Alongside the towering motifs of Fetishization, Commercialism, Globalization and Transformation with which Brian Jungen's work is concerned, Loss stands off in a corner like a young child. Call it the Loss of Splendor. Mainly it's that of Aboriginal culture - to stereotypes, to jail, to alcoholism - but also of the natural world, and those of art and architecture. The way loss is revealed is what makes Jungen a difficult artist - not because his work is difficult, but because it's difficult to know if it should be liked at all. No, liked is the wrong word. His work is impossible not to like because it's inventive, clever, well crafted and visually splendid. The word is endorsed.
The story of the catapult of Brian Jungen's success as an artist is becoming as well worn and as much a part of legend as the characters he represents in his series of sculptures that stand at the beginning of it. In 1998, Jungen saw something in the colors of Nike Air Jordan shoes that probably hadn't been intended by Nike, or seen by anyone else. Jungen took the shoes apart, and using the red, black and white of the shoes as a guide, restitched them to create Prototypes for New Understanding - remarkable representations of Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks. Together with the Prototypes, Jungen is best known for another ongoing series of sculpture - the whale skeletons Shapeshifter, Cetology, and Vienna, the bones of magnificent creatures reduced to reproduction using plastic chairs.
The meshing of images and materials in sometimes uneasy combinations is intended as a critical comment and analysis, but it comes at a price. In part these series are a reflection of ethnographic and natural history museums, but they also cast the disturbing shadow of trading post and souvenir shop - the trinkets and knockoffs made for a tourist market. The shapes are right, but the materials are wrong - wrong in the sense that they demean their source. There is something disturbing about an Aboriginal mask made of shoes and a whale skeleton made of plastic. Are there things in this world that should be respected and left alone? Should there be a moral imperative, a responsibility, not to act? As laudatory as Jungen's ambition to confront difficult issues is, does his work alleviate or contribute to the problems? Should he care?
Being censorious are we getting it all wrong and overlooking the humor, missing the joke, that Jungen, and many writers on Jungen, call attention to? Jungen's background is Swiss and Aboriginal, and according to Ojibwa writer Drew Hayden Taylor's new book Me Funny, permitted disrespect is characteristic of Aboriginal humor, especially teasing and self-deprecation. Even so, the intention of making, or appearing to make, a joke can also be expressly to avoid censor, a defensive behavior to defuse criticism. As a Jew, I understand the rules for telling racist jokes and I know self-deprecating humor - still, there are certain objects and symbols that I wouldn't disrespect. There is a nuance here between something which is verbal and something which is physical, and it's what makes Jungen not so funny. Jungen isn't telling jokes, he's making objects, and a verbal assault is very different than a physical one as the "sticks and stones" of children's rhyme teaches. As a witness, the decline of a culture, like the loss of uniqueness because of globalization, is no joke.
After the thrill, these are frictions that animate Jungen's best work. The sad irony is that the farther his work gets from the friction, the more it risks a bland conceptualism like Michael -reproductions of Air Jordan shoe boxes made in aluminum - and Modern Sculpture - silver soccer balls sewn together into biomorphic shapes and filled with lava rock. In Guernica, Picasso could comment on the horrors of war without at the same time being complicit or even seeming to be, and still produce a moving and provocative work of art. Is the same possible for Jungen or is the greatest loss the impossibility of doing so?