Sometimes art is a joke; sometimes it's more like sleight-of-hand.
Both prime us for one outcome (the setup) and then deliver something else (the punchline or the big reveal), taking seemingly ordinary situations and rendering them either fantastical or absurd.
In his exhibition Present at Hand, which opened at Aceartinc. last month, Montreal-based artist Matt Sabourin does a series of tricks and tells a handful of visual jokes using tweaked and reconfigured household objects that range from rubber bands to pantry staples. With an engaging mix of humour, playfulness and semi-serious investigation, the works ask us to reconsider the ordinary stuff of everyday life.
Sabourin's routine is one of transformation. In one piece, he fuses an entire box of sugar cubes into a single brick, fitting it back into the original packaging, while in another, he refills an identical box with the contents ground to a powder. Title cards describe the process of making each piece, though like any showman he's cagey about the details -- how exactly he might have removed the lines from a pack of notebook paper, turning them into "usable ink," as he claims to have done in Tabula Rasa, remains pleasantly mysterious.
When Sabourin plays with food, the results are both baffling and kind of icky: neither the life-size apple made from the blackened pulp of other apples nor the loaf of sandwich bread "reassembled" with liberal quantities of plaster and paint is especially appetizing. Many of the works, especially the gently unsettling ones, owe an obvious debt to surrealism. His and Hers includes a toothbrush whose bristles have been replaced with a My Little Pony cascade of hot pink synthetic hair, a cheeky echo of Meret Oppenheim's 1936 sculpture, Object -- a teacup, spoon, and saucer lined with fur. Upping the ante, there's Pacifier, a "bath stopper made from the contents of a clogged drainpipe," and the menacing Monster, a nightlight you turn on by jamming two door keys into an electrical socket (I opted not to test it).
A maze of pedestals, the show features some 21 distinct works along these lines, and the shtick does admittedly wear thin after awhile. One certainly can (and Sabourin certainly does) turn a toothpaste tube inside out, but it leaves open the question of why on earth one ever actually would. At times, working through the exhibition can feel a bit like trying to have conversation with a toddler who's just learned her first knock-knock joke or getting accosted by an amateur magician who insists you "pick a card, any card" and won't take no for an answer.
All crabbiness aside, what most appeals about Present at Hand is Sabourin's undeniable, exuberant curiosity. His drive to explore and exploit the unexamined potential of ordinary things we take for granted is both admirable and infectious. That frenetic mindset might be best illustrated by Gordian Brain, a life-size sculpture of a human brain and brainstem made from 25 metres of tightly coiled and knotted rope, an exhibition highlight. Seen as a kind of self-portrait, it gives context to Sabourin's freewheeling explorations.
You could say it really... ties the show together.
Don't forget to tip your server, ladies and gentlemen. I'll be here all week.
Present at Hand closes next Friday, Feb. 14w.
Steven Leyden Cochrane is a painfully unfunny artist, writer and educator.