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Working beyond the box

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    Brothers and New York artists Steven and William Ladd install a tower sculpture, one of their many works from "9769 Radio Drive." Their exhibit, populated with overflowing boxes, spirals and structures, has no trouble filling the galleries at The Contemporary Museum.
    "Ant Infestation" refers to a common subject that runs through the show: an ant, depicted in sculpture and, serving as a pixel, repeated millions of times. The Ladds often use materials related to garment-making, such as fabric, ribbons, pins and boxes sueded in the fashion of jewelry boxes.

One might recall the mild outrage Yoshihiro Suda triggered in some people when he emptied The Contemporary Museum’s galleries to make room for his wood-carved flora, the smallest of which was easily overlooked or mistaken for actual weeds and seedlings. In "9769 Radio Drive" Steven and William Ladd take an opposite approach, dominating every space in the building.

However, theirs is not an aesthetic of excess, but one of overflow, executed with an astounding sense of restraint and discipline that counters Suda’s equally meticulous simulations of the natural with 21st-century recycling and repetition.

There’s the glimmering seduction of pins, snaps, fasteners and hooks used to embellish clothing, apparently filling the Ladds’ hallmark handcrafted ultrasuede boxes when there is in fact merely a thin layer. Also the mad assemblages of (scrap?) fabrics bundled and arranged to look simultaneously like platters of ura maki and jungle atolls viewed from the air. Then there’s their endless supply of belt fabric, which they use as a raw material for collaborative art education proj ects where each kid is guaranteed success and a unique expression.

The display of both the grid made in New York and the organic cellular structure created in Hawaii, benefits hugely from the visual power of Tufte’s axiom of small multiples.

It isn’t easy to fill an entire museum and maintain a sense of momentum — even Los Angeles’ famed street artist Mister Brainwash subcontracted a team of designers and screen printers to articulate his apocalyptic vision of pop art eating itself. It isn’t clear how firmly Mr. B’s tongue is in his cheek, and at first one might think the Ladds might also be having you on with their deeply personal exoticism.


» On exhibit: Through May 8, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 4 p.m. Sundays

» Where: The Contemporary Museum, 2411 Makiki Heights Drive

» Admission: $8, $6 students and seniors

» Call: 526-1322


But if one considers the unofficial mascot of the show — an ant that serves as sculpture and pixel, repeated millions of times — one finds video game aesthetics, and a rigorous exploration of pointillism, and Warhol’s tactics of iteration-with-variance.

This rich procedure of recurrence and overgrowth they have developed actually spends most of its time breaking away from high modernism. Celebrated for, as curator Jay Jensen writes, their "nexus of text, drawing, sculpture, installation, performance, craft/design and fashion," they have more in common with the all-in and all-out production techniques of contemporary electronic musicians and epic drag queens. The rigid confines of their boxes operate as discrete frames of space-time that in some cases unfold like origami, in others evoke strategies for assembly and organization found among the homeless, and in many cases provide a presentation mode similar to that of jewelry boxes.

Meanwhile, none of these containers can constrain the fantastically organic sewn, beaded and stitched geodes, sea urchin textures and fairy-enchanted moss patches that fill and spill out of them. With titles like "Stack Infection" the structure-flow of hybridity and benevolent infection they are exploring becomes clear.

If the Ladds’ work were stupid but technically deep, or merely shallow and pretty, it would be easy to write off much of the commentary referring to their personalities as part of a gimmick. After all, this is an era of rock star artists and artist rock stars, and combined with the singularity of their work, this is exactly what keeps the art market’s wheels greased. The intimacy of their work, rooted in hunter-gathering, handwork and embryogenesis, is apparently a reflection of the way in which they look at each others’ lives and family history. They have automatic hugs for those they meet the first time, a general vibe of generosity, and elaborate ritual presentation/performances that pass as studio visits.

Though I did not meet the Ladds while they were on Oahu, few articles about them fail to mention their personal qualities. There is something in their work that definitely invites the viewer to study it closely, but not as if it were some vaguely antagonistic puzzle or intentionally enigmatic.

At the same time, the formal beauty of their pieces is clearly related to fashion and high-end garment-making but it doesn’t stop there.

These are functioning artifacts with powers all their own that yield customized insights the longer they are contemplated. Ocean. Cityscape. Agriculture. Reef. Fabric shop. Candy store. Careful study and absorption yields pleasure, an appreciative embrace of your attention, and a sense that you are connected to the artists through the work.

"Spend your life doing what you love. Be focused and disciplined. Collaborate," the Ladd brothers encourage. Indeed. So then, the correct word to describe this show and the spirit in which it was created just might be "aloha."


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