Matthias Merkel Hess's "Water & Gasoline": It's a send-up, perhaps, but a devious one

Matthias Merkel Hess 

Matthias Merkel Hess 

Petroliana, a recurring topic on shows like American Pickers and American Restoration, draws on America's reverence for oil industry paraphernalia. These programs regularly feature gas signs, vintage oil cans, and the like, nostalgic remnants of its love affair with the open road. In "Water & Gasoline," an exhibition now on view at Burnet Gallery at Le Meridien Chambers, artist Matthias Merkel Hess riffs on that obsession with sculptures of gas containers and contrasting water containers, both made out of brightly colored glazed porcelain. 

As you peruse the various ceramic containers of all shapes and colors -- some polka-dotted, some marbled, some fairly realistic looking, some the color of candy -- you may find yourself asking... why? Why make a whole show about plastic containers? There's something aversive about it, perhaps because oil itself has become the great villain of our modern world. It's something we can't survive without, but it could ultimately destroy us. Here, Merkel Hess forces us to confront our oil-obsessed culture head-on in a rather playful tongue-in-cheek way. 

Interestingly, the designs that the artist is drawing inspiration from -- vessels from the 1960 and '70s -- also happen to come from the time when Americans were first confronted with the reality that our over-reliance on oil was not such a great thing. Is Merkel Hess's work nostalgic? Not really. It's a send-up, perhaps, but a devious one. It's almost as if he is re-claiming the designs in the more sustainable form of ceramics, bringing them back to an older way of doing things. 

The co-existence of gas cans and water cans within the same body of work shows how similar our relationship with the two are. We cannot live without water, but in today's world we would be hard pressed to survive without oil, either -- at least in the way we are accustomed to living now. 

There's an element of survival to this work. The gas cans are the type of object that you use when you are stranded and you have to walk a half-mile to the nearest gas station because you've run out of gas. The water jugs, too, bring up images of being out in the wilderness without access to running water. 

<i>Scepter 2 in,</i> 2014 by Matthias Merkel Hess

Scepter 2 in, 2014 by Matthias Merkel Hess

These darker themes exist below the surface, though. Outwardly, it's a very bright and cheery show, with lots of color and intriguing forms. It's a nice balance of probing ideas and design. 


"Water & Gasoline"

Through April 27

Burnet Gallery

901 Hennepin Ave., Minneapolis

Gallery hours are 11 a.m. to 9 p.m.