“Retro Refrigerators as Totems to Our Food Storage Habits” by Claire Voon on August 22, 2016
I’d expected the exhibition of 45, wood-paneled mini-fridges at the Lower East Side’s Denny Gallery to offer a literally cool breather from this sweltering summer, but none of them were running. The gallery has opted to leave them off for the obvious environmental reasons, but it does, however, offer visitors an uncommon gesture: an invitation to touch the art — to open each fridge and explore what lies within.
The space currently resembles a showroom for outdated home appliances thanks to artist Brent Birnbaum, who also co-runs Topless gallery in the Rockaways. For Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester, his first solo show with Denny Gallery, his own efforts of four-and-a-half years of voyaging and foraging are on display. Over that period, Birnbaum scoured Craigslist to find pre-owned, old-fashioned refrigerators and drove around New York City, New Jersey, and Connecticut to collect them. His installation, which features as many as five boxes standing atop each other, bring to mind Jeff Koons’s hoover sculptures and Donald Judd’s minimalist stacks. But placed tightly together, Birnbaum reliquaries more so resemble a dense copse of naked trees or a group of stark, monotone totems. The hoard also recalls a city of skyscrapers once you begin to open each of the doors: sparse decorations and dollhouse-like furnishings lie on the shelves to form miniature domiciles.
The allusion to totems, though, is particularly fitting as Voyeur Voyager Forager Forester feels like a tribute to the refrigerator of yesteryear and the cheesy design aesthetics now replaced with modern, sleek exteriors and interiors. The appliances, rather than their hidden dioramas, are the real stars, as I found the interiors largely underwhelming: the experience of opening the fridges was like being really stoned and anticipating an entire pizza but receiving just one limp cucumber sandwich — it’s nice, but ultimately unsatisfying.
Birnbaum’s scattered adornments, though, do highlight certain details of the fridges that show the importance of their functional design. Cloth hanging from the rods of shelves point to the simple elements that keep our condiments in place; a metal doodad in the curve of one shelf, pre-carved for eggs, makes you consider the ubiquity of the poultry product in American households and how manufacturers literally build our want for them into their wares. The fabrics, mini-chairs, ladders, and other objects Birnbaum chooses are also always of the same color within each fridge, with some matching a hue that is part of its original design. Some fridges, for instance, have bright, pastel-colored doors (a rare sight in modern-day ones); others even feature small, printed patterns. One has a line of bold, bronze diamonds stamped on the door of its tiny, nested freezing compartment — another reminder that some freezers dwell within fridges. Birmbaum has filled that fridge with entirely golden objects shaped like squares, circles, and triangles so it resembles a humorous Art Deco space.
Even the shells of the refrigerators are fascinating on their own. Most are bare, just featuring the names of brands in diverse typography, from “FROSTMAN” to “EXCELLENCE,” but some still feature stickers placed by past owners. The designs of handles are especially intriguing, ranging from slim bars to bulky knobs shaped like circles or diamonds; one by Sanyo Electric Co. resembles an elegant, golden cabinet handle. Seeing all of these appliances in such an imposing set-up makes you especially aware that they are incredibly hefty beasts of machinery. Examine their sides and you’ll notice various dents in the wood; stand at the back of the gallery and you’ll confront their unexposed backs featuring bulky compressors and labyrinths of condenser coils.
Most people probably don’t want any of these refrigerators anymore when you can purchase top-grade ones with temperature control drawers and ice and water dispensers. The blocks Birnbaum has diligently amassed, though, display the simple but sturdy designs that preceded such sexier ones. They are the no-nonsense storage units that graced RVs across the US, helped refresh a motel guest after a long drive, or contributed to the success of an illicit college dorm party.