The art world is rife with objects which have been made according to what might be called the Discount Aesthetic. Artists who subscribe to this aesthetic are usually collagists and assemblagists who work with whatever they can get their hands on. They rely on trash piles, garage sales, thrift shops, and hardware stores for their materials. Of course, the goal is for the whole to be greater than the sum of the parts, and the result can be the sublime formal beauty of Kurt Schwitters, the surreal elegance of Joseph Cornell, the bawdiness of Robert Rauschenberg, or the terror of Edward Keinholz.
The fact that so few artists succeed to the degree of these predecessors points to an inherent danger of the Discount Aesthetic, namely, that it's only too easy to take a pile of junk and make a pile of junk with it. Collages, assemblages, and installations are avant-garde-looking, thereby gaining aesthetic gravity which often hasn't been legitimately earned. Suspending all expectations of beauty and craft, one must look at the Discount Aesthetic object with such an open mind that one is liable to accidentally take it seriously even if it's a flat-out failure.
Redeemingly, there's Randi Chaplin, who has created an installation entitled What Is Love? What is love, indeed? The installation obliquely offers an unusual but valid answer, that love is what you do which makes the place you live in your home. This includes the Martha Stewart sense of that idea, but goes on to include activities of sex, nourishment, pacification, tidiness, work, embellishment, and cherishing. It is a home which allows these activities to become meaningful through repetition. A home, in fact, is symbolically represented in the installation, in a way that utilizes kitschy, throwaway materials without becoming bogged down by them.
Her centerpiece, Golden Milk, is an eight-sided table, built to the shape and proportions of a placemat, on which sit a green table-runner and a tray with two baby bottles painted gold. On the left wall there is a painting entitled The Garden of Earthly Delights, after the Heironymus Bosch piece. It depicts variously phallic and vulval plant forms, a baby bottle, and a pacifier. These last two are coated, on their business-ends, with a sugary surface of glitter which reinforces their attraction. This hedgerow of sexual and oral pleasure cleverly suggests the nominal landscaping around a cared-for but humble house.
On the center wall is Work Daze, the most ambitious and formally successful part of the installation. The wall is covered with aqua faux-tile linoleum which reminds you of your grandmother's kitchen even if your grandmother had better taste than that. Work Daze is a mixed media painting executed on a vinyl tablecloth in all its blue-checkered and flowered glory. A real pair of boy's boxer shorts and a toy truck are paired with a painted white dress of little-girl proportions, while a parade of silkscreened trucks drives by underneath. The flat tablecloth and the vertically hung flooring produce a dramatic birds-eye view, or at least a dramatic view from the flowery kitchen ceiling light which would doubtlessly be hanging over the scene.
On the right wall there are three assemblages, Pacifier, Safety, and Round and Round. They have been served up on silver platters, albeit disposable plastic ones. Painted, silkscreened, and collaged, they act as meditations on childhood, nutriment, impermanence, and unavoidable danger. The platter format serves an iconographic purpose and creates an effect like a row of heavily framed family pictures.
Chaplin's formal skills beat the pants off of any number of artists working with similar materials. Junky-looking is fashionable right now; beauty as we traditionally understand it seems to carry with it some kind of contemporary art-world liability. What distinguishes Chaplin's work from that of her more cack-handed contemporaries is the sensitive forethought which goes into its arrangement. Even a small installation like this one shows handiwork and hundreds of intelligent choices. Connotations are closely monitored, and statements which become too overt are given contradictions.
Paradoxically, her objects seem to have been made in the anti-aesthetic, ironic, post-modernist mold, but in fact are crafted, self-critical, and heartfelt. Her insightfulness allows her to take a question like What Is Love? and answer it with metaphorical images of shelter, food, and labor. Chaplin's art, emotionally and technically ambitious, succeeds in transcending its materials. She is clearly poised to do work of ever-increasing importance.