Chicago artist Michael Dinges is interested in networks—economic, cultural, virtual—and how we mediate them. His new work, in “Dead Reckoning” at Packer Schopf Gallery, includes defunct, cover-engraved Mac books and cast brass replicas of navigational devices. Located at the meeting points between the greater world and ourselves, Dinges’ objects vacillate between use, re-use, engagement and disaffection.
Most of Dinges’ pieces involve graphic work on three-dimensional objects, often done by a modern version of the nineteenth-century scrimshaw process. Used by sailors to carve and ink designs directly onto whalebone, Dinges’ version uses white PVC plastic, a drummel tool and black acrylic paint. After beginning the scrimshaw series around 2003 with gallon buckets and PVC piping as canvas, Dinges was looking forward to the day his Mac died, so he could “do the back of it.” But it occurred to him “to try to source some dead ones” instead. “It’s even better,” he explains, “because they’re anonymous… If it could speak, what would it have to say?”
One answer is imagined in “Cabinet of Curiosities.” Here, modes of knowing, acquisition and identity overlap, as the arranged specimens simultaneously order the world and fabricate a statement of connoisseurial character. Dinges wants to draw a parallel with our own computer desktops, marked as they are by collections of files and folders. The organizational impulse of our modern technology may be similar to seventeenth-century curiosity cabinets, but it seems to remove us even further from direct experience (see the contrast of the over-smooth Apple logo with the bristling textures of the insects and starfish beside it).
In another laptop work, “Data Miner,” an octopus’ menacing tentacles bring to mind an online bot-crawler and the potential capturing of personal data. Text around the border ominously reassures us, “the innocent have nothing to fear from the surveillance of desire.” Dinges cites Thomas Nast as among his influences, and there is certainly something of the dead-on punch and punnery here that you find in political cartoons. Much like the scrimshaw and trench art they reference, these works appear at once fussy and democratic, breezily populist and skillfully, obsessively detailed.
The cast brass sundials and sextants do not reuse ubiquitous materials so much as replicate outdated ones. Like their laptop counterparts, the enigmatic text and decorations on their surfaces underline the “deadness” of their purported measuring function. Creating art from the material detritus of our modern world, Dinges asks us what we want our objects to be: are they points of consumption merely? Modes of understanding? At their most successful, Dinges’ objects act as what he calls “freeze points” in the never-ceasing fluctuations of our capitalist, consumerist economy. Shunning waste and exchange, they reclaim material for medium, at however small a scale. (Emily Warner)
Michael Dinges shows at Packer Schopf Gallery, 942 West Lake, through October 11.