Futur Skulptur (2000)

Essay introduction to exhibition at the McLean Project for the Arts near Washington, DC featuring artwork by Kristin Caskey, Mary Early, Ronald Gonzalez, