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Greg Colson at Angles Gallery

Web site: gregcolsonart.com

If you're not already convinced that Greg Colson is a boy scout (that is, an artist who scouts out boyhood, adopting the disarming persona of a somewhat precocious boy in producing his work), a visit to his current exhibition of assemblages and etchings at Angles Gallery ought to settle the point. The exhibition's key imagery--evolutionary trees of the animal kingdom and diagrams of the solar system--come right out of a child's "Wonderbook" encyclopedia. And the exhibition's etchings of a (not quite "politically correct") perfect circle of covered wagons (no awareness of Native American suffering here) and a water-pressure rocket launcher (no knowledge of nuclear warheads) also have Colson's typical boy scout aura about them. Of course, what Colson does with these images adds a further dimension of reflection on childhood and asks a few questions about the value of our "adult" ways of classifying and ordering experience.

Most eight to twelve year olds are just emerging into the realm of "adult" knowledge and just beginning to understand systems of classification that surpass the "doggie" stage, yet they still inhabit a child's realm of experience. Hence it's funny but not strange that Colson's boy builds his model of the solar system out of the not-quite-to-scale balls in his life (yellow playground tether ball for the sun, 1960s Dodger baseball stamped with all the team members' names and a Farmer John logo for the earth) with shirt buttons for the moons, since these are certainly as real to him as hypothetical planets. And clearly, in one of the boy's younger works here, the theory of evolution is less comprehensible to him than locating the center of a drawing of an animal and making an Animal Lineup that is ordered by the approximate size of the images (smaller images of an amoeba and a diatom on the left and right, a large, long marine worm in the center, a squid and a bird somewhere in between) rather than by the actual size of the animals or the degree of their biological complexity.

But it is the "intersection" constructions that are really fascinating. One's first take on them is humorous. They look like our child's conception of driving around town in the back seat of a parent's car, before we have any mastery of the map or sense of the lay of a city. Road signs on white pickets point every which direction. But on careful inspection, they exhibit a system. Each intersection gets its own stick, along which the particular intersection's street signs are displayed. In Four Intersections one discovers that one street of each intersection gets only one pointing picket; that is to say, all the intersections are T's. In Three Intersections, two of the intersections are simple crossings with four signs, but one is an eccentric intersection where four streets come together. In other words, Four Intersections deals with things that come in three, and Three Intersections deals with things that come in fours. Deciphering this is like playing three-dimensional tic-tac-toe, or even like trying to read Sol LeWitt's "open cube" series, where the conceptual art game is to intuitively imagine all the possible combinations of three to eleven connected cube lines that would result in a unique sculptural figure that would still be able to stand up as a partially delineated cube in space. In other words, in addition to the humor, what we witness in the intersection pieces is the birth of a mathematical mind. This kid might one day discover the top quark!

But such pristine formal-mathematical knowledge is not what Colson's work is about. What it is about is what such knowledge does not take into account. Hence when, in one work not in the show, Colson inscribes the Krebs cycle (a fundamental chemical process of metabolism) on an inflated inner tube, we are reminded that knowing the body's chemistry is not all that raising a healthy child involves. There is also taking him to the lake and letting him paddle around in the inflated tube. And if Colson makes a wall piece out of sheet metal, wood, and screws that looks like a microchip with its "connects" labeled "A1, A2, A3, . . . C1, C2, C3" (only a small lithograph of the "plan" for this piece is in the current show), one is forced to ask whether the industrial and manual labor involved in making the piece is really "outmoded" in a "postindustrial information age." Or is it just that those who own the means of information are ready to devalue such work radically (making the sheet metal box that houses the computer, for example, or housing that working people can afford) in order to enhance their own social and economic position? After all, in the adult world knowledge is power, as Francis Bacon once said, and it is just as likely to be used selfishly as otherwise. Of course, the boy does not yet know this, since he lives in the child's educational world where the presumption is that knowledge will enable us to "do good."

The most telling images in the exhibition, it seems to me, are those that suggest "home." In Four Intersections one of the wall supports of the piece is a section of a doorjamb with a door hinge cutout. And the signposts look like white pickets from a fence. The door and the yard fence are thresholds between "family" and the social outside. Outside the home is the scary confusion of streets out of which some order needs to be made. In The Animal Kingdom Colson paints his "Wonderbook" illustration of the evolutionary tree onto an old salmon-colored wood-louvered shutter so painted over that it is sealed shut. Its old fleur-de-lis hinges give it the look of something salvaged from the 1950s. On one level the shutter is a typical index of childhood nostalgia (it speaks "home"), on another it suggests a kind of window onto experience or knowledge that is permanently closed. Indeed, if the slats were opened, the children's book illustrations would be fractured; to open the window and see the outside (to grow up) would be to destroy the child's experience.

There is more than a little "fear of growing up" represented in Colson's work. Hanging Stop Light, for example, side from its nostalgic look of a four-sided box suspended in the middle of intersections, has a stop light's connotations of frustration. That Colson makes its lights out of plastic bottles and bottle caps is childlike enough, but that some of them are prescription pill and sleeping pill bottles bespeaks the physical and psychological frailties of adulthood that gives rise to the nostalgia for an "idyllic" childhood. That darkness is not represented in Colson's work (nor is any childhood trauma), yet one suspects that it is what lurks behind the closed shutter of The Animal Kingdom.


Peter Kosenko, published in Artpapers (May/June 1995), pp. 37-38.


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