When Roger Chamieh set out to kick the habit, he didn’t stop at aiming to quit smoking — he made a series of sculptures about the grip smoking holds him in, its esophageal caresses and congestions, its kiss of death.
But to say that his latest work, now on view at Tempus Projects, was inspired by his ongoing struggle — after our interview, he quickly popped outside for a cigarette — is both to bless it with accessibility and to sell it short. His sculptures are ripe with narrative and metaphorical possibilities above, beyond and in addition to smoking. As it has for as long as I’ve known it, his work combines humor and a poignant sense of the finitude of life into elegant visual objects that seem to say many things.
The show at Tempus, titled Apophenia, includes just four pieces. That’s enough when each is as complicated as these are. There’s “Broken,” a crippled table, its two rear legs missing, through the top of which protrudes a massive plywood esophagus-victrola horn; a vintage speaker at its base plays a soundtrack of distorted heartbeats. Both “Anoxia” and “Daddy’s Girl” are rooted in wall-mounted gas masks, but the former extends into a Styrofoam snout that rests on the gallery floor while the latter sprouts a pair of metal-plated lungs and plays video through the goggle holes of its mask. The fourth, “Turgor,” is a rubber painting that looks like tar-coated, sagging flesh pinched (ouch!) by a metal clamp.
“I’m hoping that the work will help me with getting older,” Chamieh jokes.
As much as smoking, aging or death as a theme, the works have in common a kind of recipe-like structure that reveals Chamieh’s process and the way he makes meaning through sculptural form. Each piece gets its foundation from a breathtaking object — the thing that draws you in and makes you want to touch it, walk around it, kneel down and look up under it — and then unfolds into smaller elements that add nuance and, often, a dash of dark humor.
In “Broken,” the ooh-ah object is the undulating horn made of sandwiched layers of laminated plywood that stretches over a viewer’s head; in “Daddy’s Girl,” it’s the larger-than-life-sized chrome lungs. His sculpture typically begins with a compulsion to make one of these objects, Chamieh says, and the meaning follows from there.
“Once you start building, you start to think ‘Why am I doing this?’” he says.
To create “Turgor,” Chamieh poured liquid latex into a sheet, causing its surface to pucker like creases of flesh. Then he sifted graphite on top, rubbing the gunmetal-gray powder into the latex. The resulting sooty, or tarred, skin is stretched into a traditional frame but left slacker than a canvas ordinarily would be. A tall and slender metal clamp stands in front of the wall-mounted piece, reaching over to pinch a big fold of rubber — a gesture that inspires both a wince and a chuckle by transforming the burnished, monochromatic latex canvas (a post-minimalist wet dream) into something creepily organic, maybe on the verge of decomposition.
The physicality of the objects invites a type of understanding that involves stepping into Chamieh’s shoes and feeling, or at least imagining, what he has felt in his own body. Standing in front of the snake-like snout of “Anoxia,” which appears to be squeezed shut by an antique furniture clamp — a bit of cartoonish absurdity that also feels disturbingly masochistic — I felt momentarily as if my own exhaust pipe were being strangulated. Stepping up to regard the metal lungs (they’re awesome — Chamieh built them, covered them with clumpy globs of spray polyurethane to conjure lung tissue, then took them to a commercial fabricator in Drew Park for chrome plating), I was drawn into the black-and-white video of a young girl playing that loops on an iPod behind the gas mask goggles, recognizing that I was being guided by the artist into the trope of mortality as seeing life flash before one’s eyes.
“This is really me looking through my eyes at my daughter,” Chamieh says.
For a show inspired by a puff of smoke, that’s pretty deep. A better way to conceptualize what Chamieh accomplishes might be to reference the exhibition’s title, “Apophenia,” which he defines as seeing patterns in the chaos of random information, like objects strewn around an art studio floor that become intricate and expressive sculptures.
“I thought it was an interesting title because this is what I do every day,” Chamieh says.
And he’s awfully good at it.