Next Time They’ll know it’s us
March 15, 2011, by Andrew Berardini, Art review Magazine
It’s easier to get there than it is to leave. Sometimes people never leave. Supplies are sparing or expensive, and so the natives survive with what’s on hand; jury-rigging is common, and the skills most prized are those of independence (homebuilding, crafts, mechanics). Backwoods alchemists used to make moonshine with elaborate concoctions and equipment, the sinister piping and processing bent into elbows and curved around itself, scuffed and bruised. Though moonshine might still get cooked up in certain Appalachian neighbourhoods, the main product for rural chemists these days is methamphetamine, made with dangerous and rattletrap methods out of medicines and cleaning products you might find in your bathroom. Instead of white lab coats you see overalls and T-shirts, trucker hats and biker vests. But backwoods alchemists are still chemists of a kind, scientific experts with a technological expertise derived from years, sometimes generations of having to make do making drugs, or otherwise having to figure out how to craft things by hand.
The glass for beakers and pipettes here are handblown, but less objet d’art and more hippy make-do, a sense of the psychedelic infused with the real need to have something to smoke pot (or speed) out of. It homes in on that tender moment sometime in the 1970s when the hillbillies got replaced by hippies and bikers in the American wilderness.
Vashon Island, Washington state, where artist Eli Hansen currently resides, is one of these places. Unconnected by any road from the mainland, though technically really close to the metropolis of Seattle, it’s a good place to get lost in the Pacific Northwest, not off the grid exactly, but close to being off the grid. Hansen, formerly of Tacoma, seems to have connected all the strange strains of regional life into something rather wonderful that easily finds a fitting though unlikely home in contemporary art.
His sculptures mix purchased and blown pipettes into elaborate, semifunctioning fountains and crypto-mystic objects, where LED lights flicker beneath crystalline blown glass and the lists of materials might sometimes require either a shaman or a chemist to interpret. Wood recovered from crumbling houses and from the drift found on the beach is incorporated into sculptures which, with coloured beakers and simple machines, feel like artefacts from a different civilisation, and in some ways they are.
While so-called regional art can come off as treacly or dumb (think cow-skull paintings or the fascist faux-wonderland of Thomas Kinkade), Hansen has found a way to collapse all the idealism and escapism, outlaws and dropouts of his rural home into a compelling visual language, one that’s tinged with a real human emotion, all the regrets and magic of weathered ideals. Reading the titles of Hansen’s pieces (We didnt plan it this way; we just got older or If I could explain how things ended up this way, I wouldnt be here, all works 2011) fills one with a sense of hope and eventual sadness about what we set out from and where we actually ended up.
Eli Hansen’s “Next Time They’ll Know it’s Us” at The Company, LA”
2011, by Joanna Fiduccia, Art Agenda
A clear glass valve on a strand of silver party beads beckons from the entrance to Eli Hansen’s exhibition, "Next time, they’ll know it’s us." Dangling from a nail, it gives off a felonious pong, like those signs of a subculture that pass under the noses of the majority while remaining indecipherable. What lies beyond this subversive gesture, in Hansen’s second solo show at The Company, consists of a number of sculptural works of delicate blown glass paired with rough and ready found materials like reclaimed wood and steel, beakers and wire. Shelves, cobbled together from wood scraps, hold hand-blown flasks in a variety of colors. Some works carry a narrative charge, such as We bought the whole thing and only sold half (all works 2011), in which two empty vials shaped like bud vases hang from wire nooses, one corked and other portentously left open. Still others pursue more fantastic images of chemistry class gone native, for instance, in We’ll return the favor, where three ash-blackened beakers droop like pears from a curved stick, topped with a glass tip that resembles a giant glossy sprout.
Trained as a glassblower, Hansen is skilled at shuffling the conflicting roles left to the medium: decoration or paraphernalia; Murano and Chihuly or everyday pipes; vases or bongs dissimulated as animal figurines. But whereas the latter might recall the fast times of high school ceramics (playfully conjured by Hansen in a darkened storage room, where hunks of glass refract LED pedestals like lava-lamps), the paraphernalia in this exhibition takes on a darker cast. However colorful, the beakers and conduits here evoke the toxic underbelly of rural America, where meth labs pollute environments and bodies alike in regions including—and indeed, especially—Hansen’s own, the Pacific Northwest.
Hansen currently lives on the island of Vashon, Washington, situated midway between Seattle and Tacoma and accessible only by ferry. That this information unfailingly makes it into the art press (the same could be said of Hansen’s brother and frequent collaborator Oscar Tuazon, who has lived in France for years but is still framed as a PNW export) might seem warranted, in light of his ostensibly regional materials: weathered wood, gnarls of steel that look like they’ve been dug out of moist earth, and of course, the provincial medium of glass. Yet the Northwest has no particular claim on these, and still less on the trope of melding man-made and natural (consider Carol Bove). Instead, one might begin to suspect Hansen’s complicity with that same regional discourse so tightly framing his materials as semi-abstractions of seedy activities in America’s hinterlands, seat of our own homegrown exoticism. This couldn’t be any clearer than in This is how it begins, a working fountain that routes water through what is fastidiously described in the works list as a "standing Soxhlet extractor and Allyn condenser"—two devices used in meth labs.
