'Blanket no 3', 2008
In the catalogue accompanying the retrospective that Brian Jungen was given at the Witte de With in Rotterdam in 2006, curator Jessica Morgan recounted the various projects that the artist considered over the 18-month period before he held a different show, at Tate Modern, that same year. Jungen had several ideas for the exhibition and each was ambitious, socially involving and conceptually intriguing, and each, sadly, fell by the wayside until two weeks before the show was scheduled to open when he finally opted to manufacture a large and lusciously red People's Flag from a host of odds and ends. Whether Morgan judged the end result the best of the ideas is hard to say, but one can't help wondering if something similar occurred at Casey Kaplan in the period leading up to this show, as although the work on view is powerful and intriguing, there isn't much of it, it doesn't bulk out into a whole, and one gallery has been left aside to be filled with old gallery stock.
Jungen is a member of the Dane-Zaa Nation of Northern British Columbia - indeed, he recently relocated from his home in Vancouver to live and work on an Indian reservation. He is understandably preoccupied by landscape and politics, and it is that interest which announces itself first, at the entrance to the gallery, where the wonderfully simple, moulded, utilitarian form of a red jerrycan sits on a plinth. The can is useless for containing petrol, however, as Jungen has pierced it all over with holes which serve to form images of swarms of dragonflies fluttering over the surface.
The bulk of the show returns to another of Jungen's long-standing preoccupations, the parallel between native rituals and modern sports. In the past, he has reconfigured Nike trainers into masks, and golf bags with totems. For Casey Kaplan, he has shredded and rethreaded a collection of sports shirts worn by American football and basketball teams. Fans would recognise the clashing hues - the orange and blue, the green and turquoise - and one rearrangement allows the logo of the Los Angeles Lakers to peep into view; but the ignorant among us will still sense something vaguely familiar being made over into something radically new. Jungen's titles describe these objects as blankets, and it is his intention to reposition them as native craftwork, but they have the abstract quality, and the declarative stridency common to flags.
The shredding and rethreading of images is a device that has seen a little too much use of late, and while it's usually employed to gesture loosely towards craft, those who use it don't often have much to say about that practice. Jungen's Blankets don't actually have the heavily worked appearance of some crafted objects, they seem as if to have been produced from some electric union of the new and the old (the designs are jarringly patterned, like frazzled video games). Yet it's Jungen's point that the new doesn't trump the old. The new sports simply find new forms for old rituals, and while the purpose of them might appear to be spelled out clearly in rules and commentary and the whole mass-mediation of modern games, Jungen's abstractions suggest how opaque their rituals remain. One can't explain away fandom and adulation, just as you can't explain away myth and legend; they're just new wine in old bottles.
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All images courtesy of the artist and Casey Kaplan, New York