Tag Archives: Contemporary Sculpture

No Limits: The Art of Martin Puryear

Installation of Martin Puryear: New Sculpture at David McKee Gallery

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This article originally appeared in the November 6, 2007 edition of The New York Observer and is posted here on the occasion of Martin Puryear: Recent Sculpture at David McKee Gallery (until June 29).

It’s no coincidence that the Museum of Modern Art has dedicated the better part of the year and a tremendous amount of exhibition space to two major American sculptors: first Richard Serra, and now Martin Puryear, whose work is the subject of a retrospective. Minimalism provided both artists with a springboard for art that went beyond the movement’s stark emphasis on material independence.

Mr. Serra transformed minimalism into a form of theater—having absorbed its brute certainties, he created a sweeping, bullying art. The sculptures are significant—given their gargantuan scale, how could they not be?—but the artist couldn’t care less if anyone looks at them. Spectacle is Mr. Serra’s thing.

It’s Mr. Puryear’s thing, too, as evidenced by the installation of five giant sculptures in MoMA’s second-floor atrium—including Ad Astra (2007), a new work making its public debut. The sculptor invites us to come close and, in the case of Desire (1981), to walk under—confirming, then augmenting, our amazement in a distinctly human way. Here this least ostentatious of artists parts ways with Serra: The construction of Puryear’s sculptures retains the air of a backyard wood shop; they are unabashedly hands-on, intimate despite their scale.

Mr. Puryear’s experience with wood, his signature material, has a long history. His father was an amateur carpenter, and he made guitars while in college. As a member of the Peace Corps, he learned “old world joinery” from local woodworkers in Sierra Leone. While attending the Swedish Royal Academy, Mr. Puryear spent three weeks in the studio of furniture maker James Krenov.

Martin Puryear, Hominid (2007-2011), pine, 73″ x 77-1/2″ x 57″; courtesy David McKee Gallery

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Yet the artist demurs at claims that he’s a consummate craftsman. “The irony,” he has said, “is that my work is often thought to be flawlessly crafted, [but] it isn’t.” He’s no advocate of finish: The wood grain is rough, the paint and stain are sanded down, the staples are removed and left unfilled, dowels bluntly announce their function and what look to be traces of rust dot some of the sculptures. But there are different kinds of finishes. Mr. Puryear’s surfaces refuse slickness and are an avowal of the integrity of process—and not a little self-conscious.

Mr. Puryear’s penchant for handiwork helps account for his rejection of minimalism. “I got real close [to minimalism],” he explains in the exhibition’s catalog. “I looked at it, I tasted it and I spat it out.” Machine-tooled sculpture, often done without the artist’s direct involvement, distanced the artist. “My own feeling,” Mr. Puryear continues, “is that it’s just unlimited what can go into art.”

Those aren’t the words of a dogmatist. Any artist whose work points to influences as diverse as classical statuary, African totems, Mogul miniatures, Barbara Hepworth and the raucous sculpture of H.C. Westermann knows that one of the best things about art is that it can encompass practically anything.

Mr. Puryear’s sculptures are alternately brutish, clumsy, whimsical and elegant; at their best, they’re all at once. Oddball forms resemble baskets, Easter Island effigies and, in the case of Lever #3 (1989), the sensuous and almost musical unfurling of an elephant’s trunk.

He is fascinated by containment and the promise of release. The sculptures are forever attempting to expand or escape from their physical parameters. Bask (1976), a wedge of stained pine, swells and shifts like a muscle burdened by its own strength. The softly rounded dome of Self (1978) comes to fruition with measured determination. In the balletic Sharp and Flat (1987) and Timber’s Turn (1987), gesture is stilled to unnerving effect; their angular torsion is rendered bathetic and comical.

A stringent and somewhat unforgiving sense of humor is an integral component of Mr. Puryear’s art. You can see it in his muted anthropomorphism. Abrupt juxtapositions of line, mass and shape result in a spare variety of Mutt-and-Jeff slapstick.

