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Riding Art’s Airstream

Peter Haberkorn’s exhibit at Prairie takes viewers on a road trip

By Steven Rosen · March 27th, 2012 · Visual Art

Peter Haberkorn, a Cincinnati artist who imaginatively salvages and repurposes older materials, has a background in architectural study. Fittingly, the first thing you notice upon entering Northside’s Prairie to see his new show, Airstream, is just how beautifully his work fits in as gallery-complementing design.

For Airstream, up through May 5, he has salvaged and excised the metal-framed window areas of old Airstream trailers, those icons of American road trips whose alluring curves and silvery surfaces are considered a hallmark of Art Deco-related Streamline design. First created and made in California in the early 20th century, Airstream trailers now are manufactured in Jackson Center, Ohio. 

The artist has placed his own color photos, blurrily abstracted visions shot from the American road, within the window recesses. The two major pieces are mirror images, “NL Sunset 1” and “2,” but hardly multiples — the Airstream components have significant differences. The show also has a couple other pieces using salvaged material; a back room features work related to a steelworks factory in Dusseldorf. 

Prairie is a white-walled second-floor space with skylights and street-facing windows (or window-like doors) and light-brown corkboard floor. Silver ductwork is visible along the ceiling. Its style is 21st century Modernist with clear, strong lines and few if any historic references in its interior. 

Haberkorn’s Airstream pieces extend and amplify the room’s horizontal and vertical lines, creating the illusion of there being real windows on the sides of the gallery. And the edges, with their curvature, give the space some unexpected but welcome frills and design elements.

I was especially taken with the rivets, sometimes visible in the Airstream metal around the windows. This seems funny to say. After all, the artist made the photographs upon which I’m supposed to gaze, not these insignificant reminders of metal construction. But the latter represents a touch of manufacturing-related authenticity — American working people made a durable good with their hands. 

Am I sentimentalizing? Maybe it’s the politics of the day, with everyone bemoaning the loss of manufacturing jobs in the Midwest, but there’s something sacred (in a secular way) about seeing those markings here, treated as art.

Sort of like an old acoustic bluesman playing a college concert late in life. 

But I digress. There are other strong visual elements. In “Sunset 2,” Haberkorn has found a piece of trailer that has double windows, along with some silver and blue customized strips below the lower one. It’s a nice dash of variety and color.

Haberkorn’s color photos are as much a part of his Airstream work as the salvaged trailer pieces. Yet, I have mixed feelings about these. They are beautiful, but so muted in their meditations on sunset, car lights and streetlamps that they retreat into the background when you look at them. When an actual Airstream window is open, as in “Sunset 1,” the fiery orange and contrasting black of the photograph are fighting for good sightlines with that window.

In another piece, “En Route to LAX,” the tinted Airstream window is closed over the photograph, rendering it dark except for the trails of isolated colored light. (You also see your own reflection on the Airstream window’s glass.) The effect is obscure, and obscured. And yet, there’s something to be said for the alluring quality of an image so seemingly fleeting. It’s not easy to “read,” but in vagueness there is mystery.

Haberkorn’s two large wall assemblages also conjure transportation vehicles, slightly eerily. In one, “Life Ring,” he uses a life preserver in front of a Jeep-like grille in a way that suggests a bleached skeletal figure reminiscent of a Georgia O’Keeffe cow skull. 

Another, called “Oar” is a kinder, gentler and more autumnal version of a Rauschenberg or Kienholz tableau. What appear to be the green slats of an old wooden blind are spread out horizontally, like a well-worn and rickety fence. Attached to it is a grille and pieces of rusted metal. It’s like the grille has eyes. The dark-paddled oars, one upward and one down, are to the left. They have missing sections. “Oar” overstates its sense of frailty and decrepitude a bit, but there’s a sensitive and empathetic use of materials. 

The four pieces comprising the Dusseldorf Steelworks suite make the most impactful statement, overall. In these, Haberkorn has placed color photographs inside paired vintage, predominately vertical windows. (He told The Enquirer they were salvaged from school buses.) The photos themselves have varied perspectives on a steel plant’s architecture — pipes, shafts, stairs, maybe a ventilator shaft. The place looks in disuse — there are signs of rust and overgrowth. It has a post-industrial vibe, without Haberkorn being blatant about it. 

Haberkorn has paired the photos shrewdly. One is brighter, sunnier than the other — bluer as far as sky is concerned. The effect is as if one is looking out an open window on one side versus a closed one. Yet that’s an illusion — these old windows now function literally and solely as framing devices. Another effect is this makes you think of the dulling haze of industrial pollution versus the clearer, healthier skies once production has stopped.

As I thought about that, I realized what a curious poetic journey Airstream had taken me on. From being stirred by the nuts and bolts and rivets — the grit — of industrial production in the trailer pieces, I had ended by imagining I was breathing the fresh clean air made possible when such production ceases. Quite a road trip, overall.

Airstream is on display at Prairie Gallery through May 5.



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