The Beauty in Bulk

by Nicholas Keen     

Centered in white text on a larger than life t-shirt, the phrase “Same Old Shit Different Day” adequately catches the quirky atmosphere of Tom Howes’ exhibit in the Park Trades Center of downtown Kalamazoo. Tom Howes is a local Kalamazoo artist who graduated with a BFA from Western Michigan University’s Frostic School of art, and is a part of the University’s permanent art collection. From shamelessly spray painted rocks to the stunning site of screen-printed urinal pads, the studio emits a playful energy as onlookers take the time to balance the simple yet complicated implications of his work. Our consumerist tendencies as a society suggest that our material possessions lead the way in terms of the choices we make and act upon. Whether it’s a coffee mug or a t-shirt, we slowly but surely stockpile a heap of possessions that all too soon lose significance within our lives. The theme of Howes’ work confers on this very notion – the bane of significance: quantity. By tactfully manipulating objects of interest, whether it is in form, quantity, or perception, Howes appropriates a new level of understanding which calls for inquiry, as well as appreciation for the finer details found within the mundane. [1]

Erected in the middle front of the gallery space was a structure consisting of 12 stacked porcelain mugs, all various representations of Santa’s face, and each in their own right a work of delicate art. However, this is not the focal point of the sculpture, for the fact that there are many as opposed to one distracts from the individuality of each piece. For me, I began to question the point and purpose of each cup as they stood before me, ultimately feeling dissatisfied with the commoditization of Father Christmas. Although, by introducing the pieces in such a quantity, Howes challenges the loss of unique aesthetic appeal by essentially giving back the significance. Presented in a neat linear fashion, he manipulates the quantity of the mugs into a unified entity, emphasizing a new form that the aesthetically corrosive effect of mass production fails to deter. Picturing myself walking through an old antique shop, I would surely graze by the collection as I note their lack of original appeal – though in light of Howes’ suggestion, their significance does not have to be lost, but merely viewed through a different lens.

As I proceeded through the exhibition, I became particularly fond of the screen-printed urinal pads and the immense t-shirt installation that hung to the back right of the space. These two works more directly challenge the purpose of the objects in question, as their renovated aesthetic appeal accents their individuality by altering their banality. Based on the nature of their purpose, urinal pads are irrefutably condemned to a single accepted use, and t-shirts are the most common of possessions known to man; thus, the significance of the two objects is lost due to their designated societal functions. What does it take to catch our attention? Over-sizing the t-shirt, in a rather humoristic sense speaks to America’s cultural obsession with the notion that bigger is better. That, in conjunction with the added text, “Same Old Shit Different Day,” catches viewers in the act, as its abnormal alteration of size forces us to take notice of the object’s purpose paralleled to the meaning of the phrase. The same applies to the urinal pads, for only after enlarging and brightly coloring their scanned figures do we begin to appreciate the shear elegance of the designs. What do we as society miss if we depreciate the possible aesthetic value within our surroundings? Though they may not be utterly crucial details, it is a fine representation as to how we let the objects defined purpose dictate our actions pertaining to their use. For those who are able to peer past this conceptually enforced veil, I commend them.

Tom Howes, Urinal Screen Series, 2012, Screen prints

Humor is an evident theme within most of Howes’ works, however a few stand out in their particularly conceptual comedy. Of note is the imitation stone spray paint on real stone installation, and an appropriated oil on canvas painting of flowers in a vase, with added text in the middle reading, “Your still life is going nowhere.” What works so well is the obviousness of the humor, to the point of being rather shameless. One may even begin to question Howes’ audacity in writing over an oil painting; or just that he would even spray paint stones to look like stones, and then present it is as art. Howes by no means wants offend, but only further challenge viewers to think outside of the box. By exclaiming, “Your still life is going nowhere,” Howes plays on the very concept of a still life – which by nature is meant to remain untouched as to preserve the future quality of the finished product. By vandalizing the piece, Howes commits what some may perceive to be an act of defiance towards the art world. This could perhaps be the case with the stone colored rocks, as their presence as a sculptural installation alters what it means to construct representational art. Fully aware of its own humor and relishing in its difference, each work in its own way asks viewers to be critical, and at the same time understanding of any artwork put before them.

Tucked away in a small gallery space comforted by three white walls and a giant t-shirt, Howes’ contemporary work leaves me thinking of none other than Warhol. Perhaps in a retrospective fashion, Howes comments on the concept of mass production and the effect of quantity on value. Andy Warhol challenged the same idea in the 1960’s Pop art movement where he popularized the idea of mass-produced art by means of stencils. With this method, Warhol was able to strike a balance between quantity and variation; very much in the same way Howes presents his work. [2] The site in which his work is presented provides the appropriate sterile venue where the conceptual aspects of his works can stand free of site-specific implications, making the experience of working through the gallery even more enriching. Although it may not necessarily be of the utmost importance that we see beauty in the banal, it doesn’t hurt; for with closer examination of the finer nuances in life, we may gain vision into societal influences upon our own perceptions of what is aesthetically pleasing.


[1] Tom Howes, Tom Howes Works: Words, [no date], Accessed April 30, 2012.

[2] Lawrence Alloway, “The Arts and the Mass Media,” Architectural Design and Construction (February 1958), Accessed April 30, 2012.


3 thoughts on “The Beauty in Bulk

  1. Your review helped me to enjoy his works even more. Being female, I don’t see urinal screens, and was surprised by their unique designs and colors. His humor is as unique as he is, and I always am engaged in his work.

  2. He’s been making unique, oblique, humerus, detailed, somewhere else art since he was five. His really early material indicated what the future held in store, i.e. who knows what might appear.

  3. Your review made this exhibit so vivid in my imagination, as if I saw it through your eyes. Liked the Warhol link as well–a good reminder of the re-evolution that Warhol ignited in the contemporary art scene. Reminded me of a Warhol exhibit in Kazakhstan a few years ago….

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