Diamonds in the Rubbish Alchemy, the grail of medieval scientists, was once widely believed to be the cornerstone of natural phenomena. Base metals, like copper and iron, would be transformed into gold; the panacea, the medieval physician's Prozac, would become the original cure-all; and the blending of a few mismatched liquids, like scotch and soda, would provide everlasting life. Leaving aside for a moment the elixir-like qualities of single malts, alchemy today is very much what encyclopedias dryly describe: a dead science. But look inside Deitch Projects' Grand Street Gallery during the next two weeks and see if you don't begin to consider the karat value of your mother-in-law's ugly pewter lamp and your sweaty barbells.
Anti-glamour-pusses, Noble and Webster spent the middle part of the decade sending up Gilbert and George (for whom they briefly worked), vapid neo-Brit icons Liam Gallagher and Patsy Kensit and the heavy-handed hyping of the "Sensation" group. Keying on the all-important moment when British contemporary art became a suitable subject for the mass media, Noble and Webster exploited and ironized the quicksilver, shutterbug-like leap from sidewalk-dweller to penthouse star. If Damien Hirst and Sam Taylor-Wood could, seemingly overnight, glam it up like real celebrities, dirty-t-shirt-wearing, unphotogenic Noble and Webster figured they should play the part, too.
Their first exhibition, "British Rubbish," introduced to mostly hostile critics a media-savvy duo explicitly focused on the triumphalist British publicity machine. Punky, cut-and-paste collage works like Absolut Arseholes lodged informal, homemade protests against YBA hype. A trip to Las Vegas gave the pair a closer look at the depthless vacuousness and eye-popping dazzle of casino glitz. From their time in Wayne Newtonland, Noble and Webster developed a fascination for light sculptures made from the cheap, chintzy crystal bulbs of fairground signs. Another American experience, a visit to New York's American Museum of Natural History, resulted in Noble and Webster's skinhead reconstruction of the diorama of a pair of Australopithecus Afarensis?an early, friskily sociable human species?which they called The New Barbarians.
But for their first show Stateside, Noble and Webster returned to the blindingly original shadow work they developed back in 1998. Amassing six months of house trash from their kitchen plus a couple of stuffed gulls, the artists dumped the fetid pile inside Modern Art Inc., a rough and tumble East End gallery, spotlit it with a homely projector and?presto change-o?threw into sharp focus perfect silhouettes of the slacker duo sitting back to back, heads touching, one holding a cigarette, the other one tippling a full wine glass.
Aptly titled Dirty White Trash (With Gulls), the sculpture provided the acorn from which the oak now inside Deitch Projects sprang fully formed. More, certainly, than an elaborate parlor trick, Noble and Webster's shadow portraits eloquently bespeak the DIY esthetic from which so much British art, good and bad, has been spawned. A deliberate estheticization of banality compounded by plentiful use of virtually the grossest material around, Noble and Webster's work presents a close embrace of provisionality; a sort of utterly pragmatic paean not merely to real life, but to the real, radically useless creative life of the artist in the turbo-charged, endlessly cycling, waste-generating global marketplace.
Take Wasted Youth, a heap of black trash bags, super-sized Mickey D packaging, crushed Coke cans, gaping tins of franks and beans, crumpled potato chip bags, stubbed butts and dented bottle caps. Strewn about in apparent purposelessness, the garbage sits cloaked in semidarkness. From the ground a beam of light throws an intense white light on one side of the pile, casting what appears to be a painted silhouette on the wall. In profile, a half-lying, half-seated shadow of Sue Webster makes of her lap a headrest for her supine mate. Tim's shoelaces, Sue's wisps of hair, their ratty, frayed jeans, are rendered in amazingly precise detail. Then one's eyes refocus, returning to the floor and a crushed packet of Silk Cut cigs. Disbelief, briefly suspended, floods in. Placing one's hand behind a jutting straw and plastic cup, one confirms the authenticity of the artists' shadowed sneaks. There, one minute, appear a pair of profiled shoes; an obstreperous, doubting paw intrudes the next.
The Original Sinner, a second piece of ingenious shadow play, incorporates several shopping carts' worth of 99 Cent Store junk. Faux-stone plastic ornamental bowls, extruded replica fruit, wood, moss, berries, fishing wire and a pump mechanism are all brought together to conform an encrusted, medallion-shaped sculpture. Lit by the projector, the super-cheesy, Arcimboldo-esque ensemble registers a negative portrait of a nude Sue and Tim, standing back to back in a Garden of Earthly Delights. In the manner of a Rococo Madonna, Sue shoots a stream of milk from her breast; Tim, imitating Italian cherubim, springs a leak from the shadow cast by a plastic pear stem. Talk about negative capability!
Tim Noble and Sue Webster's third and last shadow piece in this exhibition, Cheap & Nasty, is, without a doubt, their very best. Titled, once more, with a view to evoking the sub-quotidian, rubbish esthetic of the punk, misfit and perennially down-and-out, Cheap & Nasty consists of two enormous bundles of assorted shite, including aerosol containers, a Barbie leg, a ruined electric pocket fan, part of a pink flamingo, and a plastic plate reading "I § You" which is, not incidentally, the title of the show.
Turning on two motorized skewers, the rotating trash bundles slowly shadow box with their darkened counterparts until achieving the perfect, waited-for, crystallizing moment. Synchronously coming into view, there emerge first the chin, the forehead, hair, eyebrows, nose and lips. The makeshift machinery pauses a moment; the heads then tilt together in a brief, fantastically optimistic kiss.
Noble and Webster's message is crystal clear. From detritus, love. From trash, glory. They latch onto the repugnant awfulness of global (read: American) trash culture like lovers, promoting a Whitmanesque embrace of all things present, no matter how ordinary. Their purpose: to transmute alienating everyday life into neutral form, and neutral form into content. Hope is what the art of Tim Noble and Sue Webster art gives us in spades; the hope built into making a highly imaginative something out of absolutely nothing at all.
"I § You: Tim Noble & Sue Webster," through March 25, Deitch Projects, 76 Grand St. (betw. Greene & Wooster Sts.), 343-7300.