Category Archives: Contemporary Sculpture

Catalogue Essay Accompanying “Half Human”, a group exhibition at The Clemente Soto Vélez Cultural and Educational Center

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Installation shot of “Half Human”, featuring works by (from left to right) Stephanie Hightower, Pat Lay, Laura Dodson and Artemis Alcalay; photo courtesy Nikos Seferiadis

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Few questions are as persistent—or frustrating—than those surrounding the meaning of what it is, exactly, to be human. Given the run of opinions and theories over the span of history, the human has proven a subject prone to perpetual re-definition. Philosophers, politicians and religious leaders have attempted to interpret human nature and, in more than a few cases, codify it–sometimes for salutary purposes, sometimes not. If anything is constant about the “human”, it is inherent unpredictability, a slipperiness of need and ambition.

As we continue into the twenty-first century, how is the world we helped to shape shaping us? Every artist–at least, any artist worth her salt–works in response to the surrounding culture, if in ways that are closer to osmosis than reportage. Historical context doesn’t determine aesthetic worth, but it would be foolhardy to deny its influence. There is no escaping our self-awareness as a species. The artists featured in “Half Human” elaborate upon this predicament in ways that reaffirm its primacy.

The sculptures and assemblages of Pat Lay make a point of how technology is transforming the collective body and mind: her totemic visages combine the mechanical and the iconic, suggesting a dystopia that is less futuristic than we might like to admit. Diyan Achjadi’s works-on-paper, in contrast, encompass the natural world: her kaleidoscopic amalgams of East, West and cultures yet to be imagined offer stages in which myth and magic are allowed a fierce independence.

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Diyan Achjadi, Sinking (2018), gouache, ink and graphite on cut Kozuke paper, approximately 60 x 42″; courtesy the artist

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The art of Maria de los Angeles transforms biography–in this case, that of a child born to Mexican immigrants–into a rambunctious brand of agit-prop that takes significant (and surprising) forays into fashion. De Los Angeles looks to German Expressionism for inspiration, as does Marsha Gold Gayer, whose drawings are as nuanced as they are mordant. Working from the live model, Gayer uncovers a discomfiting eroticism within her taxonomies of likeness, body-type and mark-making.

The body–or, rather, its limitations–figures prominently in the photographs and assemblages of Artemis Alcalay. Disassociation is her leitmotif, and Alcalay divines an almost counterintuitive tenacity of spirit within weathered textures and starkly configured compositions. Divination of a different sort marks the photographic tableaux of Laura Dodson, in which the malleability of memory is elaborated upon with ghostly specificity. In Dodson’s art, narrative structures arise from the promiscuous convergence of the documentary and the invented.

The puzzle-like compositions of Stephanie Hightower–schematic overlays of iconographs and panoramic vistas–are rebuses that promise no ready answer. Hightower’s paintings underscore the nature of this exhibition’s thesis, suggesting that an integral component of the human is its ability to not only brook contradiction, but to welcome it. In this way, “Half Human” posits an optimism without which we are not human at all.

© 2017 Mario Naves

The online catalogue for “Half Human” can be found here.

Again, with the Rabbits

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I’m pleased to announce that a painting of mine has been included in Sideshow Gallery’s annual floor-to-ceiling extravaganza. The exhibition is up until the end of February.

Steve Currie: Gone Fishing

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Steve Currie, Terminal (2014), stainless steel wire, plastic tube, bobbers and hydrostone, 112″ x 72″ x 60″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The following essay appears in the catalogue accompany Gone Fishing, an exhibition of sculpture by Steve Currie currently on view at Elizabeth Harris Gallery.

While rifling through a folder of reviews written about the sculpture of Steve Currie, a passing observation caught my eye, not least because it points to the puzzling nature of his art.

Writing about a 1998 Currie exhibition, the critic Kenneth Baker discerned a Minimalist current informing the work, particularly in the deployment of materials. Minimalism, it is worth recalling, abjured mimesis and association–that is to say, metaphor–in favor of unencumbered materialism. The what-you-see-is-what-you-see approach (to iterate Frank Stella’s deathless phrase) has its adherents, but Currie isn’t one of them. Baker ultimately pegged him as “no true Minimalist”. He was right to do so. Though Currie came of age toward the tail end of the style’s dominance, he proved too restless a talent to settle for the easy-out. No literalist dead-ends for this sculptor. Inviting aesthetic discomfort in the cause of artistic potential, Currie has forever been welcoming of a certain impurity.

