Art: Wednesday, October 1, 2003
Bathing Beauties

It’s amazing what John Frost can find in a few soiled shower curtains and some sand.


What’s likable about John Frost’s art is what’s likable about a good literary novel — it goes beyond genre; it speaks to readers regardless of their politics, their gender, their nation.

His work — no matter the medium — is almost always about people, with Frost typically starring as Everyman. Frost’s latest exhibit, All Things Drain at Gallery 414, is theoretically about time, pragmatically about bathing rituals, essentially about privacy. The timelessness inherent in the dozen or so pieces on view here speaks to Frost’s originality and depth of thought: These pieces would’ve worked as well in 1950 as they do in 2003.

Most of 414 is filled with Frost’s “paintings.” They’re large, flat, translucent squares, like regular canvases but see-through, and contain occasional, subtle squiggly lines or oval-shaped impressions. The only color comes from the monochromatic backgrounds over which these translucent “canvases” are hung.

The overall sensation I felt while standing in front of these works involved delicateness, in the same way I think I know how delicate yet beautiful glass is. The beauty of Frost’s “paintings” relates somehow to their neatness. And to welcome tidiness is essentially part of our genetic make-up. In other words, we happily agree with Frost’s “paintings.”

All it takes is a glance at the price sheet, where the materials used to create each piece are listed, to learn that Frost is working with shower curtains here — heavily loaded objects. They don’t just keep the bath mat dry, they’re what we use to shield ourselves from — what? — the emptiness of the bathroom? Our housemates’ eyes? Only an alien from a stinky, soap-free planet could not impose his ideas about bathing and solitude on these works. According to Frost’s “artist’s statement” on the exhibit, he made most of these “paintings” by — you guessed it — showering. It seems clear that part of what Frost is trying to say here is that art is everyday life, especially those moments in between, when we’re not surviving, not paying attention, not digesting every minute detail we come across. This, Frost is saying, is where beauty lies. This, he is saying, is where the interesting phenomena occur. Looking at Frost’s shower curtain “paintings” may bore the shit out of you, but, I guarantee, when you leave the gallery, you’ll have nearly every stroke of every curtain memorized. That’s usually what good advertising does, but I don’t care — I still like these works.

On first view, it’s not clear whether the shapes on the “canvases” have been painstakingly crafted or allowed to happen randomly. Taking in these works, you may find yourself — possibly against your will — spending a lot of time trying to discern the difference. The artist’s concern, obviously, is with process — how artistic creations are made, not with how they’re received. Here we go again, right? “What is art — something in a frame or ... everything?” Thankfully, these “paintings” are just whimsical enough to keep academic theorizing away. Not many artists can devise a handsome universe in which the Big Question figures so prominently yet isn’t overwhelming. Usually, there’s so much emphasis on process that what content may actually be saying becomes, for the viewer, muddled. Frost makes it all look easy here.

Similarly effective are the site-specific objects and installations that make up the rest of the exhibit. Frost’s oversized bathtub plugs and drains created out of plaster and metal are silly enough to qualify as cute. But what’s really sensational about All Things Drain is “Trust,” an installation piece that takes up the entire back gallery. It’s a room made of lumber and steel, with white sand dripping from the ceiling and piling up in a perfect circle in the center of the floor. Is there anything more intoxicating in a work of art than movement? We all want our artworks to move, to sing and dance, to be something other than lazy art, to be alive. The theme in “Trust” is life. You can literally see yourself in this piece, getting older by the second.

Self-help books and preachy editorials will never teach us a fraction as much about life and about ourselves as good fiction or good painting. We learn more from good fiction or good art than we do from reality precisely because artistic creations are sometimes more real than reality itself. We might think we understand how precious life is by talking about it, but we know how precious it is when we view one of John Frost’s soiled shower curtains. Life is right there in front of us. We can touch it.

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