In his landmark 1979 book on British youth subcultures, Dick Hebdige dryly noted the paradox of his enterprise: one cannot bring to light what is underground without denaturing it. Yet the desire to get a glimpse at the underbelly, to join it with the safety of our own world, persists. In the gallery’s back room, a garage converted into a white cube, Hansen cleverly obliges: a short bookcase arrayed with colorful hand-blown beakers, this last work calibrates meth-lab-meets-mid-century-design to unite "us" with "them," delivering the fantasy of collusion suggested ambiguously in the exhibition’s title. And in fact, maybe we’re not so different after all. Consider the signs indicating the presence of a meth lab, according to the State of Washington: "Extra efforts to cover windows or have extensive security. Visitors come and go throughout the day and stay for short periods of time. Appear to have plenty of money but don’t seem to go to work."
Read the entire article here
Art in America Magazine
In his sculpture and installation, Eli Hansen, who lives and works in Tacoma, Washington, creates interactions between objects fraught with cryptic emotional and psychological implications. Most of his works look like a cross between a rural meth lab and an antique apothecary shelf, integrating colorful blown glass, melded and fused metal, and aging unvarnished wood. Using the works' intimate and evocative titles, viewers hash out on the spot where the words makes sense of the uncomfortably familiar objects. A solo exhibition of Hansen's work, "This is the last place I could hide," was recently on view at Maccarone Gallery.
My titles are all phrases or sentences designed to evoke a feeling without designating an exact story line. They are colloquial, based on emotional responses. I try to spend as much time with the work as possible as I name the pieces, many times literally talking to them. The pieces are fragments of story lines as well. I want to create a fantastical scene, one that takes you right to the edge of reality, but doesn't let go of you. You are given just enough information to build your own storyline, but not so much you can't follow it.
Read the entire article here
Another Bouncing Ball: Staggering Greatness in Tacoma
March 19, 2009, Regina Hackett, Arts Journal
Working with his childhood friend, chemist and botanist Joe Piecuch, Elias Hansen celebrates the cheesy weirdness of Tacoma.
Tacoma is the kind of town artists flee from. Art Chantry, who left and came back, refers to it as a "little piece of New Jersey that broke off." The term flying saucer was coined there in 1947, when a Tacoma man reported seeing silver discs flying over Mount Rainier and along the crest of the Cascade Range. When asked what they looked like, he said, "Like saucers without cups."
Chantry also claims that the term new age was invented in Tacoma by a splinter group of a flying saucer church. Add the town's reputation for organized crime, gangs and heavy-industry polluting the waterfront, it's easy to see why Tacoma had no hope of becoming a city known for art.
Except it has.
Back to Hansen, a glass blower from Pilchuck who never had a decorative thought in his life. He looks at a flourish and wonders how it could be put to use.
He and his older brother Oscar Tuazon come from the Buster Simpson school of handyman poetics. Because Hansen is best known for his collaborations with Tuazon (review here), Hansen's exhibit at a suitably tacky little Tacoma storefront gallery was a test for him. Has he hitched his wagon to his brother's star or has he his own forward momentum?
Clearly the latter. With Truths We Forgot To Lie About, he and Piecuch delivered an exhibit of staggering greatness.
They treated Tacoma like a science experiment, taking core samples of the place distilled into gruesome forms of theoretically drinkable beverages. In all manner of glass test tubes (blown by Hansen), they mixed an alcohol base with Western red cedar, brick fragments from Ted Bundy's childhood home and soil from Port Madison; coyote blood, beard hair, beeswax and butterfly wings; blackberries, club moss from the Hoh rain forest and hydrogen cyanide; soil from Lewis and Clark's Cape Disappointment camp site, concrete from the Boeing plant in Everett flavored with hobo urine, and brick chips from Francis Farmer's childhood home with paint flecks from Curt Cobain's final abode on Lake Washington.
Beauty, for Hansen, breathes in the forest.
If the beauty of the forest is a commodity in a threatened industry, how can Hansen & Piecuch make use of it in an old loggers' town?
By turning it into a memory preserved in alcohol. In the hopes of not setting their house on fire, they took a large, Venetian-style glass vase out to the backyard at night and poured hot urethane into it, over the root bulb of a datura plant, from the Nightshade family. The glass cracked, and the pieces fused in layers as the urethane cooled. With that base, they added the ingredients of peach home brew.
From the website of The Helm, the terrific makeshift gallery that sponsored this installation:Why are bootleggers romanticized? Why are meth cooks ostracized? Why is the Northwest home to so many bootleggers, meth cooks, serial killers and craftspeople? Does the geography of this area create a space for this kind of activity? Or do we create these stories and myths to fit the geography?
Through garage chemistry, traditional craftsmanship, backyard naturopathy and a limited budget, Hansen and Piecuch attempt to assemble a collection of stories, distillations and reactions to the geography and history of the Northwest.
I don't want to oversell the good news here. The Helm is going out of business after its April show. It's tough for galleries to stay in business. For a gallery that's off-the-edge adventurous in Tacoma, it might be near to impossible. RIP, Helm, and come back in another form soon.