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September/October 2003


John McQueen and Margo Mensing: Conscriptions

Visiting John McQueen and Margo Mensing's "Conscriptions" installation at Mobilia Gallery in April was like eavesdropping on the couple discussing everything from their free-floating anxieties to the minutiae of their daily lives. This follow-up
to their 2001 Mobilia installation, "Comestibles," expanded outward from that show's preoccupation with domesticity to address ways in which the outside world impinges on everyday life.

For joint exhibitions, the couple collaborates on one major piece, and then each makes solo works to explore a theme - in this case, the idea of being held captive or enlisted against one's will. It's a concept fraught with ideological pitfalls, but Mensing and McQueen deftly sidestep sloganeering, instead letting the art prompt reflection.

Margo Mensing and John McQueen, Bounty, 2003; 10.25 by 21.25 inches. Photos: Arthur Evans. Courtesy of Mobilia Gallery, Cambridge, Mass.

Bounty, their mixed-media wallpaper collaboration, merges Mensing's surface design with McQueen's 3-D sculpture. Mensing scanned colorful stickers attached to fruit (mangos, bananas, oranges, etc.) and used printouts to construct a collage of the bird-of-paradise flower. She then re-scanned the collage, manipulated it in Adobe Photoshop, and, with the help of the media department at Skidmore College (where she teaches), printed multiple repeats on self-adhesive billboard paper. McQueen filled a repeat of sky-blue squares with crop-duster planes of willow twigs. The planes spew chemical dust, represented by semitranslucent pieces of plastic milk jugs. The message is clear: there's trouble in paradise.

John McQueen, Audubon's Bible, 2003; sticks, string, plastic; 4 by 23 by 33 inches.

Some of the less overt pieces in the exhibition are even more disturbing. McQueen has been experimenting with the book form as a means toward tactile, interactive sculpture. In Audubon's Bible, he embeds a parrot "carcass" (constructed of hot-melt glue and a virulent green plastic from French oil containers) in a book of willow-twig pages. Open and read - and you are confronted with a jarring image that refers to the great illustrator's practice of killing numerous specimens to create his definitive avian paintings.

John McQueen, Eminent Domain, 2003; sticks, string, wood; 60 by 56 by 32 inches.

Other McQueen sculptures explore the serial narrative form. Eminent Domain, a two-part folding screen, depicts his and Mensing's separate homes with extraordinary and loving anecdotal details, such as the African violets on Mensing's windowsill. A six-part folding screen, White Noise News, functions like a picture book of sounds that impinge on this domestic tranquility: a crying baby, buzzing flies, a Humvee, a dripping faucet, a crowing rooster, and the world itself. In Idle Idol, he seems to chide himself for his insularity. The sculpture of an easy chair in a cage suggests that home comfort is its own trap.

John McQueen, White Noise News, 2003; sticks, string; 26 by 91 by 5.5 inches.

Margo Mensing, Banking on It: Indian Point Nuclear Plant (with detail), 2002; security envelopes; 6.5 by 12.75 feet.

Mensing confronts her insecurities directly in Indian Point, which depicts the nuclear power station she passes every time she rides the train to Manhattan. It is the second in a "Seven Wonders of the World" series. The first was the Sydney Opera House, and the Eiffel Tower is in progress. They are, she says, "things we are afraid of losing," yet she has constructed them of things we overlook - the patterned linings of security envelopes. Mensing creates circles using hole punches of various gauges, then uses these giant pixels to assemble the image. The scale of Indian Point - 6.5 by 12.75 feet - makes it an epic statement of both grudging beauty and palpable fear. That Mensing has constructed it from security envelopes - so mundane that they are usually beneath notice - suggests how deeply beauty and fear alike can penetrate into the domestic tranquility McQueen describes in Eminent Domain.

- Patricia Harris and David Lyon

Critics and writers Patricia Harris and David Lyon are based in Cambridge, Massachusetts.

John McQueen, Idle Idol, 2003; sticks, string; 22 by 15 by 12 inches.
This review first appeared in:

Sept/Oct 2003

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