Nick Bubash's vignettes put familiar symbols and icons to intriguingly ambivalent ends | Features | Pittsburgh | Pittsburgh City Paper

Nick Bubash's vignettes put familiar symbols and icons to intriguingly ambivalent ends

Most of these sculptures playfully collide disparate things in what seems a send-up, though one with some appreciation of art high and low

Signs, symbols and icons: Nick Bubash's "Jeez" (detail, foreground)
Signs, symbols and icons: Nick Bubash's "Jeez" (detail, foreground)

Considering that acclaimed inker Nick Bubash is the proprietor of Route 60 Tattoo, in McKees Rocks, the exhibit title The Patron Saint of White Guys That Went Tribal and Other Works presumably refers to his enmeshment in tribalism. That's where tattooing is favored as a sign of belonging in subcultures small (e.g., prison, or biker or street gangs) and large (those sharing a general alternative attitude, or pretending to). Bubash isn't new to the art scene — there's usually something by him hanging around at Artists Image Resource, for example, and he has exhibited his art for more than 20 years. In his first solo museum show, at The Andy Warhol Museum, he displays a not-surprising penchant for signs, symbols and icons, while often simultaneously acknowledging and subverting their intended meanings.

In creating what he describes as vignettes, Bubash's art-making material of choice consists of plastic toys, souvenirs, used tattoo needles (what else you gonna do with them?), mementos, bric-a-brac and all manner of mostly smallish whatnots. Some of it is campily collectible, some of it upcycled but a step ahead of the landfill. While generally retaining their recognizable identity, these items are carefully accumulated in an unself-serious way that variously recognizes interpretations, counters interpretations, suggests new interpretations and confounds interpretations, all the while creating satisfying sculptural forms. In other words, Bubash complicates the act of "reading" symbols, much as does a swastika on a punk musician (unlike a swastika on a skinhead). In assembling the components, pieces are generally stacked vertically, resulting in small monuments to nothing in particular — pedestal pieces without the pedestals, rebels without a cause other than (I'm guessing) a measure of skepticism regarding the status quo.

The centerpiece of the exhibit is a long table displaying two dozen said assemblages in close proximity, abetting the more-is-more aesthetic, as it's pretty much impossible to view a single sculpture without an overlapping view of some of the others. Some are relatively pared down, such as "Half Shell on the Venus With Child" (2012-13), with the shamelessly punning title pretty much describing the sculpture — and presumably suggesting it in the first place. Meanwhile, close at hand are 3-D mashups including a bowling ball, a craft-y Popsicle-stick construction, Jell-O mold, artificial flowers, plastic shark ... you get the idea. Most of these sculptures signify broadly, playfully colliding disparate things in what seems a send-up, though one with some appreciation of art high and low.

While this is all carefully contrived in terms of how things fit together as forms, there's also an at-least-semi-random quality to the choice of objects that are combined. It doesn't seem that Bubash is out to comment specifically on the scourging of Jesus, though the halo or crown of smiley faces does suggest willful irreverence stemming from some experience with religious upbringing; I suppose irreverence can be a form of commentary. Likewise, no position is stated regarding the efficacy of horseshoes in bringing good luck, or the enduring value of classical sculptures, except that in miniature they make good souvenirs. But when carefully lumped together with other stuff, they are pleasing to ponder.

A few wall-mounted works, such as "Melting Self-Portrait With Bad Luck Elephant" (2011), take horror vacuui maximalism a little too far, cutting the threads by which we are able to connect the pieces: Joseph Cornell on steroids is not necessarily performance-enhancing. But over-the-top accumulations in a vaguely altar-like format, including the aptly titled "Cacophony of the Cacophonous" (2012-13), manage to pile it on without obscuring distinctions among the components. The artwork features a forest of figures as tightly packed as the cover of Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band, yet each stands alone.

Underlying Bubash's art-making are the dual impulses of collecting and transformation. With few exceptions, the transformation is achieved not by altering the objects through painting, carving, etc., but rather through position and placement, which broadly speaking could be considered context. Generally, Bubash's art of juxtaposition adds more than it detracts from his elected objects, which in their pre-existing symbolic value (monsters, iconic works of art, religious figures) are more already-made than readymade. (Duchamp's readymades were essentially functional until he made them symbolic.) In Bubash's world, taste is not conditional; it's as absent here as it is in a dollar store or, for that matter, the Warhol Museum.

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