All words and photos by Francis Chung.
An exhibition of sculptures by Edmond van der Bijl opened at 3307 M St. on Saturday night, offering viewers a look at some stimulating new works by the DC-based artist. Entitled Hexagon, the show features three large-scale modular sculptures based on the titular geometric form, along with several smaller, non-hexagonal pieces which explore related themes and effects. Evincing an erudite, yet playful sensibility, van der Bilj’s work proved both conceptually ambitious and perceptually dynamic, somehow managing to blend modernist ideals with minimalist rigor and pop-art accessibility.
In his art, van der Bijl aims to accomplish what the philosopher Arthur Danto calls the “transfiguration of the commonplace.” All of the works in the exhibition are comprised of ordinary, mass-produced objects that have been reworked and reassembled to form uncanny geometric and/or biomorphic structures. The show’s signature sculptures, for instance, are built from sets of wooden coat hangers conjoined by cable ties to form hexagonal modules which are replicated and combined to form more complex shapes: irregular spheres in Hexagon 1, Configuration “A” and Hexagon 2, and a dragon-like latticework in Hexagon 1, Configuration “B.” In a manifesto-like statement posted prominently in the gallery, van der Bijl invokes the time-honored avant-garde strategy of defamiliarization, whereby art seeks to reframe and reconfigure everyday things in such a way that their utilitarian banality gives way to aesthetic illumination. Simply put, van der Bilj’s art encourages its viewers to see aspects of their life and world that they may not normally notice or consider. Examining the method and results of the modular repetition by which the Hexagons were produced, for example, might provoke a spectator to draw parallels to the often-unseen (or ignored) processes of industrial mass-production, consumption, disposal, and recycling from which the materials originated. The irreverent use of gardening pots and alligator clamps as sculptural media, on the other hand, might be seen as a critique of the elitism and inaccessibility of the art world, or as a reminder of fine art’s inescapable contiguity with the quotidian. Potential resonances and interpretations abound, and while van der Bilj clearly has certain meanings in mind, his work remains laudably open to others.
Although the ideas behind Hexagon don’t break any new ground, van der Bijl does provide an engaging perceptual context from which to approach them afresh. In some respects, the works on display in Georgetown may arguably be better thought of as installations rather than as sculptures, given the way they activate and interact with their environment. When setting up the show, van der Bilj carefully matched specific pieces to specific spaces, reshaping Hexagon 1, Configuration “B” to better fit a rectangular room in the back of the gallery, while another nook inspired the improvisation of an entirely new work made of pink insulating foam. Lighting was also used for aesthetic effect, casting intricate patterns of shadows which formed spectral, two-dimensional echoes and extensions of the sculptural shapes. In addition to its visual impact, van der Bilj’s art is also decidedly tactile, and a few intrepid visitors were actually moved to examine the works with their hands as well as with their eyes. Whether or not such participation constitutes the democratization of art to which the artist aspires is open to debate, but van der Bilj’s exhibition certainly rewards those who engage its lofty agenda with an ample degree of sheer fun.
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