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Last year, during Oscar Week in Los Angeles, OHWOW Gallery, located close enough to the Kodak Theatre in West Hollywood, exhibited Hollywood landscape photography by celebrity photographer Terry Richardson. It was madness: glitz, glam, Paris Hilton, guest lists, paparazzi.
This year’s OHWOW show couldn’t be more different. Brooklyn-based artist Nick van Woert is opening a mere two days before the Academy Awards, but there won’t be a spotlight outside like there was at “Terrywood.” In fact, van Woert’s show, titled “No Man’s Land,” on view today through April 6 works as an antidote to the plastic world L.A. becomes during awards season. “All the materials used in the show are materials that are substitutes for natural ones,” said van Woert, a tall, laid-back dude, motioning to the ambitious installation, which is at times dark and sinister in its attempt to deconstruct the veils of fallacy in the world around us. “Cat litter equals dirt, Formica equals wood, urethane equals stone. We used to build things out of natural materials, but now urethane is in the DNA of the world. We’re building a place that ‘no man’ is able to occupy, because all these materials are quite toxic.”
Other works include a figurative sculpture made of aquarium rocks with a rubber hand holding a Bic lighter with an ongoing flame (Coral Reefer) and a Plexiglas rectangle housing separate shelves of hair gel and powdered chlorine (a mixture that can create a chemical reaction that can be used to ignite fires or bombs—a trick van Woert learned from Ecodefense: A Field Guide to Monkeywrenching, a book by Dave Foreman).
“It’s a home economics course in destruction,” van Woert said of Ecodefense. “They would pour gasoline on the base of the billboard, and in an envelope on one side they’d have hair gel and on the other side chlorine. You have five minutes before the chemical reaction gets hot enough to catch the gas on fire. But hair gel and chlorine support a life of leisure, comfort, and fashion.”
In concert with the concerns of our natural environment, Ludditism is an undercurrent in van Woert’s body of work. The first piece in the show is a wall made of coal slag, cast into “logs,” that resembles a cabin. In this case, the cabin is modeled after the Unabomber Ted Kaczynski’s cabin. Nestled into the slats of the cabin are casts of the Unabomber’s actual tools that van Woert bought at auction from the FBI.
There are echoes of Henry David Thoreau’s Transcendentalism, but van Woert is quick to point out that the secluded madness of the Unabomber holds more weight and passion. “Thoreau and Kaczynski share certain things like a cabin in the woods,” said van Woert, tucking his long hair behind his ears, up into a baseball cap, “but I also think they are two diametrically opposed individuals. Kaczynski lived out there for 20 years with no running water and no electricity; Thoreau did it for two years. He was interested in scratching the surface, whereas Kaczynski went all the fucking way. Thoreau was performing his isolation.”
Van Woert, who developed an interest in materials through his training as an architecture undergrad in Oregon, is looking at our inability to see the planet as a natural place. He reflects back to his youth, growing up in striking distance of the Painted Desert in Reno, Nevada, where he spent much of his time in doing outdoor sports like rock climbing. “I consider myself a ‘landscape painter,’ or at least continuing in that tradition,” van Woert said earnestly. “Observing the world that I see and documenting it, but for me the documentation is a material documentation. I’m not interested in creating things that have a visual likeness to the world.”
Nick van Woert received his MFA from Parsons in 2007 and also completed residencies at Zabludowicz, in Sarvisalo, FI, and The Edward Albee Foundation in Montauk, NY. His work has shown widely, both nationally and abroad, including recent solo exhibitions at Grimm, Amsterdam, NL, and at Yvon Lambert, Paris, FR. Van Woert has also shown recently in group exhibitions at the Margulies Collection, Miami, FL; Hauser & Wirth, New York, NY; and Rosenblum Collection, Paris, FR.