Why an Artist Filled a Lower East Side Gallery with 45 Mini-Fridges
On the first day of summer, Brent Birnbaum’s small, cubicle-like studio at the Brooklyn Army Terminal is stuffed nearly to the ceiling with 45 used mini-fridges. They’re of the faux-woodgrain variety that you might find in a ’90s-era man cave, or packed with Bud Light in a college dorm room, but they’re destined for a Lower East Side gallery. Piled on top of one another in totemic towers, at times five fridges tall, the artist has transformed them into 16 sculptures. From the outside, they’re minimalist, tree-like stacks. “If you break the rules and open them up, then you’re rewarded,” Birnbaum says with a grin. “There are worlds inside.”
Now, amid the sticky, 90-degree humidity of New York in mid-July, Birnbaum’s fridges debut in a solo show at Denny Gallery, “Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester,” where they’ll be plugged in for the next few weeks of summer, quietly humming as they wait for visitors to open them up. Look inside and you’ll be hit with a cool wave of water vapor, but through the mist tiny living quarters emerge—shelves have become floors, and surfaces are lined with swatches of wallpaper, fabrics, and carpets, topped with miniature furniture.
“The project is about living in New York City, where we have a lack of connection to nature and we’re all so close to each other,” Birnbaum explains. “They represent urban living—apartment buildings.” The doll house-like interiors, where levels are connected by small ladders, represent the way a person climbs the corporate ladder or works their way up in any industry. The upper levels of the towers are furnished more intricately; “that’s the penthouse,” Birnbaum says, pointing to an uppermost fridge. But they also fulfill a desire for voyeurism. “I have this vision of a city block that’s totally open on the front, so you can look in and see everyone’s place,” he explains. “I feel like the most telling thing about someone is the decisions they make inside their home. I could look at people’s homes forever.”
The Rockaway-based artist (he also runs Topless gallery there with fellow artist Jenni Crain), turned to art after studying interior design—a field that continually seeps into his art practice. While these works may recall Duchampian readymades, Koons vacuum cleaners, or Judd stacks, Birnbaum instead traces his inspiration back to Warhol, which first struck after reading the artist’s 1980 memoir POPism: The Warhol Sixties. “He drove across the country in the ’60s and he was seeing billboards and all these things along the way just as readymade art, and I really connected with the way he talked about what he saw,” Birnbaum says. “It validated the way I was thinking, and at some point I gave up interior design and started to create work like this.”
In this spirit, Birnbaum says, he’s been trolling Craigslist for the last four years, snapping up mini-fridges from New Jersey to Long Island to Connecticut—the going rate is $40 to 60 a pop. “This has become my practice—to buy stuff off Craigslist and to amass large quantities of things,” he says. Indeed, previous projects have seen the artist amass 68 Ikea wall shelves and tables to create a painting of sorts, and more recently, 11 treadmills. For the latter installation, which many saw at 2015’s SPRING/BREAK art fair, he created a giant mass of running treadmills, each with conveyer belts painted in rainbow hues.
“I’m getting way too acquainted with these fridges,” Birnbaum says, motioning to one with a sticker denoting its year of production—1990—and another fridge that reveals its former life at Penn State. Each fridge is slightly different; some proudly bear placards reading “Excellence” or “Frostman,” or simply “Refrigerator.” And some, the artist reveals, come with a scent element. (He chuckled upon opening one with a yellow crusty interior, which had intentionally not been cleaned.) “It’s a pretty absurdist project,” Birnbaum admits. “I want them to hit people at different levels; I know there is a lot of humor involved in this project, making these tiny worlds and the fact that I collected all of these is a little ridiculous.” It is. But he squarely strikes a note of nostalgia, and simultaneously the vast range of stresses and triumphs that come with apartment living in New York. “No one really wants these fridges,” he says as looks across the room full of them. “I almost view these as little compartments in people’s heads, like the secrets that we keep inside.”
So what’s next for Birnbaum? “I want to collect 100 couches.”
“Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester” is on view at Denny Gallery, New York, Jul. 13–Aug. 19, 2016.