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'Wunderkammer: Mark Johnson & Debra Broz'

This 'cabinet of curiosities' from artists Broz and Johnson works best when the art is specific and personal

Reviewed by Matthew Irwin, Fri., March 22, 2013

<i>sense of place</i>, by Debra Broz
sense of place, by Debra Broz
Courtesy of Debra Broz

'Wunderkammer: Mark Johnson & Debra Broz'

Julia C. Butridge Gallery, Dougherty Arts Center, 1110 Barton Springs Rd., 974-4021
www.austintexas.gov/department/julia-c-butridge-gallery
Through March 28

Given the desire of contemporary artists to play with the boundaries of materials, galleries provide the distinction between ordinary and artistic objects by casting the latter into rooms with white walls, track lighting, and a price list.

However, the interplay of an artwork with other objects (ordinary, artistic, or otherwise) in spaces designed for living or working or just passing brings said object out of a context of mere observation so that we might interact with it honestly.

In "Wunderkammer," the gallery obfuscates the emotion that an object attempts to transmute simply by being itself.

Of German origin, the word Wunderkammer – "closet of curiosities" in English – refers to spaces in which a collector stores objects of historical or personal significance, often supporting fictional narratives. According to an artist statement, local artists Mark Johnson and Debra Broz are using the concept to survey "personal needs and wants, family, time, and memory ... raised in the rural Midwest."

An untitled piece by Johnson – made from found slats of wood, wooden oars, velvet, and string – evokes an image of an abandoned watering hole, but it feels sentimental, unspecific. On the other hand, Johnson's collages invoke an immediate emotion. In one untitled piece, magazine photos become an imaginary landscape, vaguely depicting a richly colored mound that also seems to represent the whole Earth. Text by Broz reads, "This is the land that gives us everything ... and we take it." This accusation is specific and personal, and image repurposes a commercial intention into a philosophical one.

Broz's sense of place is almost a gag gift – a "dismantled map" stuffed into a glass pill bottle – and I would enjoy encountering it over and over again, rummaging through my desk for a utilitarian item, such as a pen or a calculator. I love the way it reduces the romance of the open road to a knickknack, into gift shop memorabilia.

A wunderkammer is, after all, a collection of memorabilia, real or imagined. And I think I would appreciate "Wunderkammer" more if the artists and the gallery had gone full-tilt at the concept, cramming the works together and labeling them with crappy handmade cards describing the significance of the items to the collector. Eliminating the sense of pretense that inherently comes with a gallery would have made it easier to accept the, likely intentional, lack of craftsmanship.

Little handwritten price tags dangling on strings would have been a nice touch.

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