Martin Puryear, The Balance (Tan Trick) (2012), Alaskan yellow cedar, maple and pine, 52-1/2″ x 107″ x 26-38″; courtesy David McKee Gallery

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Lover #1 is a stepped plane culminating in a ridiculous appendage—an elongated shoehorn, maybe, or a stiffened tongue. An untitled work from 2000, wherein a scrawny maple sapling arches upward from a tear-drop structure, is a hilariously understated priapic joke. Mr. Puryear’s deadpan demeanor helps prevent Old Mole (1985), with its pinched and inquisitive “nose,” from descending into cute punnery.

But just barely. Dry wit doesn’t entirely compensate for the increasingly literal character of Mr. Puryear’s art. An occluded strain of symbolism has long informed the work, but has, in recent years, become distressingly pronounced. He has begun to impose a dull gloss of it on his sculptural inventions. When he tops an abbreviated architectural structure with an extended hornlike spire or pays homage to African art by hefting an inverted approximation of a mask on top of a found wheelbarrow, his work isn’t much more than high-flown kitsch.

Mr. Puryear likens the titles of his sculptures to poetry: “I think they should open up the imagination rather than shut it down.” Would that the new pieces embodied the conceit: Their poetry explains rather than expands. “Meaning” becomes paramount. And all that impeccable craft? It’s along for the ride.

Still, Martin Puryear is a marvel of contemporary art. Viewers will relish these sculptures for their unassuming mastery and droll gravity.

© 2007 Mario Naves

Anne Arnold at Alexandre Gallery

Anne Arnold, Ohno (Skunk) (1974-75), acrylic on polyester coated Dynel over wooden armature, 25″ high; courtesy Alexandre Gallery

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The sculptures of Anne Arnold, on display at Alexandre Gallery, are so masterful—so pointed and witty, economically configured and nuanced—that you can’t help but wonder: Why has it been twenty-four years since this artist was last graced with a solo exhibition?

Read the catalogue accompanying Anne Arnold: Sculpture from Four Decades and you’ll get an idea. Both veteran curator Chris Crosman and critic John Yau make a point of Arnold’s “singular position in American sculpture”—that is to say, how the work sits firmly aside the run of –isms that typify the usual telling of post-war American art. You know the routine: Abstract Expressionism, Pop Art, Minimalism, Conceptualism, Post-Modernism, etc., etc. and blah, blah, blah. What to do with an artist whose vision touches lightly, if at all, on these blue-chip precedents and, instead, goes its own blessed way?

You hope that the Alexandre show will dismantle “preconceptions about what ‘important’ art means” and that it “broadens our sense of history, progress in art, and what we consider modern.” The sophistication of Arnold’s meditations on the animal kingdom—dogs are the specialty, but her empathy and know-how extend to pigs, rabbits, cats and hippos—will be plain to anyone with the eye to see it. And there’s the rub: Arnold’s achievement is predicated on the visual and not on extra-aesthetic rationales or, as Crosman has it, the “self-consciously ‘radical’”.

Anne Arnold, Nimble (Sheep) (1973), polyester resin coated Dynel over wooden armature, 18-1/2″ high; courtesy Alexandre Gallery

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But Arnold’s art is radical—radically humane. Only a temperament in tune with sensibilities outside of her own—in fact, outside of her own species—could contrive personages as true and soulful as these. Don’t be fooled by the work’s accessibility and charm. It’s a sculptor of stringent gifts and focus that could pull off pieces like Ohno (Skunk) (1974-75) or Gretchen (Dachshund) (1978) without devolving into a cloying, folksy mannerism.

Which isn’t to say Arnold’s art doesn’t benefit from being accessible and charming. Viewers who don’t take instantaneous delight upon encountering Arnold’s work should check for a pulse—or a sense of humor. Delight is deepened upon realizing how seamlessly Arnold absorbs a cross-historical range of inspiration—from early dynastic Egypt and the Aztec Empire to American “primitives” and Russian Constructivism. But it is in direct experience, both in the barnyard and without, that Arnold’s art finds its locus and generates its abundant pleasures.

© 2012 Mario Naves

This article originally appeared in the May 17, 2012 online edition of City Arts.

