A Commercial Vision

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Jungen's Cetology, 2002, is a massive mock whale skeleton built from white plastic lawn chairs

Brian Jungen still remembers what first attracted him to the idea of using athletic gear as an art material. "It was bizarre looking," he says. "I remember seeing some snowboards in the back of my brother's truck and being struck by how they almost looked monstrous."

It may not take an artist to notice that a lot of sports equipment can seem more extravagant than a papal tiara. But to move from that recognition to something deeper--that's where an artist comes in handy. Something deeper is what Jungen does well. You can see just how well all through the smart, stimulating and sometimes laugh-out-loud-funny survey of his work that just opened at the Vancouver Art Gallery (VAG). There are more than 40 pieces in this show, and even the fanciest snowboard is no match for the least of them.

As for the best of them, the VAG exhibition includes all 23 variations of Prototype for New Understanding, the ingenious things that first put Jungen on the map. Each Prototype is a Nike Air Jordan shoe--or shoes--that has been intricately cut, folded, glued and resewn into something that looks like a Northwest Coast native mask. Shoes are bunched into faces or halved lengthwise into beaks. Their tongues are repurposed as ears. Round plastic insets sometimes function as eyes, some with a silhouette of Michael Jordan inside, the last word in ornamental pupils.

Although they possess the same shape-shifting charm, Jungen's masks are much more than art-world variations on TransFormer toys. What they are is a kind of penetrating, wise-guy folk art. They reach into realms that have to do with magic and the objects that presume to have it, with power and the gaudy ways it announces itself, with the degradation of native art into gift-shop kitsch and the elevation of celebrity sports gear into sacred bling. By conflating tribal fetish and consumer trophy, Jungen has managed to tie any number of cultural assumptions and anxieties into a wickedly clever knot.

Over the past few years, as his masks have become some of the most widely recognized works of new Canadian art, Jungen, 35, has become pretty visible too. The Vancouver survey, organized by the VAG's chief curator, Daina Augaitis, will move in April to the Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art. A somewhat smaller version of the show has already appeared at the New Museum of Contemporary Art in New York City. And in May a selection of Jungen's work opens at the Tate Modern in London.

Jungen's most crucial moment of inspiration for the Proto- types came during a trip to New York City in the late '90s, when he wandered into Manhattan's enormous Niketown store, where athletic shoes are displayed in glass cases like precious objects. "I came there straight from the Metropolitan Museum," he says. "I was fascinated that the Nikes were on display in this museum-like environment." From there, it was just a short step to making Nike-like things for a real museum. As opposed to a lot of art that plays seriously with ideas, Jungen's masks, some of which have long extensions of human hair, speak to the eye and not just the brain. That's another way of saying they are weirdly beautiful. In a world of factory-fabricated artworks, craftsmanship long ago ceased to be an end in itself for most artists, including Jungen. All the same, in his meticulous rubber taxidermy--all that filleting and restitching of the shoes--it's not hard to find an equivalent, and not just an ironic one, to the skilled handwork of First Nations art.

Air Jordans also offered themselves as the perfect base material for mock tribal masks because their blacks, whites and reds, borrowed from the uniform of the NBA's Chicago Bulls, are also the colors that recur in carvings of coastal native peoples, especially the Haida. In the flash of an eye, tribal palette becomes team colors and vice versa. Native tribes and sports tribes flicker back and forth in the same slightly comic, slightly menacing face.

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