Included among the objects displayed in “Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles,” the Lewis Center for the Arts’ sharp new exhibition of work by Dean of the Faculty and professor of computer science David Dobkin, are: snow globes, popsicle sticks, water bottle caps, Snapple lids, compact discs, keyboards, mother boards, paper tubes, credit cards, safety rings, fasteners, postcards, and pennies. In addition to this compendium of mundane objects, hundreds of photographs are presented, depicting restaurant menus, phone booths, colleagues, friends, and food. The website for the Lewis Center calls it “a unique exhibition of sculptures, photo-collages, and site-specific installations” by Dean Dobkin, a “self-identified amateur artist who collects and creatively repurposes a vast array of things from daily life.”
Upon entering the gallery, however, this description appears misleading. An overstocked shelf of innumerable tchotchkes overwhelms the viewer as remnants of past vacations, holidays, and birthdays are on full display: nametags and baseball bobble heads, snow globes and mini figurines, a birthday card from 1998. These objects have little respect for the territorial integrity of other tenants. Only with a stretch of the definition can they be classified individually as pieces of art; and they would seem more at home on a mantelpiece than an art gallery.
And yet, the shelf projects the essence of Dean Dobkin’s exhibit, which fervently desires to decode the passing of time. Ultimately, it can be divided into two parts: the particularities and nostalgia of the Dobkin family; and the more universal progress of technology. The former are represented by giant collages of family vacations and by the peculiarities of the objects themselves; while the latter manifests in the ubiquity of nearly all the objects.
“Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles” arose in dual part from a debate within the art world over the role of the amateur in art, and from the Dean’s own obsession with collection. It is an offshoot of a graduate arts and humanities course entitled “Contemporary Art and the Amateur.” According to professor Joe Scanlan, Director of the Program in Visual Arts at the Lewis Center and one of the organizers of the exhibition, Dean Dobkin’s work has strong affinities with other modern and contemporary artists, especially Louise Nevelson and Sol LeWitt. One of the prime motivations for the movement towards amateur art is a departure from the depiction of modern and contemporary art as snobbery. From the start, Dean Dobkin’s exhibit distinguishes itself as highly accessible. Even the tchotchkes are endearing. We can all associate with those remnants of cheap nostalgia, with the little things that represent so much more.
This first shelf gives way to a series of increasingly organized mini-exhibitions, most more global in their reach. First in line are more than a dozen 1980s-era computer keyboards hung neatly from the ceiling by their chords. Those ancient keyboards are not only a thoughtful contemplation of technology and the death-knell tunes of newer models; they are also aesthetically pleasing. The keyboard staging is playful, light-hearted, and elicits at least a chuckle.
Dobkin and Scanlan weave this theme of technology old and new through each of the subsequent stations. At one, many more of his collection of over eight hundred snow globes are housed in a vintage telephone booth; in the center of the gallery, a small room displays a wall of ancient computer chips, green and wiry and sure to invite different responses from viewers of different generations. Elsewhere, ancient flip phones dangle from the ceiling of a makeshift telephone booth, the walls of which are formed by Snapple caps, CDs, and Popsicle sticks. Above, water bottle caps spell “TELEPHONE.” This mini-exhibition picks up on the recurring motif of the telephone booth. A collage of photographs from more than a decade of family vacations include many of Dean Dobkin and his wife and children – Suzanne, Sarah, Jane, and Ben, to whom the exhibition is dedicated – at phone booths across the world: from London to Greece to San Francisco. As such, the phone functions doubly: both for our collective timeline of technology, and as the individual timeline of the Dobkins.
The old and outdated is presented more subtly in other ways. Most prominent among these is Dean Dobkin’s assortment of over seven hundred pounds of pennies, sorted by year and presented in floor-to-ceiling towers along a back wall. Societally, the role of the penny has become controversial over the past few years, as it now costs more than two cents to mint each penny. Calls for its elimination have increased in volume, and, in February 2013, President Obama stated his willingness to remove the penny from circulation. The pennies are structurally precarious; the towers are uneven and disorganized. Though Dean Dobkin undoubtedly began his penny collection long before the debate emerged, its precarious state is palpable in the staging.
The penny sculptures successfully resolve the primary tension of the exhibit, between the universality of obsolete objects and the particularity of the Dobkin family. Next to the actual pennies are dozens of letters addressed to Dean Dobkin, many of them thanking him for a meeting or a class or a lecture and all of them attaching a penny to add to his collection. The bridge between the generic pennies and the specific letters is an essential part of the success of the exhibit. No one could leave without reviving some spirit of reminiscence. In the exhibit as a whole, Dean Dobkin and Scanlan have connected a free association of ideas, themes and, most importantly, things. Here the denomination of “amateur artist” is aptly applied: Dean Dobkin may have no formal training, but what he has created is surely art. The source of art in the exhibit lies not with the individual artistic talent of drawing, painting, or sculpting. Instead, its power derives from the visceral responses it invites in viewers.
By themselves these objects are not pieces of art, and they aren’t meant to be. Alone, a credit card is a piece of plastic, a penny is an outdated unit of currency, and a family photograph is just that. The artistic lies in the ability to draw connections between, and conclusions from, these random pieces of seemingly cheap nostalgia. “Myself, I Think We Should Keep Collecting Titles” is not an exhibit of art, but art itself; for in its staging Dobkin and Scanlan have created something at once fun and meditative, visceral and considered, accessible and artistic.