Runner: Bold, Beautiful and Brazenly Political
By Betsy DiJulio
Spare and impactful, this exhibition is bold, beautiful and brazenly political. Many of the pieces are rooted in the culture and traditions of Japan, from which John Miles Runner’s wife hails and where the couple has lived, yet the universal significance is undeniable. Though Runner may take-on some grave issues, seriously intent on providing visual social commentary, he manages not to take himself too seriously. In fact, some of the pieces are quite funny, and virtually all are ironic.
Commanding an entire wall which, even in the soaring space of the gallery, had to be vertically expanded to contain it, is the ironically titled “Shelter,” a monumental woodblock print tiled onto individual sheets of Washi paper. In material, process and format, the piece embodies antecedents from Japanese art and architectural history. But the similarities end there.
In a nod to Marshall McLuan, who famously proclaimed that the medium is the message, this piece, printed primarily from large wooden construction beams, is the artist’s response to the fact that, in Japan, houses depreciate while the land on which they sit appreciates. As explained by gallery owner, Sheila Giolitti, paraphrasing the artist, because of this, rather than maintain their once handsome traditional homes, many urban dwellers allow them fall into disrepair, raze them and erect cheaply fabricated replacements.
So, while this piece may at first appear to be an abstract geometric composition, a lingering look allows referential elements to emerge: a shoji screen amidst a demolition site, an urban skyline, and a forest.
The covert enviro-cultural message of “Shelter” is made more overt in “Exponential Pattern,” though the focus switches to the U.S. and our energy policy. As viewers, we are invited to read the metaphorical writing on the wall. In a black and white Rube Goldbergesque wallpaper design, one polluting factory is linked to another through an imaginative treatment of pipes and conduits in an endless repeating pattern. Get it? Sure you do: Runner uses the wallpaper pattern as a metaphor for patterns of behavior that repeat themselves throughout history.
At the top, a corner of the wallpaper is loosely folded back to reveal that the grass is greener on the other side. That is, a graphic pattern based on the natural cycles of the earth is printed in black, white, and a bold, grassy green. In front of this papered wall segment sits a black and white vintage stove. A beautiful object in and of itself, it serves as a reminder of the ongoing connections between industry and domesticity in terms of energy consumption and waste production.
Runner’s “Obento” boxes pair brilliantly-colored artificial sushi with tiny video screens inside diminutive but ornate lacquered boxes. The point seems to be irony via jarring contrast. On the one hand, are the monotonous views of blocky, uniform, uninspired and impersonal urban architecture in Japan videotaped from a car window as it rolls endlessly by. On the other, is the exquisite beauty, refinement and elegance of the custom-crafted sushi-bento tradition, popular in some Japanese households even for children’s lunches (mothers rise at ungodly hours to prepare these edible works of art, a trend that is catching on in America).
Whether table- or wall-mounted, the lids artfully ajar, these miniature sculptures are most successful when the black and white footage projected onto the screens is more dynamic. After all, there is not much point in using video rather than photos if the view rarely changes.
What might, in another artist’s hands, come off as clever “one-offs” and not much more—buh-dump-dump—in the hands of Runner somehow seem to function as complex and layered works of art. “Where the Day Goes” finds the artist once again using common objects as framing devices for video components. However, in this case, those objects are not beautiful; quite the opposite: a trio of drab metal waste baskets, the bottoms of which appear to have rusted away (though Runner carefully cut the bottoms with a blow torch before setting them outdoors and allowing nature to take its course).
Peering down inside each can, we encounter monotonous loops of video footage shot from a car, a train, and a bus, respectively. Taken together, this mini-installation serves as a meditation in three acts on time “wasted” by city folks who have little choice but to spend large chunks of their days commuting to and from work.
Some five or so additional pieces round out this visually arresting and provocative exhibition: super power face-offs, nuclear escalation, governmental cover-ups, media distortion, and national identity (or loss there-of). This body of work is uniquely Runner’s, yet he nonetheless seems to have imbued it with one pervasive aesthetic hallmark of the culture that inspired it: labor-intensive intricacy balanced with what seems to be its polar opposite, utter simplicity.
John Miles Runner
Through June 20
Mayer Fine Art Gallery