In the middle of Gary Justis’ deep dive into luminescent creature portraiture and wraithlike abstraction the artist made a side trip with a series of electric botanical pictures that are timely and time-defiant. Consisting entirely of floral images his latest photo project is a graphic revision of ornamental light fixtures popular in the 1930’s and 40’s, unknown to few others than vintage object collectors. The new work considers the central image of an incandescent novelty and frames it in relation to early modern art and former trends in domestic interiors. By highlighting an anachronistic impression of technology, which was sophisticated for the 1930’s, through the innovative contours of the original bulbs, he de-documents when and where they fit culturally. Removing the blossom motifs from their first context and inserting them into a contemporary one, he cites the assumed stasis of the past against our own temperamental visual plane. Plucked from the machine age, which celebrated the eternal present by fetishizing the future, he juggles ideas about a sustained present tense and deflected utopia.
Justis’ altered flower prints are a post-tech contribution to generations of western still lifes. Mid-century kitsch is summoned in extraordinarily sculpted light filaments that pun on both naturalistic and artificial bulbs, and prompt a linguistic link in a blossoming sign and signified. Embellished nuclei are then captured digitally and visible only as fluoresced filaments suspended in shadow.
Having spent years producing robotic light installations the sculptor is in his element re-purposing technology with a potential for a substantive reality massage – achieved with an occasional nod to “Plato’s Cave” and its real vs. simulated life allegory. With some digital enhancing he converts the forms with a smoldering Pop Art Nouveau aura. The madly nocturnal architecture of corsages, garland fragments, and bouquets previously afloat in a ship-in-a-bottle facsimile become a meditation on vanishing culture.
Tinged with phosphorous materials, the originals are provocative enough as captured and crystalized nature. But what did they represent originally, and who were the crafters and collectors? They would have been at home in Victorian parlors, maybe an Arts and Crafts guest room. Links to craft or domestic design aside, Justis elevates them to an ironic sci-fi, folk/tech hybrid burning in an Echo Park bungalow. While the source material is attractive, it’s too idiosyncratic for theory or formal critique. Justis forgoes taxonomy and subverts the objects’ remoteness by clothing them in the present (albeit ghostly). He rejects the idea of the past as static and oppositional to the present, since it’s the cradle of the entropic and momentum-addicted present. That is to say the contemporary is contingent as much upon a past redefined every decade as it a future that keeps getting kicked down the road.
Justis is as comfortable with dark room chemistry and visualization software as he is with metal shop combustion. He unites a youthful obsession with mechanisms and an engineer’s reliance on logic and investigative inquiry. Yet few of his subjects are predictably mediated or structuralist. Rather, his imagery and devices are a kind of educated vernacularism filtered through Claes Oldenburg and Nam June Paik, among others, who packed closets full of FLUXUS iconoclasm. Justis naturalizes machines, makes them fleshy, uneasily intelligent, amusing, and relatable – in a word, libidinous.
“Floral Filament #1” and “Foreman Feast,” the densest floral compositions here contain ordinary flowers like daisies, tulips and roses, but are utterly languid and auratic, sometimes leathery and other times gossamer. And yet, they have the ambiance of a tray of votive candles, combining the sacred and sexual, the natural and unconscious.
Justis is known to be a seriously curious, and resourceful artist and makes contemplative art in actual space with feasible histories. His forms can be illusory and enigmatic, but they make you blink and get under your skin. His sculpture chops allow him to design intricate perspectives grounded in multiple versions of the real. He engages technology seamlessly and revises much of what we think about proportion and illusion at a fitting distance from their aging fine art conventions. His production is rife with subtle, interrogative display that represents diverging time frames, and to invoke Plato once more, teases the shadowy artworld, where change is constant and conditional, with quantifiable pleasures of the techno-sphere.