Scott Robers
still from Devil Cat

José Lerma
Sock with cum stain

José Lerma
Wanted to Be Ace but They
Made Me Be Paul Stanley

photo by fred camper

Inspiration on a Budget
Author: Fred Camper
From the Chicago Reader: March 7, 2003

Scott Roberts and José Lerma
at Seven Three Split, through March 22

A stained sock is affixed to a wall with duct tape. An electronic keyboard with headphones attached sits up against another wall. A video projection shows a cartoon cat endlessly circling in the corner of one room. In alternative galleries, art can consist of borrowings from pop culture and casually installed found objects, like these pieces at Seven Three Split. Started in 2000 by three art students and a boyfriend, its name was conceived one night while two of them were bowling; it's now run by one of the founders, Tim Fleming, who lives upstairs. Paying the rent from his income as a Web designer, he doesn't have to sell anything to stay in business, the place is open only on Saturdays, and he doesn't necessarily have shows year-round. The artists are often recent art-school graduates; Scott Roberts and José Lerma, who are friends, both received MFAs in 2000 from the University of Wisconsin at Madison.

Lerma was born in Spain in 1971 and grew up in Puerto Rico, where he lives today. He writes that his Sock With Cum Stain refers to "Aktionist art from Vienna and plenty of 60s body-fluid art, but it is really about being 14." It's also obnoxiously confrontational, though I enjoyed the apparent macho joke in the checklist that identifies it as one of an "edition of 5." (Lerma described an earlier piece, documented in a book at the gallery, as "a sock that can stand erect using my own sperm as a binder.") If Sock With Cum Stain were characteristic of this show of six works by Lerma and five by Roberts, it might justify a rant against narcissistic art students. Fortunately, most of Lerma's other pieces are engaging (though an outdoor installation of snow dyed yellow has melted), and two of Roberts's three video installations are superb.

Lerma's D Minor Chord is a good example of how the alternative-gallery antiaesthetic can prove interesting. Six keys on the keyboard against the wall have been fastened down with duct tape, so that two D-minor triads are playing continuously. You can hear the single pulsating chord only on the headphones. This piece flirts with a Cagean boundary between art and nonart: the assertive drone references trance music, while the casual look of the piece suggests that art can be found in everyday objects. Lerma's wall drawing, Wanted to Be Ace but They Made Me Be Paul Stanley, consists of a dark gray star with an eyelike white shape in the middle, drawn using mud found in a gutter across the street; beneath it, near the floor, is a single curvy line of red lipstick. Using "nonartistic" materials, the artist nevertheless creates a dynamic composition.

Lerma's Paint Removed From Cabinet and Transferred to Wall is unexpectedly lovely, combining a battered metal cabinet of Fleming's with a large wall painting. The back of the cabinet, from which Lerma removed the paint, faces the viewer; the entire wall behind it displays pale blue, almost ghostly horizontal brush strokes with paint dripping down, hinting at a brick surface as rough as the cabinet. The piece makes a statement about working with minimal, easily accessible materials and mixes assertiveness--the weighty cabinet, the large wall painting--with transience: the painting is not only impermanent by definition but looks temporary. Using inexpensive or free materials--the keyboard in D Minor Chord is on loan--Lerma makes a social statement as well as an aesthetic one.

Scott Roberts's three video installations reference pop culture without either smug irony or excessive worshipfulness. In Devil Cat, a black-and-white character modeled on Felix the Cat repeatedly tromps in a circle in a gallery corner, his image projected so that it's divided between the floor and two walls. Roberts created the cat using 3-D modeling software--and when you view it from near the projector, it's undistorted and fully three-dimensional. No one would mistake this for a real cat, but the way it turns about in space gives it an almost transcendent realism.

Roberts, who lives in Evanston, was born in Milwaukee in 1965. As a child he loved cartoons and comics, and in grad school the films of Andy Warhol made him aware of the medium's nonnarrative possibilities; of these pieces he says, "Nothing happens, but there is time in them." Limbo shows four pairs of cartoon eyes in a dark room, shifting or blinking slightly at different times and in different ways. Creating a total environment and focusing attention on tiny but captivating movements, Limbo is at once goofy and spooky.

The best of the three is Lucky, a stunning replica of a Lucky Charms cereal box created through video projection on a blank cardboard form. The projector sits on one pedestal and the box on another; Roberts used 3-D software to create undistorted pictures and texts on the three sides of the box facing the projector. (Like Liza Lou, who constructs consumer objects--even an entire kitchen--out of colored beads, Roberts redeems the ordinary through the luminosity of his materials.) The image on Roberts's box also moves: a spoon repeatedly scoops cereal out of a bowl, and a leprechaun eats right out of a box. Roberts shot both sequences (playing the leprechaun himself), while the product information comes from scans of an actual box.

Not surprisingly, Roberts identifies animated cereal commercials, in which the product's mascot comes to life, as an artistic influence. Here the piece's sculptural presence, its repeating, "timeless" moving images, and Roberts's manipulation of them to make the perspective of each surface look normal give his cereal box a hyperreal, almost eternal quality. That consumer products have become the icons of our age is a commonplace, but Roberts gives this idea a disturbing resonance.
Copyright (c) Fred Camper 2003