Wheelbarrows communicate sustainable aesthetic in Lederer exhibit

Both tongue-and-cheek and existentially provocative, the Bertha V.B. Lederer Gallery exhibit “Custom” subverts the concept of projecting our identities onto our material possessions. “Custom” opened on Saturday Oct. 26, and it features the work of Alfred University Foundation students. Associate professor of Chair of Studio Art Dan DeZarn and assistant professor of foundations at Middle Tennessee State University Thomas Sturgill served as artistic collaborators and provided the students with the theme.

DeZarn and Sturgill call their collaboration “Pulled Resources.” They met at the University of Tennessee in 2001 and began working together in 2003 when DeZarn finished graduate school and Sturgill completed his undergraduate degree.

The works that make up “Custom” are sculptures composed of a limitless variety of media, all with one thing in common: They are contained in, or built around, a wooden wheelbarrow.

The wheelbarrows can in some way define the individuals who own them, even at the expense of practicality, in the same tradition that cars are customized to define their owners. The use of wheelbarrows in place of cars imbues the project with a moral statement.

“The idea that every adult has to have a vehicle, and that’s how they get to anywhere, isn’t sustainable,” DeZarn said. “What if you defined yourself by a wheelbarrow? Which, instead of being this thing that allows you to drive and go consume everything you want, is an object that allows you to do work more efficiently.”

The piece titled “Taking Root” demonstrates deep human definition. The barrow holds a plastic human skull and skeletal hands sticking out of Spanish moss to hold open a book with a small tree seeming to grow out of it. The loss of one life grows into another, and the book is a record of a person’s life so far, with the crumpled pages glued to the tree branches as leaves symbolizing the future.

Pieces like “Taking Root” focus on concept, while others, like “The Sprinkler,” which is literally a working shower complete with a curtain, stone tile and a drain, focus on construction.

According to Sturgill, the role of “pulled resources” in “Custom” was not in creating sculpture, but in “facilitating the action, and generally people call that social practice.”

The social practice aspect of “Custom” heightens the theory that the action of customization is integrated in a society enough that a wheelbarrow can function as a signifier of a person’s identity.

The sculpture medium is integral to the philosophy behind “Custom.” It gives it an effective note of realism, taking a “what if” question and making it a material reality. The viewer, just in the act of being the viewer, becomes fully integrated into that reality.

“Custom” will be exhibited in the Lederer Gallery until Dec. 7.