Boston performance artist and sculptor Andrew Mowbray blended an idiosyncratic humanitarian idealism with a proletarian approach to art-making in his most recent exhibition, “Another Utopia” (all works 2013). Always giving strong consideration to his materials’ physical properties, history and everyday use, Mowbray here focused on the Lagenaria siceraria, or calabash. This ancient, thick-skinned, bottle-shaped gourd dries to a hard woodlike state and is often used to craft birdhouses. Mowbray cultivates the fruit from seed and, using acrylic boxes he designed and built, shapes the growing gourds into modular blocks (measuring 4½ inches per side), some of which he turns into birdhouses. In addition, Mowbray creates similar blocks using more durable materials, molding them from gypsum cement in a rotational casting machine or carving them from salvaged construction materials like reclaimed wood and Styrofoam.
A workshoplike space containing the casting machine, an arbor of growing gourds and a worktable topped with birds’ nests was set up in the rear area of the LaMontagne Gallery. Pinned to the walls were images showing a range of artistic influences, from 1930 floor plans for Frank Lloyd Wright’s unrealized St. Mark’s-in-the-Bouwerie apartment towers (which were based on the structure of a tree) to stills from Gordon Matta-Clark’s 1974 film Splitting to illustrations of the shape-shifting French children’s cartoon character Barbapapa. Numerous references conveyed notions of home, the nuclear family and the cycle of life.
The front area of the gallery featured finished works, including wood workbenches, quilts made out of Tyvek and playful sculptures and furnishings incorporating the modular blocks. The whimsical Workbench included on one end an assortment of the blocks (made of wood, aluminum, gourd and cement) that the sitter can fit together and arrange like Legos. In a corner, a pile of pieces from gypsum cement birdhouses shattered by Mowbray was intended, according to the artist, to reference Richard Serra’s late-1960s performances in which he threw molten lead against the walls of studio or gallery spaces. One of the visual highlights of the main area was Birdhouses, a colorful cluster of over 60 painted modular birdhouses-each available for purchase-suspended at various heights from the ceiling with colored string. Hand-dipped in paint to create nine dichromatic patterns, these delightful housing vessels were grouped in abutting “neighborhoods” of similar hues. Contrada, whose title is Italian for “district,” is a totemic sculpture consisting of a tall steel pole grounded in a cinder block and topped with a diamond-shaped construction of eight colored birdhouses. The sheer splendor of this and Mowbray’s other gourd sculptures attests to the feasibility of cultivating sustainable art and indicates the vastness of the artist’s imaginative vision.