Creating 99 wooden boxes and filling them with text, collage and other art objects may sound like an overly ambitious project for even a trio of artists, but imagine that the original idea was 1,000 boxes. "We went out to the Red Dragon one night to talk about doing an exhibition together," said Phil Arrington, one of the three artists featured in this month's "99 Boxes" exhibition at Gallery 360. "After the second gin and tonic, we said, 'Hey, let's create 1,000 boxes.' Fortunately we woke up the next day and said, 'What were we thinking?'"
Now more manageably sized, the "99 Boxes" display consists of identical nine-by-nine-by four-inch boxes, with artists Arrington, Tyler Blue and Shawn Holster filling 33 boxes each with unique collections of objects, text, metal and collage. The boxes were hand-built by the three, another concept born in the Red Dragon meeting. "I asked them, 'Guys, do you have any idea what this means? This will take power tools!'" Blue said. "But fortunately," Arrington added, "Shawn owns a lot of power tools, and he knows how to use them."
The three hooked up through Gallery 360 a couple years ago. Blue had an exhibit there, Holster has created several large-scale window displays for the gallery, and Arrington, the newcomer, showed one piece of art in a recent show. "I'm new at this so I wanted to join with someone who had experience," said Arrington, who by day serves as WCCO-TV's marketing director. "So this was a good way to go. I think we share similar visions, like we're all attracted to words and toys and junk."
Like Arrington, Blue said text is the primary source for his art. "I carry an Exacto blade everywhere. I'm always cutting out words and pasting them all over my apartment. It's good to work with fellow artists who have a similar aesthetic. I come from a graphic design background so I tend to have a really clean aesthetic, but working with these guys loosened me up."
The atmosphere is loose between the three. They share anecdotes, ribald humor and more than an occasional joke. They also spend more time talking about each other's art than their own. "I wouldn't be doing this without Tyler," Arrington claimed. "I went to one of his openings and just bugged the heck out of him asking him how he did this and how he did that. And after that I just thought, 'Okay, I'll do this. It will keep me off the streets.'"
Blue finds himself attracted to Arrington's art because of its "rawness."
"Phil's stuff reminds me of going to a rummage sale and finding a bunch of junk that somehow just looks like it belongs together." And both Blue and Arrington praise the precision in Holster's work. "He's a signmaker, a real craftsman," said Arrington. "Tight but unassuming," said Blue, to which Holster uttered a guffaw.
"I don't know about that," said Holster, "but I do know this is the first coherent body of work I've ever put together."
Although the artists' boxes were not quite complete at the time of this interview, each artist chose a few boxes to discuss in advance of the exhibit. Blue's "Close To Home" uses three deceptively simple words, written in reverse: Take It Back. A hand reaches out, suspended by a needle and thread, toward a tall military-clad figurine facing away from the hand. "I actually can't believe I chose to show you this one because it's pretty personal," said Blue. "It's about promises made and broken. It's about my father. Some days I think it's pretty negative, some days very positive. I like the idea that as time changes, so does the perception, even what the words may mean."
In one of Holster's boxes, the letter "a" accompanies a boy on a scooter, a set of praying hands and a couple of small, plastic cavemen. "It's about childhood and the destruction of innocence with age," said Holster. Another box has a decidedly lighter tone. A monkey clad in a bellhop hat sits adjacent to figurines of girls, with a weight hanging over their heads. "What's this all about?" Holster asked, shaking his head and laughing. "Well, it's this bell hop, hat-wearing monkey, getting ready to punch out for the day and go play with the girls. And you know, the weight of the day is just hanging over it all!"
Out of a stack of boxes, Arrington picked one containing a photo of former astronaut John Glenn looming over a fork, tines twisted with balls attached to look like planets. The words "The Road Not Taken" line the frame of the box. Before he could explain the piece, Blue muttered, "Uh-oh, I have a fork piece, too." Quick-witted banter followed, and Arrington said, "Oh forget it, let's move on to 'Kinosis!'" He referred to a box featuring a Ken doll (as in Barbie's Ken) with a strategically placed rocketship between his legs. "Kinosis is a Greek word referring to the emptying out of the gods." Before he could finish, the three artists shared a good laugh, leading one to sense that the process may be more important to them than the finished product.
"I already got out of this show what I wanted," said Holster. "That is, a reason to play with materials and methods I wouldn't have otherwise, and the discipline of having a set of parameters, like these boxes and the timeframe. Everything else is gravy."
For Blue, "The exchange always has been the most important for me. I want to get out there and not be a closet artist who stays up 'til four in the morning thinking these weird thoughts. People always ask me,
'What does this mean?' and I really just want to know what they get from a piece.
I love different perspectives. Like a show where I had grandmothers and teens tell me they both loved something." Holster piped in, "Yeah, me, too. I've found I'm extremely popular with eight-year-olds."
Arrington said for him the exhibit is all about connecting with people. "It's about somebody else getting some sort of meaning out of your work." But ultimately, he continued, it's about working together, the three of them. "The exchange of ideas and pieces, that's what it's all about. I think you'll find that nothing in the show is accidental."
Featuring the work of Phil Arrington, Tyler Blue and Shawn Holster
Now on display at Gallery 360 at the corner of Xerxes Ave. & 50th St.
Gallery hours: M, F & Sa, 10am-6pm z Tu, W and Th, 10am-8pm z Su, 12-6pm
For more information, call 925-2662.