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Special Report

Brian Jungen: Cetology
at Henry Art Gallery

Brian Jungen

Brian Jungen

Brian Jungen


At first glance, the work of Vancouver-based artist Brian Jungen appears to be more suited to a natural history museum than a contemporary art institution. The artistís first solo exhibition in the U.S., Cetology, features a giant sculpture in the form of a whaleís skeleton. But this skeleton, hung from the double height ceiling of the Henryís East Gallery, is fashioned from plastic lawn chairs. Also on view are replicas of North West Coast masks fashioned from deconstructed Nike Air Jordan shoes. The recent recipient of the inaugural Sobey Art Award, the largest prize in Canada for emerging artists, Jungen produces work that is transformative--common store-bought commodities become evocative objects ripe with wonder, humor, and meaning. The metaphor of the endangered bowhead whale crafted from mass-produced, globally-ubiquitous consumer items, provides many associations, enriched by the artistís own First Nations ancestry. Brian Jungen: Cetology is on view in the Henry Art Galleryís East Gallery from January 24 Ė May 25, 2003. 

This is Brian Jungenís first solo exhibition in the United States. Born in Port St. John, B.C., in 1970 to a Swiss father and a First Nations mother, Jungen has already achieved considerable renown. He has exhibited widely throughout Canada; major works have been acquired by the National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, and the Vancouver Art Gallery; and he was recently awarded the inaugural Sobey Art Award, a biannual prize showcasing Canadian artists under 40. 

Jungen thrives on tensions between contrasting modes: historical vs. contemporary, scientific vs. artistic. Cetology questions the conventions of museum display in general, and specifically focuses on those elements that reflect the artistís own experience. His doubling of real/fake, precious/mundane, and sacred/profane reflects the internal contradictions around the perception and treatment of Native people in contemporary American societies.

Juxtaposing sculptures from two recent bodies of work, this exhibition also includes Prototype for a New Understanding #5 (1999) and, briefly, the final work from that series Prototype for a New Understanding #12 (2002). Both series demonstrate the elegant subversion of Jungenís process. Each sculpture is fashioned out of consumer objects that have a powerful identity in the global market. Prototypes for a New Understanding are made of pricey Air Jordans--most retailing for around $150--painstakingly deconstructed to their constituent parts and reconstructed to resemble Northwest Coast Indian masks. Each of the twelve different masks he has devised exploits different elements of the sneakers to create distinct types, but none reproduces a specific--potentially sacred--original. 

Like his sculptural media, Jungenís whale and mask subjects also participate in the global economy, a fact in direct contradiction to their idealized identity. Contained in the commingling of consumer products and museum relics are controversies around marketing rare and sacred objects or unique scientific materials and conflicting opinions about what constitutes a commodity--such as, who owns a skeleton? Jungenís installation about installations and his products critiquing products provoke vast associations by their very simplicity. The truths they reveal are as paradoxical and indefinable as the complicated reality the artist--and we all--live. 

Funding: Cetology is organized for the Henry Art Gallery by Chief Curator Elizabeth Brown, with Assistant Curator Pamela Meredith, and supported in part by the Henryís Contemporary Art Fund and special funding from PONCHO for the museumís artist-in-residence program. In kind support is provided by the Grand Hyatt Seattle. The artist lecture is co-sponsored by the Canadian Consulate General and the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. Many thanks to Catriona Jeffries Gallery, Vancouver, B.C. 

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