Well, maybe not “forever”, but Currie has been working and exhibiting in New York City for close to thirty years. That he’s managed to do so without succumbing to fashion or capitulating to cynicism is remarkable in and of itself: the art scene isn’t the most accommodating (or kindest) place for those with independent temperaments. As a veteran of this milieu, Currie has witnessed a fair share of cultural and ideological shifts. Taking them in with a sense of measure and, I like to think, bemusement, Currie carried forth in the studio, questioning the limits of his vision even while prodding at the sculptural tenets of the day. In doing so, he’s discovered tangents that are diverting, sometimes fruitful and sometimes dubious, and always worth investigating.

gone_fishingSteve Currie, Gone Fishing (2015), stainless steel wire, plastic tube, fishing poles and hydrostone, 112″ x 80″ x 26″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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The title of this exhibition provides an example of how Currie has strayed from any kind of orthodoxy. As a thematic marker, Gone Fishing connotes a level of disengagement, at least from the mundane worries of the here-and-now. As sculptural fact, “fishing”, for Currie, is an avowal of the benefits of play, of following where the logic–or illogic–of the work takes him.  Whether twisting fine lengths of wire or making casts of hydrostone (a cement derived from gypsum), Currie evinces a healthy acceptance of their material and allusive capabilities, even when they lead down pathways he could never have imagined. This aesthetic flexibility–along with a deadpan whimsy that marks Currie as the most disarming of artists–extends to the recent use of found materials: those would be the fishing bobbers and poles punctuating his signature amalgamations of systematic modularity and free form improvisation.

The incorporation of readily identifiable objects within abstract structures seems, on the face of it, a lopsided and potentially foolhardy endeavor. Wouldn’t these prefab items call attention to themselves at the expense of sculptural unity? One can’t help but be reminded of Marcel Duchamp’s remark that no work of art could hope to improve upon the inherent beauty of an airplane propeller. And, sure enough, the bobbers are, in their streamlined elegance, impressive combinations of functionality and design. That’s what caught Currie’s eye when he chanced upon them in the window of a fishing supply store near his Brooklyn studio. But an object remains “found” only to the extent to which it is endowed with poetic import. Currie transforms the fishing bobbers into integral adjuncts of a larger artistic context. They remain themselves and yet they don’t. Currie’s slight of hand is pivotal to the work’s integrity, and beguiling to boot.

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Steve Currie, Adrift (2014), stainless steel wire, roots, plastic tube and bobbers, 117″ x 79″ x 54″; courtesy Elizabeth Harris Gallery

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It helps that Currie has long employed industrial materials and proven them un-industrial—in other words, pliable and humane. But the inclusion of the bobbers and, for that matter, the dried roots seen here-and-there, is unexpected even if the adroitness with which they’ve been synthesized is no surprise at all. Synthesis is, after all, Currie’s forte. As a sculptor, he’s less interested in essentializing forms than in creating a dialogue between contradictory impulses. Forget how he enlivens the buck-stops-here ethos of Minimalism with a limber strain of Surrealism. Consider, instead, the oddball tete-a-tetes generated between mechanical surfaces and organic rhythms; stolid architectural forms and graceful expanses of line; diagrammatic emphases and animal-like shapes; and, of course, volume and mass simultaneously confirmed and thwarted. What, finally, do we end up with? Donald Judd meets Paul Klee meets Wild Kingdom meets Tinker Toys, after which they collectively manage to defy gravity as deftly as Fred Astaire. And that’s just where Currie starts.

A recent trip to Asia affected Currie in ways still new to him, but references to topiary gardens and airplane terminals are there to be gleaned, albeit less as biographical markers than as extensions of the artist’s fascination with the world, both natural and otherwise. And it’s this fascination—turned outwards, appreciative and questioning—that endows the work with its droll animism. When ensconced in the studio–a locale whose isolation can engender the worst kind of self-absorption–Currie doesn’t tune out the particularities of what’s out there; the world is, in fact, ushered inside the door. As both philosophy and art, this approach is remarkably grounded and blessedly unpretentious. “No true Minimalist” Currie is, without a doubt. But the truth of his art lies in how thoroughly these quietly ambitious sculptures engage and enthrall the eye. Every artist should be as encompassing and true.

© 2015 Mario Naves