Historical Journal

Journal Archives,Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts Archives

Universe of Meaning: Directions In Contemporary Sculpture

May 1, 1999
Judith Stein

A writer and curator, studied at Barnard College, and has a Ph.D. in art history from the University of Pennsylvania. She is the author of Eye of the Sixties, Richard Bellamy and the Transformation of Modern Art, (Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 2016). Her curatorial projects include Red Grooms, A Retrospective, for the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, and The Figurative Fifties, New York School Figurative Expressionism, co-curated with Paul Schimmel. Her exhibition, I Tell My Heart: The Art of Horace Pippin, traveled to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1995, and earned a best catalogue award from AICA/USA. Her articles, interviews and reviews have appeared in Art in America, Art News, and The New York Times Book Review, as well as on National Public Radio’s Fresh Air and Morning Edition. Among her honors is a Creative Capital/Andy Warhol Foundation Arts Writers Grant; a Pew Fellowship for literary non-fiction; and a Lannan Foundation writing residency in Marfa, Texas.

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"How do we know what’s in outer space? Normally we rely on scientists to supply the answers. But visual artists can also help us envision the celestial realms. Can you imagine a garden in space?"

Brattleboro Museum & Art Center, Brattleboro, VT
May 13 – November 4, 1995
What is art about? To answer this I try to identify the obvious subject of a work and then ask myself about the ideas behind it. For example, TIMOTHY WOODMAN’S subject in Waterskiing seems to be the exhilarating speed of a leisure-time activity. But there are issues that go beyond a simple story, which we can uncover by careful looking.
Woodman creates the strong impression that the skier is about to zoom into the distance. But the actual aluminum sculpture is very thin. How does the artist convey a sense of deep space? He makes the motorboat much smaller than the figure, and he angles the watery path to converge on the boat. These tricks of perspective were developed five hundred years ago. Woodman revitalizes a traditional technique using contemporary subjects and materials.
PAUL SHORE fashions images of the head to “stand in” for the full human figure. Combining them with invented shapes, he builds delicate forms that resemble hand-held rattles. One of his materials is plaster, which reminds me of bones. Shore intends us to see these evocative forms as part tool, part weapon, and part toy.
Have you ever wondered what four-legged might serve as a surrogate for you? As an artist, NINA YANKOWITZ gives herself the task of imagining on our behalf In Compressed Block, four-legged creatures balance precariously on one another’s backs in a higgledy-piggledy tower. This menagerie represents a variety of ways of being: pampered (like clipped poodles), domesticated, and wild. Some perform for us with such props as balls and rings. Others dangle leashes or reins. Like the dog in a Muppet movie, who said he had “a new leash on life,” these beguiling animals are both free and captive.
Can clothing become sculpture? Is a well-made garment a work of art? Although I might admire a designer dress for its material, design, and construction, I don’t usually spend time thinking about its ability to convey ideas. Whereas we might speak casually of the ‘fine art of dressmaking,” a dress and a piece of sculpture are usually two different things. But BEVERLY SEMMES uses the shape, fabric, and style of clothes to create wall hangings on a monumental scale.
What do her garments tell us about the human experience? Images of unpeopled apparel make use of the fact that all clothing is encoded with information — about gender, class, race, history, and values, to name a few examples. Winterweight mohair is the material that Semmes chose for Yellow Gown. Would you expect a gown to be made of mohair? Did Semmes represent a nightgown or an evening gown? Who might choose to wear a garment with long sleeves, “Peter Pan” collar, and a gathered bodice? As with any successful work of art, there is not just one way to understand its meaning.
The old riddle asks, “When is a door not a door?” The answer, is “When it is ajar.” In Button Wall, sculptor NANCY A. BLUM seems to ask, “When is a button not a fastener?” to which she answers, “When it becomes an object of contemplation.” Working with porcelain and stoneware, Blum alters the size and material of buttons and represents them as wall plaques the size ofdinner plates. Like Semmes, she is interested in simple, everyday forms and the new meanings that accompany changes in scale. As your eyes scan Blum’s assembly, what similarities and differences do you see among the forms? Each plaque conveys unique information about its purpose and about the history of style.
Semmes and Blum appropriated the forms of mundane objects. What happens when a sculptor commandeers the things themselves?
Does a change of context impart a new significance? LISA HOKE has given much thought to her use of such materials as buttons, zippers, thread, and jars: I am witnessing, reliving, and recording the activities of every day, attempting to extend the moment. I seek, in the singular object, to linger over that which is outgrown or too personal or too ordinary. Sometimes in the mundane is the opportunity for me to examine a fragment of an experience, which then becomes a building block or catalyst towards a new structure. Each object is rich with underrated potential…. It is the smallness that I want to celebrate and, elaborate.”
In Eavesdropper, Hoke bedecks a brass horn with a multitude of button leis. How does the title help us to get at the meaning? To me, there are several possibilities. The title may refer to the process of the artist, who, like an eavesdropper communicates information gathered covertly. Or it may refer to the piece itself, which might be seen as a funnel attracting the energy in the room. Or it may make reference to our role as viewers, the unobserved observers who look and listen. When I look at the weighty button garlands slumped against the floor, I think about the myriad necklaces worn by women in some non-Western cultures.
Can you conceive of a portrait without a face? Portraits are usually understood to be representations of the heads of specific individuals. But Georgia-based artist BEVERLY BUCHANAN makes portraits by building small dwellings. About these she has said: “I’m interested in their shapes and how they’re made and how they reflect the people who built them. I consider my shacks portraits. It’s the spirit that comes through the forms.”
