Lead Pencil Studio is the Seattle-based collaborative of Annie Han and Daniel Mihalyo, a couple who met in architecture school at the University of Oregon in 1991. During the course of the past 15 years, they have made a career designing site-specific installations that turn a critical eye on the built environment. Much of their work has focused on picking out aspects of the constructed world that are so ubiquitous or mundane as to be invisible to the casual observer, but are nonetheless sharp indicators of the temperature of our culture. They then present these telling, everyday features of modernity in sculptures and installations that encourage viewers to consider them with refreshed eyes.
A fine example of this is Non-Sign II (2010), an asymmetrical assembly of stainless steel rods that frames in its negative space the form of a billboard. Commissioned by the U.S. Government, the sculpture sits along the highway near the U.S.-Canada border north of Seattle, a stretch of road particularly crowded with actual billboards advertising the variety of items on sale at the duty free vendors near the frontier. In contrast to the real signs, which draw drivers’ attentions away from the landscape, Non-Sign II frames the spectacular scenery of the Puget Sound, bringing the natural world back into prominence while at the same time calling out the vacuous inanity that so often defines advertising culture.
Lead Pencil Studio’s latest essay in this vein is Diffuse Reflection Lab, on view until May 11 in the Vaulted Gallery of the Visual Arts Center at University of Texas at Austin. Diffuse is something of a smorgasbord think piece based on one central observation: that, while for most of history the built environment has been a largely matte affair, it is becoming increasingly reflective. Indeed, the profusion of metal, glass, and polymer cladding materials that accounts for the better half of modern construction has turned our commercial centers (especially in this country) into veritable funhouse halls of mirrors. Any stroller in a downtown district anywhere in America can, in addition to taking in the physical world around them, see that world reinterpreted in the shop windows, stainless steel column covers, polished brass plaques, glossy marble bank facades, and actual mirrors of the cityscape—buildings, cars, passersby, hotdog stands, pedigreed dogs, their own wondering faces, all captured with varying degrees of fidelity from warped and foggy to embarrassingly exact depending on the diffusiveness of the material whereon the scene is reflected.
It’s a fun observation, and will no doubt give many a visitor to the exhibition a wry insiders satisfaction the next time they spy their hand reaching out for itself while they move to grasp the burnished handle of a department store’s door. The installation itself, however, is somewhat less fun. Assembled and constructed with the help of UT art and architecture students during the course of three and a half weeks, Diffuse has something of the slapdash air of the work of a sculpture student who slept too late and only started gluing their used toothbrushes to a hat rack the morning before their review. It makes up for this by offering many different takes on the idea of reflectivity in the modern world and—in classic Lead Pencil fashion—by creating a dialogue with the environs of the Vaulted Gallery.
A two-story construction of timber framing and plywood, Diffuse sits within a double height space, its upper section visible from the second floor. The western face of the installation is pasted with a printed GigaPan (gigapixel panorama) photograph of the gallery’s western storefront, so you walk in and see what you just walked through. At the northern edge, where the photo ends, are two actual glass panels, one of which is shattered by an overturned dessert cart, representing a historical occurrence that took place at the gallery’s grand opening. The northern face responds to the adjacent courtyard—whose windows allow the powerful Texas sunlight into the gallery—with a café of sorts. Visitors can enter the café, take a load off on the chairs or banquette, and study the way daylight plays off the glass display cases and cake domes and butter dishes and such. In the eastern face is a diorama full of electronics, mostly lamps and television sets that play various feeds including—my personal favorite—the scrolling pictures of the reflective items that Lead Pencil purchased for the installation from craigslist, in each of which is reflected the world of the seller. Around the south end is yet another diorama, what Lead Pencil refers to as the “construction room,” an unfinished space that lets us know that the world is full of entropy. This room also features a TV showing a five-minute video, on a loop, of a reflection in a puddle. The final offering is upstairs on the western face: another diorama, this one of a room filled with office furniture and industrial light fixtures upon which is projected an image of the same room. The projected image moves in and out of phase with the actual room, creating an unsettling blurring effect.
The best thing about Diffuse, as I hinted above, is the takeaway—what it might help you to notice about the world in which we live, if you get the message, or plow through the 90-page reader that accompanies the installation (which was not compiled by Lead Pencil, by the way). As a work of art itself, however, it is too diffused. It lacks the singularity of conception and execution seen in the collaborative’s best pieces, such as Non-Sign II, which are capable of conveying an idea, and setting a mood, in one immediately recognizable form.