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Down the Drain 

click to enlarge “Appendages,” an exhibition of sculptures by John Cleater, will be shown at Nicole Fiacco Gallery through April 11.
  • “Appendages,” an exhibition of sculptures by John Cleater, will be shown at Nicole Fiacco Gallery through April 11.

Bathroom plumbing has been a “fixture” of modern art ever since 1917, when Marcel Duchamp, in a spirit of playful impudence, submitted a urinal on a pedestal to an invitational exhibition of sculpture. With that paradoxically original gesture, he invented the readymade and radically transformed our conception of the art object. From that day forward, art has ceased to be a kind of thing and become, rather, a way of looking at a thing.

Of course, many things that are not (necessarily) art can also be beautiful. During a residency at the John Michael Kohler Art Center in Sheboygan, Wisconsin, artist John Cleater, a Hudson resident, was seduced by the sheer beauty of the pristine surfaces produced through the industrial manufacture of the bathroom and kitchen fixtures for which the Kohler company is known. Cleater, whose background is in experimental architecture and has worked on projects for such internationally acclaimed figures such as Daniel Liebeskind and Vito Acconci, has an eye for ambiguously provocative forms and sexy curves. Taking cues from Kohler’s product line of sinks, tubs, toilets, and drains, he abstracted these shapes, using a 3-D computer design program, to create the organic forms that would become his sculptures. In his own words, Cleater “was interested in revealing hidden views of these common products by extracting, stretching, and reconfiguring them until they were no longer recognizable as product.” Produced in cast iron at Kohler, the objects are enameled in the pink, brown, and pale green of the typical bathroom fixture. All roughly the size of your average kitchen sink, the colors and surfaces wedded to these shapes produce the effect of a kind of vulgar elegance.

This pieces in this series of works titled “Appendages” all hang on the wall like paintings, but their palpable weight and projection from the wall take them into sculpture’s territory. Many of them also include a literal drain, engraved with the Kohler name, which implies not only the hole down which our quotidian wastes disappear but also, in an abstract way, bodily orifices.

The Appendages are fabricated in a handful of unique shapes, and Cleater rings changes on each in terms of surface, color, and orientation, as well as several “options” such as LCD displays and built-in webcams visible through the hole of the drain. The body is evoked explicitly with the aptly titled The Last Giant Squid Sperm, whose biomorphic shape is suggestive of a creature with head and tail. One model, in chrome, includes the video display of an iPod visible in the drain, in which, as one gazes into it, a video image of the artist’s eye can be seen blinking back. The cool, clean interior of the gallery space, itself a big box, provides an ideal foil for the installation of these works, making explicit the repressed nature of the contemporary art gallery as glorified product showroom.

Finally, whether or not it was the artist’s intention—and one trusts it was not—these works serve as apt metaphors for the current global economic crisis, as every day we watch trillions of dollars of wealth going “down the drain.” Given the volatility of the stock market, the wisest investment may be to buy the drain.

“Appendages,” an exhibition of John Cleater’s sculptures, will be on view through April 11 at Nicole Fiacco Gallery in Hudson. (518) 828-5090;

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