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“Kendall Buster:

Inventory of Imagined Places”

At the Kreeger Museum to June 21

My wife is a short woman: 5-foot-nothing in her stocking feet, although she always tries to claim some fraction of an inch more. I’ve got somewhere in the neighborhood of 14 inches on her; she says I’m 6-foot-3, but tall people know that it’s always more proper to truncate than to round up.

Rebecca and I just don’t see things the same way. I mean that literally: We’re in almost eerily complete agreement on aesthetic matters, but once our attention is aimed in the same direction, physical differences introduce familiar problems. She’ll say, “No, get down here,” and I’ll crouch until I notice that bad lighting renders the top third of a canvas an impenetrable wall of glare. Sometimes, I’ll pick her up so she can see things as a taller—presumably male—lighting designer intended. Museum guards hate this.

We experience the everyday physical environment differently as well. The floor is close to her, and she makes liberal use of it; when I rise from a cross-legged position, I always feel as if I’m hoisting myself out of a pit. She loses track of groceries if I’ve placed them “in the sky,” on the kitchen cabinets’ highest shelves. Trailing her through the tightly packed clothing racks in a department store gives me fits.

I haven’t taken a tape measure to Kendall Buster, but she looks to be about Rebecca’s size. And I’m not convinced that I encounter Buster’s participatory, body-oriented sculpture as the artist does. For Cells/Fragmented Gallery (2003), she has packed one room in the basement of the Kreeger Museum, where a minisurvey of her work is now installed, with eight swollen cubes of cream-colored PVC life-raft fabric. The inflatable cells are lashed down with bungee cords, so that they bobblingly push back at the visitors who brush and bump against them while navigating to the other end of the room. After watching a giggly group of 40-something women bluster through, I tried it myself, but I was distracted by the fact that I could peer over the cubes’ top edges. I felt as though I were seeing something I shouldn’t, such as the top of a refrigerator no one has ever thought to dust. When I described the piece to Rebecca, she said, “So you’re not in the room—you’re above it.” Yeah, pretty much, and it seems less involving that way.

I’m left with having to imagine larger cubes and—might as well—more of them, too. This isn’t entirely inappropriate, because Buster, a longtime area resident who is represented by Fusebox and who teaches at Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, has always depended on the viewer to complete her work. The Kreeger follows her cue, providing not so much an exhibition as a kit for one. As if aware of its failure to present Buster in toto, the museum bills “Inventory of Imagined Places” as “[m]ore of an archive than a retrospective,” dubbing the accompanying volume an artist’s book rather than a catalog. From these documents, the viewer is required to mentally construct a fuller picture of Buster’s work.

Doing so is a tantalizing task. There are many places to start, most of them suggested by Studies for a New Architecture (2000-2003), which consists of 55 drawings that meld elements inspired by biology, mathematics, building technology, mapmaking, and the histories of art and armor, to give only the most cursory list. Rendered in graphite on Mylar and glued in place, the studies look like handmade versions of computer-assisted engineering drawings. Their plastic surfaces seem to flatten their subjects, making them less graspable, pulling them out of the realm of possibility into the make-believe.

The artist’s book proves, however, that some of these fictional structures are buildable, even if not all of them have been constructed full-size. There’s a close-up of the model for Inflated Rubber Dungeon/Conference Room, a proposed piece of inflatable architecture that archly conflates two supposedly disparate arenas (well, at least two—the padded cell is also evoked) and underscores the punitive side of corporate psychodrama. As if in mockery of all the lives that are poured down the crapper of endless meetings, Buster employs the privylike design of the classic oubliette.

This cylindrical form is related to those that join to compose Model for a Three-Chambered Tower (2003). The tabletop-scale sculpture consists of a steel frame given a translucent skin of sized paper—a construction method it shares with Parabiosis, a gently domineering installation of linked dirigiblelike forms that hovered in the rear gallery at Fusebox last March. Captured in an artist’s-book photo spread from a number of viewpoints, some of them inaccessible to the ordinary gallery visitor, Parabiosis positively glows.

In fact, the book frequently outshines the exhibition. Given that documentation always outlives event, the effect may have been intentional. But the beehive-inspired Hexagonal Grid Model for Cells (Field of Columns) and Subterrain (2001-2002) pales beside the photos of the finished pieces that follow its lead, which were installed in Rhode Island and Georgia, respectively.

At the Kreeger there are only two full-size sculptures in addition to Cells/Fragmented Gallery, and only one of them—Portable Highrise (2003), a tri-lobed, vessel-like construction as collapsible and as portable, but sadly not as enterable, as a tent—isn’t normally there. The star attraction, 1998’s Garden Snare, isn’t in the show at all. It’s outside, where it usually is, on long-term display. An angled conjunction of nested tori, it invites the visitor to crawl in. Stand up and you find yourself the object of an aesthetic fusion reaction, as membranes of green scrim separate you from the less-visible world outside. It’s a strong enough piece to make everything inside the museum seem secondary.

As a recent panel discussion with the artist and curator/critics Sarah Tanguy and Andrea Pollan demonstrated, it’s almost too easy to be savvy about the issues that shape Buster’s work: biology and technology, portability and permanence, transparency and opacity, confinement and surveillance, private planning and collaborative construction, cutting-edge design and “women’s work.” Science fiction meets ancient architecture; Eva Hesse shakes hands with Italo Calvino.

But in a world that does contain sun-dazzled Jodhpur, drowning Venice, and delirious New York, as well as the fantastical ruins of Suakin and Chaco Canyon, isn’t a city’s invisibility also its poverty? Calvino’s thoughts of Valdrada, Eusapia, and Zirma seep together with all his other imagined places, blend into one, and then start to vanish. Buster’s plans and models do much the same.

I’ve always felt let down by architecture’s unfulfilled schemes, “visionary” or not, and a similar disappointment attends the Kreeger exhibition. For all “Inventory” essayist Paul Brewer’s insistence on the distinction between the “imagined” and the “imaginary,” much of the work, unrealized, remains locked away from the real. I want the Buster show of my dreams, so flooded with ideas that I’m barely able to decode them all. I want an outlandish, exhausting procession of fully fabricated pieces, with the maquettes and drawings all crowded back into storage. I want the actual to outpace the proposed. I want the work to overwhelm in its multiplicity, just as cities do. I want the senses to take back the turf ceded to the mind. And while we’re at it, I wouldn’t mind if it were all cut to my size, too. CP