by Mario Cutajar

(The Remba Gallery, West Hollywood) Grahame Clark in his book The Stone Age Hunters--like the materials that end up in Steve DeGroodt's works, a thrift-store find--describes how when telephone poles appeared in the northern Australian bush, aborigines started stripping them of their glass insulators. They were not, as might be supposed, embarking upon a campaign of resistance against the intrusion of the white man. Rather, they had discovered a substitute for flint in the making of spearheads.

What makes this story worth retelling is that it serves as a reminder of the potential for unforseen use that lies in what may be (to some people) the most ubiquitous and forsaken materials. In the case of the Australian aborigines, the potential was functional, though absurdly so--they disrupted modern technology to build stone-age tools. In the case of DeGroodt and his transformation of things like discarded cardboard boxes, envelopes, and tattered clothing into oddly delicate constructions--objects to think with, to paraphrase Levi-Strauss--we encounter an artist who by deliberately alienating himself from the functional connotations of the very humblest of objects has devised for them a second life as the elements of exquisite art objects.

DeGroodt's work is about, among other things, the beauty of making do, a despised recourse for most of us because of its association with poverty (the phrase "living out of a box" comes to mind in this context). Yet it is one the artist has developed into an archaeological means for salvaging contemporary artifacts.
So, for instance, in Nandi, a wall-mounted work in the current show, a lovely, vaporous veil of light-blue paint floats on the surface of a couple of long cardboard boxes stacked on each other in startling contrast to the orange-brown of their unpainted sides, one of which bears a wallpaperlike indigo flower print.

"Ghazal 418 (red boxes),"
39 1/2 x 23 x 23 1/4", 1998.

"Untitled #0421," paper, 39 3/4 x 39", 1998.

"Then the True Night," wood/clothing
scraps, fabric/acrylic, 59 x 81 1/4 x 2, 1998.

"Nandi (blue boxes)," cardboard/wood/acrylic,
24 3/4 x 29 1/2 x 14 3/4", 1998.

Another work, Untitled #0412, consists of two, large, light-grey, inverted envelopes attached to the wall with pushpins. They func- tion as a minimalist diptych activated by means of tiny plastic tabs and hole reinforcers strewn about their surface. A more explicitly Judd-like construction, Ghazal 418, groups four boxes wrapped in vibrant red fabric. Other, more loopy wall pieces, constructed from thin plywood armatures wrapped with material, recall the more boisterous constructions of Frank Stella. But again DeGroodt's are a poor man's version that remain attached to their cultural origins.

The various references in these works to Minimalist geometry and its residue of Constructivist hubris seem deliberate, allowing DeGroodt to rescue his objects from the amorphousness of the rubbish heap and at the same time setting up a contrast between the flimsiness of his materials and the presence they attain as sculpture.

DeGroodt's strategy ought to be familiar to his viewers because it is a fundamental component of the make-believe games we all play as children. Boys and girls know that in a pinch cardboard boxes will stand in as forts, dollhouses, furniture, parking garages and a lot more. In DeGroodt's world they stand in for the more durable and imposing materials of high art. In the process of their absurdly, ersatz performance, however, they actually become the real thing. And they send us back into the world looking for the aesthetic joys we had previously overlooked.