April 29 2009 12:00 AM

Artist serves harvest with paintings, performance


For some gardeners, it was a perfect day for planting: mid-April with a bright sun and air warm enough to leave your jacket inside and work in short sleeves. But artist Russell Bauer seemed too busy moving his forthcoming harvest to enjoy it. Holed up in the upper floor of a warehouse on North Grand River Avenue, Bauer only had dibs on his borrowed palette jack for a few hours, and he had plenty of plants still to move before his help showed up with a truck to cart them off to a downtown art space.

As Bauer and a friend carted racks of hydroponically grown produce to a drain sink to let out gallons of water so they could be moved, artist and activist Charlie Nash waved a camcorder around and offered up one-line extrapolations, such as, “If [New York performance artist] Jack Smith were a gardener, this is what it would look like.”

Six months ago, Bauer planted the first seeds to the centerpiece of his upcoming triptych, “Domestic Habitat: Realtime Agriculture: Wasteband,” which opens Saturday, May 2, at Basement 414.

Making use of the Basement’s segmented layout, Bauer’s exhibit is split into three parts. In one room, viewers will encounter a small series of paintings focused on “the domestic,” or in this case, images of livestock juxtaposed with text. One painting features a pair of rabbits, one looking a little angry with the other, with “contraceptives” scrawled across the bottom of the picture in capital letters. “Every word is a pun,” Bauer said. “I’d like people to get more, but the pun is all I’ll admit.”

During the opening reception, trashminded troupe Wasteband, in which Bauer performs along with Steve Baibak, Janel Schultz, Deon Foster and Aaron Curtner, will perform in another of the Basement’s rooms. Set décor calls for walls lined with sod and a series of plastic calves. Bauer explained the group sports outfits made of what most people would consider garbage and performs by moving around and creating noises. The idea is to go out into public places, like street corners, bars, etc., and get a reaction from people. “One night we showed up at the Green Door,” Bauer related. “People were afraid at first, and started to get angry.” After a while, though, they warmed up to the “androgynous figures clad in debris. “They seemed happy about it,” he said.

As for his garden-as-art project, Bauer said the idea sort of stemmed from a conversation with Wasteband mate Schultz about sticking a camera in a field to project images of farmers at work. The idea was to, “Put that in a bar on a big TV and have people get excited about it,” he said.

A 2007 graduate of Michigan State University’s art program, Bauer said when he first got to school he’d had an interest in horticulture and botany before moving on to sculpture and painting. Part of the interest came from his parents, who moved him to a “hobby farm” in Holly when he was 12. “My last name is Bauer, which is German for farmer, and my middle name is “Art — Arthur,” he said. “And I like physical work more than I like paperwork, for the most part.”

Using reclaimed bulk containers and technical support from his parttime employer, Hydrodynamics International Inc., Bauer set out to create an 800-squarefoot indoor vegetable garden last fall. Employing several hydroponics systems, he grew herbs, dill, sage, rosemary, celery, carrots, green beans, beets, leafy greens, lettuces, eggplants and more. During our interview, he handed this writer a sugary snap pea as proof of his proficiency.

At the opening, Bauer will set up a makeshift kitchen in the Basement and serve guests a cabbageroll style dish. The only food he’s bringing in is a bottle of soy sauce and a 20-pound bag of brown rice. Vegetable starters will also be given away free to low-income families. He hopes the exhibit will get more people to realize it doesn’t take much to produce good food at home. “The food is good, and people can do it free,” he said. “It’s not that much work, and people can do it".

‘Domestic Habitat: Realtime Agriculture: Wasteband’ Work by Russell
Arthur Bauer Through May 31 Reception: 2-8 p.m. Saturday, May 2 Hours:
6-9 p.m. weekdays and during weekend events 414 E. Michigan Ave.,
Lansing (enter in alley in rear). www.b414.org