Kirk Stoller at Mary Ryan Gallery

Installation of Kirk Stoller’s sculpture at Mary Ryan Gallery

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Any genre of art has its own set of rewards, pitfalls and clichés. The tradition of the found object can seem especially prone to the latter. The challenge of recycling ephemera is in overcoming (or thwarting) a readymade veneer of history. Too many artists coast on the romance of the found object, milking its surface appeal and playing to nostalgia. It’s hard to transform junk into magic. There’s a reason Joseph Cornell is a singular figure.

Kirk Stoller, whose found object sculptures are on display at Mary Ryan Gallery, isn’t Cornell, but neither is he Richard Tuttle. While Stoller flirts with Tuttle’s piss elegant brand of post-minimalist caprice, he doesn’t succumb to its glib charms. Instead, Stoller elicits a fine strain of animism from the cobbling together of lumberyard oddments. Scraps of wood (sometimes painted; sometimes not), rusty bits of iron and other disabused utilitarian materials are perched atop and against each other with acrobatic finesse.

Actually, “cobbling” is too muscular a word for what Stoller does. His accumulations of detritus are almost alarmingly casual in their precariousness. You tiptoe around the pieces—hold your breath, in fact—for fear of knocking them over. This attribute signals Stoller’s knack for distillation and choreography. It also hints at why the work can, in more skeptical frames of mind, appear artful and cute. Describing someone’s art as “Calder-esque” isn’t always a commendation.

Mostly, though, Stoller’s precision-tuned emphasis on line, mass, volume and (less so) color waylays critical quibbles with considerable aplomb and, or so we are told, gravitas. The sculptures “reflect the precipice of our current world situation… it is possible to foresee both the enlightenment of the human race and its destruction.” That’s a lot to ask from Home Depot cast-offs and not much to ask at all: What artist since Day One hasn’t felt the same way? But Stoller builds upon his diversions in witty and adroit ways. He’s an artist worth keeping an eye on.

© 2011 Mario Naves

Originally published in the July 12, 2011 edition of City Arts.

Andràs Böröcz at Adam Baumgold

öAndràs Böröcz, Triage

Andras Borocz, Triage (2006), carved pencils and mixed-media construction, 13-1/2″ x 12-1/2″ x 5″; courtesy Adam Baumgold Gallery

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Against significant odds, Andràs Böröcz’s dreamlike art continues to deepen, if not necessarily grow. Part of the pleasure we take in Mr. Böröcz’s work, which is on view at the Adam Baumgold Gallery, stems from how capably he beats those odds. Preciosity and folksiness would seem to come with the territory he explores: intricate box dioramas of reclusive figures (mostly men, often artists, plus a lone female model) inhabiting cloistered spaces, all carved from and constructed out of his signature material, pencils.

An acquaintance who is no fan of Mr. Böröcz’s work likens his tall, thin loners to the figurines assembled from nuts and bolts and found in craft fairs and curio shops across the country. Though it’s true that the novelty of Mr. Böröcz’s medium is impossible to ignore, the comparison ignores the invention and meticulous dexterity brought to bear upon those pencils.

Imagine carving and constructing the human form out of a No. 2 pencil. As a sculptural medium, the pencil is obviously inflexible, and it offers little girth or stability. More forgiving materials are available. Carving the things seems a fool’s pursuit. As Mr. Böröcz proves, at times to amazing effect, it doesn’t have to be.

The pencils are an inescapable part of the charm of the work; we delight in the unexpected use of a utilitarian object. What propels it beyond the nuts-and-bolts school of art—that is to say, kitsch—is the sharpness and intensity of Mr. Böröcz’s vision. A great deal of deliberation goes into the sculptures. Pencils are the means for genuine transformation.

Mr. Böröcz isn’t completely immune to the cutes; 24 ink-and-wash drawings of outhouses—yes, outhouses—are a case in point. Mr. Böröcz is more than clever and more than a cartoonist, but you wouldn’t know it from his pictures of penguins lining up to use the john. Other sheets feature an outhouse rollercoaster and outhouses at war. You get the point. These jokes are obvious and flat (and probably affordable). The draftsmanship is adequate but doesn’t reach the heights of his sculptural know-how.