Buchanan’s portraits depict a homemade architecture that speaks clearly of the improvisational skills of their southern makers, impoverished in means but not in resourcefulness. Buchanan shrinks down the size of the originals to the proportions of a dollhouse. Small cutouts of women inhabit the magpie-like assortment of materials in A Castle for Queens. What does the spare and dignified construction of Bob’s Shack tell us about Bob’s personality?
Sometimes Buchanan conveys her interest in real people’s experiences by other means than images of shelter. Estate Sale, Yard Sale is a poignant combination of small figures, handwritten signs, and real objects. In an accompanying story, the artist uses words to set the stage: “When somebody bought the salt shaker, that was the last straw. It was his daddy’s favorite. Everyone in the house, got laid off from jobs at the same time. A favorite purse had been the only one, even for Sunday. A bicycle chain, medicine bottles, and milk bottle. It all seemed too much to watch. Hands raised in a shout to heaven, the women could barely watch when the rolling pin was sold. No more biscuits, here.”
ALLAN WEXLER wants us to know that he spent a lot of time making his sculpture. His elegant, detailed, and finely wrought house forms duplicate the scale and look of architectural models. Trained in both art and architecture, Wexler often uses the forms of such useful things as tables and chairs as the starting point for his sculpture. Recently he became interested in how people consume and dispose of water and the challenges of water collection.
He approached this serious subject with a sense of humor. His quixotic solutions to drought are seen in Building for Water Collection with Buckets and Building for Water Collection with Troughs. Other playful responses seem tailored to answer the question, “What can one person do?” Remember the film clip of Gene Kelly splashing around crooning “Singin’ in the Rain”? To me, Wexler’s maquette Hat for Bottled Rain Water would make a wonderful device to retrofit the dancer as a one-person water collection system.
Many Americans have visited the thirteen-year old Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, DC, but few know the name of its designer, MAYA LIN. For the Memorial, she cut into a grassy knoll with a stone walkway that gradually takes the viewer below ground level. Combinations of natural and human-made elements have continued to be important components in Lin’s sculpture. In Pilchuck Landscape she uses stones as both tools and materials. The word “pilchuck” is a Salish Indian term for “raging red river in which salmon run upstream to spawn.”
Lin created the sculpture during a recent residency at Seattle’s Pilchuck Glass School. Placing one rock beneath a piece of malleable lead, she wielded another as a hammer, pounding the metal until it bore the stone’s imprint. If you look underneath the glass shelf, you’ll discover the hidden model.
Sometimes it’s useful to state the obvious. A piece of sculpture is a three-dimensional object, a form that has height, width, and depth. But can a three-dimensional sculpture be inspired by something flat? HEIDE FASNACHT explores this question by using maps as her starting point. We’d literally be lost without such representations of our world. But for the artist, they are a ready-made vehicle for the communion of ideas, conveying information about people as well as geography.
What’s going on in Fasnacht’s Lower Forty Eight? She takes the outline of the United States but gives every state the contour of Ohio, the artist’s birthplace. Are Americans more alike than different? Working with canvas, the artist prods us to consider the cookie-cutter conformity of contemporary life. Great Lakes I is another intentionally goofy geography lesson. Here Fasnacht drapes the wall with pliable cutouts of rubber that take the shape of America’s largest inland bodies of water. The droopiness of the shapes reminds me of other playful instances of unexpected relaxation, such as the game in Alice in Wonderland in which flamingos go limp when used as croquet mallets.
NORMAN TUCK also likes to replace the stiff with the pliant. An artist with a sense of humor, he may transform such simple objects as clocks into moving sculptures. Although two wisps of embroidery thread have replaced the rigid pendulum in “Quartz Clock #2,” it still functions as a timepiece. Wag on the Wall, however, no longer tells time. Constructed from parts of a Taiwanese cuckoo clock, it wiggles and wags in an unclock-like fashion.
Like a magician, Tuck sometimes makes the invisible visible. The unseen force of magnetism is the “glue” in Magnetic Attraction, a spare and elegant sculpture made from a paper clip and a horseshoe magnet. Flipper is interactive. When I turn the small handle attached to the paddle, I see an engraved image of a hand turning a handle.
What is the difference between life and art? All artists who use everyday materials confront this challenging question. To me, a magnet used to pick up pins is “life,” while a magnet used to create a line is “art.” Many of the artists in Universe of Meaning transform scavenged objects by incorporating them in their art. JERILEA ZEMPEL bases her sculpture on “what the world already gives us,” and considers the end result “more interesting then when I invent shapes.” She prefers to start with such found materials as guns and cars and then alter their symbolic power by adding incongruous materials.
For Avenging Angels, her installation at the Brattleboro Museum, Zempel began with five chain saws, which were once used by Vermonters. To degrease their surfaces, she loaded them in the back of a pickup truck and drove through an automatic car wash. In her studio, she crocheted a camouflage skin for each, choosing five different furry white or off-white yarns. When hung at just above eye level, her unusual assembly of forms looks like fragments of angel wings.
How do we know what’s in outer space? Normally we rely on scientists to supply the answers. But visual artists can also help us envision the celestial realms. Can you imagine a garden in space? ANN SPERRY did, taking her cues from the large aggregate of stars, gas, and dust we call the Milky Way. Galactic Gardens consists of spheres of stainless steel, brass, copper, and aluminum, “Planted” in a bed of Vermont stone. Sperry asks us to ponder whether these patinated planets and moons have just landed, or “are they pushing up from some interior place to rest quietly-perhaps to subsume our air and presence? Or will they take flight and assume an orbit around us?”
In life, there are a universe of ways of being human and an infinity of means by which artists convey it.
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