Michael Phelan:

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Catalogue Essay by Tim Griffin, 2003

Artificiality has a beautiful history behind it. More than a century ago, Baudelaire praised cosmetics, saying that they enabled people to approach divine immortality,making skin more like porcelain and complexions more like marble-evoking sensibilities not belonging strictly to this Earth. Oscar Wilde soon followed, saying that art should be unnatural, since the best art changes the way people observe nature: Only after Corot and Constable were people able to recognize certain aspects of the world; even the fog in London was invisible until the Impressionists painted it. Yet, closer to our time, the idea of artificiality has been met more critically. In the 1980s, Baudrillard confronted the magic kingdoms of global capitalism,amusement parks of media culture that are totally virtual realms, existing independent of physical reality. And now, Zizek quotes novelist Christopher Isherwood, who once said-well before the inception of postmodernism-that Americans love to live as if they were dwelling within their advertisements. Any contemporary intrusion upon their intoxicated state belongs, Zizek asserts, to “the desert of the real.”

In the work of Michael Phelan, that relationship between real and unreal seems more resolved. Maybe it’s because, after all, Phelan is an American artist. Artificial places actually exist as a part of the nature around him; they have a material ground and emotive force which must be acknowledged. And, more than simply being observed, these places may be remade through art in a way that absorbs the criticality of Baudrillard and Zizek without abandoning the beauty of Baudelaire and Wilde.

Phelan was born in 1970 and grew up among the middle class towns outside of Houston, Texas. These were the sorts of places that hosted the descendents of Dan Graham’s suburbia: Overtly artificial, uninterrupted repetitions of tract housing had given way there to perfectly manicured lawns and winding roads, and model homes with slight permutations among them. Nature here was not eliminated, masked or opposed. It wasn’t even duplicated (not in the way that, say, Central Park was designed to have an untouched, natural “look”). Rather, nature was packaged, sent away for, or prefabricated en masse.

Today, we recognize this phenomenon as one of the early signs of an ethereal kind of commodity, in which product dissolved into the very landscape, and even into the simple, intimate act of living itself-selling itself as lifestyle. (Appropriately enough, logos also eventually gave way to human beings like Martha Stewart and Oprah Winfrey.) And it is the ephemeral substance of this real, psycho- social landscape that Phelan continually remodels as sculpture. “But not as any kind of cultural reportage,”he says. “I’m improving upon it, and using its materials to create new constellations of it.”

Some of Phelan’s earliest works were simple reconfigurations of the do-it-yourself backyard deck and furniture arrangements that pervaded the world of his Texas youth. Taking the objects’ instantly recognizable structures and grains-usually they are made of recycled plastics that, endowed with their own brand of immortality, never warp or fade-he set them apart from their vernacular context and function. In effect, he took household settings out of the real-life advertisements of Isherwood’s
Americans and, in so doing, distilled the impulse behind their original creation. Their aura of a suburban
comfort zone suddenly stood by itself, transformed into something vaguely unfamiliar.
Probably this uncanny effect is displayed most powerfully by Phelan’s sculpture of a taxidermied golden
retriever curled up on a shag rug. As one looks at the canine, it continually slips between seeming
dead and alive, artificial and actual, decorative and functional: something impossible to categorize, a
prop that no longer belongs to its stage. (One thinks of Huysman’s bejewelled turtle in Against
Nature remade for an age of mall-strip pet stores.) For Phelan, objects that typically blend seamlessly
into the field of suburban experience are often isolated as figures of an idealized, floating world.

In a sense, such pieces are microcosms of culture that one may watch unfold at length. In fact,
Phelan’s signature works feature stacked aquarium and terrarium vitrines that contain miniaturized,
faux-natural environments composed of epoxy, plastic and foam injection. While organized in grids
that evoke both painting and the architecture of Graham’s later Modernist houses (not to mention
Legos and other playpen building blocks), they appear in both numbers and variation: While reproducing
themselves like so many images, each receptacle is also somehow unique. Glass tanks arranged
together may all feature replicas of wood or white coral amid gravel, but each branch and stone
will point in a different direction. Phelan calls one such work Diamonds Are Forever, a title which was
inspired by a De Beers diamond advertisement. It is as if Phelan, having crystallized the artificial environment that exists all around him, goes on to turn the crystal of culture for the consumer-showing
all of the stone’s reflections to his audience at once, reanimating the advertisement’s sublime concept
by detaching it from its ground, leaving it exposed in an artistic, aesthetic light.

Still, Phelan’s sublime is always mined out of the ordinary. Whatever its otherworldly value, the
organization of his sculptures often arises from research done on such Internet sites as Fountains of
Tranquility, or in such Barnes and Nobles best-sellers as Feng Shui for Dummies. Indeed, Phelan’s
work, ultimately, applies a corollary of the Zen garden principle of ma-which is Japanese for “interval,”
and pertains to a kind of placement of rocks in sand that is based as much on the composition
of the rocks themselves as on spaces between the rocks. Similarly, Phelan’s sculptural objects navigates
intervals in the aesthetic space of culture, and offers a kind of American Zen in which the
worlds of natural and artificial, real and unreal, may exist without contradiction.

—Tim Griffin