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A work from the "Tools as Art" exhibition at Blue Star through January 4. (courtesy photo)

Blue Star features the Herchinger Collection in the exhibition 'Tools as Art'

Blue Star changed its formal name not long ago, from the pleasingly rough and experimental-sounding Art Space to the more formal Contemporary Art Center. This new alias may reflect a necessary maturing of the 20-year-old experiment that has been guided by the often conflicting but usually interesting impulses of local artists and their early patrons. But let us hope it doesn't grow up so much that, like middle-age Boomers, it regularly eschews risk in favor of comfort. As one long-time observer of the SA arts scene worried recently, "You struggle for 20 years and you get the sofa?"


Noon-6pm Wednesday-Sunday
Through January 4
Blue Star Contemporary Art Center
116 Blue Star
A touring exhibit, "Tools as Art," on view at Blue Star through January 4, 2004, gives some cause for this fretting, though to be fair it was booked during a tumultuous change in directors. It is a show that belongs in a museum, being a selection of mostly post-World War II works by the likes of Claes Oldenburg, Walker Evans, and Pier Gustafson. Artists, in other words, whose reputation is well-established enough that even lesser works are considered worth crating up and shipping, at considerable insurance and effort, around the country. But it's just as well to keep on the sunny side and enjoy the gems that are in the show - Oldenburg's Three-Way Plug, for instance, Howard Finster's Mountains of People Use Tools, or John Mansfield's Zen Saw.

The Hechinger Collection, as it's known, began in 1978 by the eponymous heir to a hardware business who was out to brighten the hallways of his brute offices and to foster among his employees a sense of pride and pleasure in their profession, a sort of redemptive mentality that has not been in favor in high

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art circles for some time. Two decades later, the collection runs to 375 works encompassing almost every contemporary art medium, 65 of which are in the touring exhibition, and all of which overtly reference, incorporate, or depict tools. The effect is not unlike that of a school assignment where the instructor gives the students a constricted universe to create an artificial baseline for evaluating apples and oranges, and this is one of the best reasons to see the show.

Side by side, leveled by a theme, the various schools, trends and methods of the 20th century reveal some of their relative strengths and weaknesses. Russian Andrey Chezhin's conceptual photography, represented here by an image from his Kharms series of a faceless man punctured by a single nail, still makes an intelligible political statement. But as a work of art it appears flat and spent next to Berenice Abbott's Hardware Store, whose unobtrusive documentation captures a moment in time when the thrifty frontier mentality was collapsing into mass production and consumption.

William Wiley's color woodcut Eerie Grotto ? Okini ponders human acquisitiveness with picturesque detritus including delicate Asian fans and a steel axe; while Correction a painting by Chester Arnold of a hammer dislodging a nail, appears (I hate to say it) blunt. There is plenty else to talk about, compare, and marvel over in "Tools as Art," but let's not make a habit of it in our "living" spaces. •



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