Perspective-skewing Oklahoma City Museum of Art installation challenges ideas of art 

Through April 11
Oklahoma City
Museum of Art
415 Couch
$12 adults, $10 seniors, students and children

Jason Peters is almost always armed.

His piece is scuffed and worn, but Peters' contractor-grade cordless drill only leaves his hip when it's time for action.

Space Odyssey
Force of 'Gravity'
'Material' Mentor

As an artist, Peters is a contemporary cowboy of sorts. Absent are bandoliers and leather fringe, but a vintage Busch beer belt buckle and a faded Ricki Lake T-shirt take their place.
He is rarely home in New York, opting instead to wander from place to place in an endless search of ever-expanding space. The pursuit has driven Peters cross-country, into scores of well-known museums and galleries and, earlier this month, to Oklahoma City. The basics are often worked up during a brief scouting mission where he scopes out the space, and some details are planned with sketches, but the integrity of his finished artwork always relies on improvisation and his ability to read the lay of the land.

Discovery fuels Peters, who stakes his claim with full-scale art installations built with the elements of his environment. In a modern, ready-made world filled with artifacts of industry, commerce and convenience, he reaches out, hoping to redefine the use of all things ordinarily useful.

For more than a decade, Peters has reached for tires, shipping pallets, railroad ties and countless other off-the-shelf items and out-of-the-trash-heap finds.

"Any object can be a building block," he said while staring toward the ceiling of the Oklahoma City Museum of Art.

Flipping an item's inherent purpose, Peters looks for new properties. A simple chair, which might typically spend its ignoble life in the corner of a conference room, is transformed into something decidedly less sturdy and functional, like a teetering, ceiling-high stack that looks poised to crash like a wave or a tangle of seatbacks and legs for a piece that hangs like a chandelier.

By shaking "cognitive perceptions" of everyday objects, onlooker response to his installations is usually immediate, even if it's unspoken, Peters said.

"It's visceral " a base reaction," he said. "You know what you like."

For the last month, Peters has been hard at work in a makeshift studio set up inside OKCMOA's Special Exhibition Gallery. His tools are everywhere, atop carts and tables and strewn across the floor. Screws, bolts and fasteners of all kinds form family garage-styled piles between less familiar finds, like custom-fabricated steel brackets and 150-foot spools of rope light. The installation is immense and couldn't come together without help from some locals, so before he rambled into town in early January, the museum helped the artist corral a small posse of local college students.

"I really need the help, and they've been great," he said. "I'm always beholden to the people that make this all possible."

Space Odyssey

Peters' "Anti.Gravity.Material.Light" exhibition opens Thursday at the museum, a large-scale installation that literally bends and warps the spaces it occupies. Colorful buckets, glossy black chairs and fluorescent lights are the primary components of the five-piece installation, which is split into three separate environments inside. Three of the pieces were built from buckets, which University of Oklahoma sculpture students Jared Flaming, Mike Hill and Mick Tresemer helped piece together.

Together in a workroom, the trio removed handles from many of the buckets, joining them together with a screw hinge that occupies the now-empty handle holes. Poking strands of rope light through holes drilled in the bottom of each bucket, the three students assembled stacks of the bendable bucket chains, which were later delivered to Peters " often atop a motorized scissor lift " who then joined the pieces and arranged them into a trio of twisted, floor-to-ceiling helixes.

"Basically, we put together all the puzzle pieces and turn them over to the artist, who knows what the final image is supposed to look like," said Flaming.

For the installation, Peters divided the Special Exhibition Gallery into a pair of separate spaces. The first room hosts a trio of suspended centerpiece installations in a room painted gray to "neutralize the space." Like a trail of bread crumbs teasing toward a partially sliced loaf, disembodied chair cushions line the walls of the exhibit entrance, leading the eye to a hanging piece comprised of black chairs and yellow, lavender and green fluorescent cubes. The hovering tentacles of the red bucket piece fill nearly half of the gray room. The red tubes reach and coil, appearing organic from some angles and unearthly from others " the arms of some great sea sponge or perhaps the splayed mechanical guts of a hovering spaceship.

An inverted, geometric pyramid glows from one corner of the room. A giant, monolithic black sphere floats in the middle. Fashioned from fluorescent light bulbs, the piece appears weightless thanks to Peters relocating the lights' electrical ballasts " the unwieldy contraptions likely buzzing overhead right now " as far from the installation as possible.

If the gray room is neutral, the gallery's final space is decidedly negative. Entirely black from carpet to ceiling, the last room is the exhibit's most intense and unconventional. A crew from OKCMOA offset all of its right angles with black plywood panels and banks of mirrors. Viewed in the dark with only the illumination cast by a spiraling cascade of white buckets, the installation arcs and disappears into mirrored infinity.

Force of 'Gravity'

A few months after his appointment in January 2009, OKCMOA president and CEO Glen Gentele contacted Peters, hoping he would lead off a new series of contemporary art with an original, site-specific installation.

Having experienced Peters' work in shows at the Mattress Factory art museum in Pittsburgh and as a part of "The Light Project" at The Pulitzer Foundation for the Arts in St. Louis, where Gentele served as director of the Laumeier Sculpture Park before he joined OKCMOA, the new president said he was eager to link existing exhibits with more modern artwork.

"It's really, really important for the museum experience and for our guests in general," Gentele said about his push for a contemporary art series, "and also to complement the 17th-, 18th- and 19th-century collections we have in the museum."

Peters' "exploratory work" provides a concise bridge between the history and future of art, Gentele said, describing the installation as modern "market culture" meets Marcel Duchamp's work with ready-made objects and Dan Flavin's minimalist light sculptures.

"The beauty of contemporary art is that it's new, it's part of our culture, and it's very important for us to pay attention," he said, "because it does very specifically relate to the past, but also points to the future."

Gentele corresponded with Peters throughout the spring and summer, discussing installation possibilities and exchanging photos and floor plans of the gallery space. Peters visited the museum in August, which prompted work on "Anti.Gravity.Material.Light" to began in earnest, Gentele said.

As the inaugural "New Frontiers" exhibition, a series dedicated to contemporary art, Gentele said "Anti.Gravity.Material.Light" gives museumgoers multiple entry points.
"Maybe it will challenge your ideas of what art is," he said, "and also delight you with an experience."

'Material' Mentor

Days before joining Jason Peters onsite at OKCMOA, University of Oklahoma students Jared Flaming, Mike Hill and Mick Tresemer started work on "Anti.Gravity.Material.Light" in a sculpture studio on campus.

Welding lengths of angle iron, the trio fabricated four squares that when bolted together and suspended from the rafters of the gallery space comprise the support structure for Peters' inverted fluorescent pyramid.

A rare opportunity for hands-on work side-by-side with a professional artist assembling a high-level commission, the students were excited by the daily workload and the creative trust Peters placed in their hands, Tresemer said.

"It's a little intimidating, but we're all confident with what we've learned so far and the skills we're being used for," he said.

The three students " all friends who've worked together on various sculpture projects " were asked to help upon a recommendation by sculpture professor Jonathan Hils, Tresemer said. OKCMOA president Glen Gentele, who interviewed and approved the trio for the installation assignment, expects to bring in more student-artists to help visiting professionals with upcoming exhibits and earn experience in real-world exhibiting.

"It gives them a chance to work with a living artist, but also teaches them about working with the museum," he said. "It's like a crash course in exhibitions." "Joe Wertz

Anti.Gravity.Material.Light @ the Oklahoma City Museum of Art from Oklahoma Gazette on Vimeo.

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Joe Wertz

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