Joe Bussell · Frags

Joe Bussell: Frags at the Nerman Museum of Contemporary Art continues the institution’s forward-facing practice of bringing the art of our time into conversation with the ideas and challenges of the same.

Former Museum Director and Chief Curator Bruce Hartman has selected twenty-one of more than fifty works in the Frags series by Joe Bussell, who holds a BFA in painting from the University of Kansas and MFA in both painting and ceramics from Washington University, St. Louis. Both traditions are boldly present in this body of new work that is formally dynamic, emotionally complex, strangely compelling, and rich in ideas and allusions to modernism, postmodernism, the culture wars, and the histories of sculpture and painting.

Each Frag disguises its reincarnation, masquerading as layered concrete, stone, or plaster. What we are looking at is an object formed from layers of acrylic house paint discarded at the Johnson County hazardous waste facility where the artist volunteered and from which they were scavenged. Objects embedded in these layers of paint are often plastic ones, upcycled from a Goodwill store; a neon orange pupu platter gingerly finds its place as the base for Frag #3. “I think plastic is absolutely the right material to be working with now, because there is so much of it,” Bussell asserts.

“In the process of making 2-D or 3-D, I always add what makes sense and subtract what doesn’t. That is usually in the context of formal elements. In the case of the Frag series, the materials I add represent the different parts of my history, dreams, or memories. I want the additions to finish the psychological loop and have aesthetic resonance.”

The acrylic house paint from which the Frags are primarily sculpted—“solid, liquid, and in between”—has been utilized and manipulated in a variety of ingenious manners reflecting the artist’s history as both a painter and ceramicist. Remains of desiccated paint were wrenched from the bottom of gallon buckets, cast and cured, becoming the cylindrical discs from which Frag #2 finds its monolithic form. Paint that was still fluid was poured dozens of times onto now-camouflaged chicken wire in Frag #1, each layer allowed to dry until after many weeks a new form altogether has been created.

When pressed on how he knows a work is finished, Bussell replied with marvelous self-awareness, “Do we talk about instincts? Collective consciousness? Things that we cannot put in black and white? At some point, I create a full narrative that is still only telling part of the story.” The story is only told when it is heard; the work is alive when it is experienced in the gallery. The vibrancy, intelligence, and ingenuity of the Frag objects find an ideal setting and cadence, gathered together atop a low plinth and cosseted within a violet aura within the McCaffree Gallery at the Nerman Museum.

— Exhibition essay written by Barbara O’Brien, independent curator and critic, Milwaukee, Wisconsin.