Volume XVII, Issue 36 # September 3 - September 9, 2009

Spotlight on Art

Tools in Motion at St. John’s College

reviewed by Sandra Olivetti Martin

Take a busman’s holiday, and you’re spending your free time the same way you do your work time — with one exception. On your busman’s holiday, some other busman is doing the driving.

photo courtesy of International Arts and Artists © Maria Josephy

Maria Josephy’s Prometheus, 1980: Mixed media including hardware.

At St. John’s College’s Mitchell Gallery, you’ll follow the route of hardware magnate John Hechinger’s busman’s holiday.

Tools were Hechinger’s work, and parodies of tools his holiday.

Born in 1920, Hechinger must have had the gift of seeing many levels of good in a thing, for he realized that tools could do more than one job.

To lively up his new corporate headquarters in Landover, a building so sterile that he said it “seemed to rebuke the fantasies that a hardware store inspires,” he collected and displayed tool-inspired art.

From high-contrast black and white kodaliths by Ivan Chermayeff and Tool Box, a series of 10 silkscreen prints by Jim Dine, Hechinger’s collection grew to more than 375 works by 250 artists, who were mostly his contemporaries.

Judging by the 45 tool-works in the exhibit Tools in Motion, Hechinger laughed at every stop of his busman’s holiday. All but a handful are jokes and puns.

Like Faucet in the Middle of the Night, a glass faucet complete with pregnant drip.

Or Prometheus, humanity’s long-suffering giver of fire, chained and adorned with tools — wrenches, tacks, pulls, hooks and knobs — as his tormenting (and tool-less) eagle looks on.

Or the paper image of a Technicolor, day-glow toilet seat.

photo courtesy of International Arts and Artists
© Stephen Hansen

Stephen Hansen’s Man on a Limb, 1985: Steel and wood.

Or The Tools We Carry, three shovels (that happen to have inset lenses through which tall viewers can see movies on MP3 players) and their associated piles of dirt, sprinkled with chips of computer chips. One of the first viewers to the show at St. John’s made it interactive, by inadvertently tracking through one of the piles.

Or Ship of Tools, which — unlike the proverbial Ship of Fools — is full of rusty files, saws and wrenches.

Or Man on a Limb, a cartoon sculpture high above your head showing a man about to saw himself off a rafter.

Or one of Hechinger’s favorites, a shimmering 350-pound School of Fishes made of vise grips.

“A good hardware store is a spur to the imagination and a source of irresistible delights,” Hechinger said.

You’ll see just what he means in Jim McCullough’s diorama of the Hechinger Georgia Avenue Store in 1927. As well as in each of these tool-works assembled of metal, wood, paper, clay, asphalt shingles, old work gloves, a hardware store full of tools, imagination and glee.

When the Washington-based hardware empire disassembled in 1999 (and we lost our Annapolis Hechinger’s), so did Hechinger’s collection. Mrs. Hechinger kept some, but the bulk was willed to International Arts and Artists, a D.C. arts organization that mounts exhibits for loan to museums around the world.

Tools in Motion is one of those exhibits.

See for yourself thru October 21 at noon-5pm Tu-Su; 7-8pm F @ Mitchell Gallery, St. John’s College, Annapolis: 410-626-2556.