Visual Arts

Tooling Around

It all started 2.6 million years ago, when some smart monkey used a sharp rock to slice up his prehistoric supper. Today, our supply of tools has evolved, along with our upright spines and opposable thumbs. One visit to Home Depot and you can see how far the species has come, with aisles of floor-to-ceiling gadgets. A current exhibition not only offers portraits of our modern-day tools, but expands tools' definition and function. While you could spend hours here, you can also get a good feel for the work in just a few minutes, and that's good — you might be short on time, since "Do It Yourself: The Art of Tools" is on display in the Terminal 4, Level 3 gallery at Sky Harbor International Airport.

Curated by Lennee Eller and staff, the pieces were pulled from Phoenix Airport Museum's collection of more than 500 works (the museum serves Sky Harbor, Deer Valley and Goodyear airports, funded by the City of Phoenix Aviation Department). Airport art offers a great way to kill time between flights, and it certainly beats staring at cactus back-scratchers in the gift shop. The built-in gallery in the revamped Terminal 4 has hardwood floors, warm lighting, and an open arrangement that make for a pleasant looking experience (and there's plenty of floor space to set down your carry-on).

The central greeting piece, Folksong of the Midwest, LXVIII by Ludvic, is a horizontal welded sculpture consisting of various tools. This work drew me in as I tried in vain to recognize each gizmo and its corresponding function. A simple approach to the theme, the sculpture is the perfect introduction to an exhibition that, with the exception of a few pieces, hardly moves beyond concrete interpretations.

On the far wall behind Ludvic's sculpture is Work , a floor-to-ceiling collage/painting by Jeff Falk. The surface is covered by pages from an illustrated instructional manual that looked to me as though it was left over from a 1970s middle-school shop class. Pages of the Bible are incorporated randomly throughout, exposing the concept of religion as an institutional tool. The phrases "do it yourself," written in blue cursive along the top, and "bel far niente" scrawled in bright red along the bottom (translated from Italian as "it's good to do nothing") frame the silhouette of a huge hammer. As Falk explains in the wall panel, to do nothing would be a do-it-yourself project in its own right. There is so much going on here, it is easy to get lost — in a good way. The subject matter is as layered as the artwork itself.

The most intriguing work of the bunch is a subtle series of ambrotype photographic prints, Memories of Tools, by Brent Bond. Each of three frames holds two vertically arranged photos. The lower pictures show a soft ethereal surface, like a down comforter, with the impressions of a screwdriver, pliers, and hammer squished into the malleable feather-filled fabric. The contrast of hard to soft, light to heavy, and cold to warm are realized as the mind's eye visualizes the thud of these metal hunks on material. The top images display a hand, fingers slightly curled. This is where Bond takes it a step further by including hands — our very first tools.

Most of the other pieces are stylized portraits of modern-day tools. While I love the miniature saws, knives and machetes made of bottle caps by Ted Troxel — or Kay Emig's colorful beaded brayers — the end result is merely an enjoyable and somewhat thought-provoking show.

The connective aspect to all the works is that I want to get my hands on this art — literally. Fortunately for future visitors to the exhibit, Plexiglas prevented my manual urges, but the crave to fondle this art show led me to consider the theme as more than just a cutesy, simple way to organize a non-offensive exhibition. Tools are ancient — markers of intelligence that separate human from monkey (or at the very least, monkey from smarter monkey). It's natural to want to squeeze the grips to make pliers clench or bang the wall with a hammer — it's primal!

To be sure, the organizers could have dug deeper, conceptually, with this exhibit. But the choice to keep it simple is wise. They obviously know their audience, because this show won't blow anyone's mind — and it shouldn't. Because your flight leaves in 20 minutes, and you still have to get through security.

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Lilia Menconi
Contact: Lilia Menconi