Drawing has been the weakest aspect of Mr. Böröcz’s art for some time. Placed upon the walls of his pencil-box theaters, miniature renderings of his cast of characters (done in pencil, naturally) function as either windows or objets d’art—it’s hard to tell. The ambiguity is less problematic than the drawings themselves. They’re all but extraneous, and they dull Mr. Böröcz’s fantastic world.

In any case, the drawings don’t interfere with the sculptures. Given Mr. Böröcz’s consummate skill, at least when working in three dimensions, it’s hard to imagine anything getting in their way. When sticking with what he knows (pencils, glue, oddments of wood—stuff scattered around the workshop), Mr. Böröcz works magic.

There’s not much action in his stoic, puppet show-like scenarios. Narratives unfold—inasmuch as they do unfold—quietly and mysteriously. There’s something unknowable at the heart of even the most straightforward pieces.

In one box, an artist works diligently from a model. In another, the artist drinks excessively while sitting at his drawing pad. A potted cactus is watered, a cup of tea served. An eraser-tipped everyman plays dominoes; elsewhere, the cactus does the same. In fact, dominoes are a recurring motif in the new work: Skittering around Mr. Böröcz’s settings, like sprites or maybe cockroaches, a Lilliputian array of domino-men stumble upon these scenes of solitude.

It’s an ascetic world in which every gesture is freighted with gravity. Slowing each moment, he creates situations that intimate more than they depict. It’s as if the trivial details of everyday life were of monumental consequence. The solo domino player holds a game piece in mid-air; his other hand thoughtfully touches his neck. Does the fate of the cosmos depend upon the next move? I wouldn’t bet against it.

Mr. Böröcz’s figures possess features like those of Egyptian hieroglyphs and Giacometti’s walking women; they’re types, not individuals. All the same, they possess telling and all-too-human characteristics. The relationship between body language and psychological portent is Mr. Böröcz’s forte. He carefully gauges the stilted angularity of the figures’ movements and accounts for the slightest motion, from the crook of an elbow or wrist or neck to the shuffle of their legs.

The work is narrow, yet the feelings it encompasses are palpable and real. Anxiety courses through the sculptures. The various players on their diminutive stages are quietly divided by the spaces between them; relationships—forget intimacy—are unworkable. Anomie and hushed yearning pervade the work. Mr. Böröcz’s domestic interiors are equivalent in temper to Giorgio de Chirico’s abandoned cityscapes: They’re forlorn, not homey.

And sometimes funny—Mr. Böröcz isn’t as grim as all that. He’s an absurdist, after all, and the sculptures occasionally prompt laughter. The alarmingly perky breasts of the artist’s model—fashioned, of course, from the tips of a pink pencil—are hilarious. And, yes, the pencils do retain their novelty, even as the work itself isn’t defined by it. Thinking inside the box—for Mr. Böröcz, it’s a compliment.

© 2006 Mario Naves

Originally published in the November 26, 2006 edition of The New York Observer.

Frank Stella at Paul Kasmin Gallery

 Frank Stella, <font color=ffffff>aa</font>Can Hassan IIFrank Stella, Can Hassan II (1999), cast painted aluminum and steel, 88″ x 94″ x 40″; courtesy Paul Kasmin Gallery

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We’re all familiar with the serial murderer’s lament: Stop me before I kill again! Here’s the art critic’s variant of same: Stop Frank Stella before he creates more!

Mr. Stella’s recent efforts, on display at Paul Kasmin Gallery, confirm that his baroque tendencies increase in direct proportion to the pointlessness of his art. The only thing fueling the monstrous curlicues of steel pipe and torquing panels of carbon-fiber fill is the egotist’s unrelenting need for attention. The operatic flourishes, grandiose scale and extravagant muscularity–they’re the Famous Artist’s equivalent of a temper tantrum.

Good luck to him. If Mr. Stella thinks bombast can disguise a deficit of sculptural know-how, or that a frantic scramble for aesthetic rationale will generate the real thing, well, he’s wrong. He fares better working on a small scale only because less material, less effort and less precious space have been squandered in the process. As for the big stuff: It’s overweening, irredeemable and ugly as sin.

History knows Mr. Stella as the progenitor of Minimalism. Let history keep him; the here-and-now has enough problems as it is.

© 2005 Mario Naves

Originally published in the May 8, 2005 edition of The New York Observer.