baltimore) through March 26.