Thursday, June 25, 2015

Jean Mandeberg’s ‘Now or Never’

Published in the Weekly Volcano, June 25, 2015
"Gameboard" mixed media assemblage by Jean Mandeberg

"Keepers" mixed media assemblage by Jean Mandeberg. Photos courtesy Salon Refu

 If you don’t study them carefully, Jean Mandeberg’s metal and mixed media assemblages at Salon Refu appear to be sweet wall decorations and little more, but if you make the effort to look carefully you’ll see there’s much more to them that meets the eye in a cursory glance.
There is a wry pop sensibility to Mandeberg’s assemblages. They are inventive and full of surprises, and well composed. She employs classical balance and a creative use of repetition and, most enjoyable to me, a visual trope I always highly admire: the subtle and often surprising use of variety within unity. Repeat, repeat, repeat, and suddenly there’s something different and unexpected.
By way of analogy, it’s what Warhol did with his countless celebrity portraits with color changes and patterns within patterns of endlessly repeated images that were exactly alike yet different. Mandeberg does the same thing, but hers are much more nuanced.
Featured in this show are numerous assemblages made of what I would call cages, square boxes made up of a dozen or so inner boxes in a grid pattern that extend three or four inches from the wall with found or made objects inside each inner box. The boxes are made of woven wire, and the objects within repeat in alternating patterns. Also featured are similarly made objects that hang like totems on the wall with repetition and variety within a vertical pattern, and boxes covered with decorative tin sheeting taken from commercial containers such as coffee tins or lunch boxes.
She fills these assemblages with objects that in her hands become talismans, such as balls, dice, and enameled fortune strips of the kind found in cookies. The object in each seems to be a prayer for good luck. 
There is a group of four that go together and represent popular games: bingo, bingo, bingo, and tic-tac-toe.
“Measuring Up” is a box made from four corner pieces made of wood and covered with decorative tin; they fit together to form a bowl. The printed images are of a boy in blue that looks like Gainsborough’s famous “Blue Boy” and a similarly romanticized girl in a red dress. On each corner of the box is a length of tape measure, which hints at the double meaning of the title.
Another classically balanced piece using patterns within patterns is called “Dirty Roll.” It’s a square cage of woven wire with a die in each section in alternating red and blue. Many of them (again in alternating patterns) are stamped with the words “Olympia Washington” in gold letters. Along the outer edges are buttons with the word “Luck” on them. But in keeping with her penchant for subtle surprises, two of the buttons have finger prints instead of words.
Only one piece breaks the pattern of repetition within a grid. It is titled “Keepers,” and it is a seeming random collection of various amulets such as a star cookie cutter, a bullet, dice, and a gloved hand. They are like the trophy heads of animals killed in the hunt.
These are interesting works of art with multiple meanings open to many interpretations.
Salon Refu, Jean Mandeberg Now or Never, Thursday-Friday-Sundays 2-6 p.m., Saturdays 2-8 p.m. through July 4,114 N. Capitol Way, Olympia

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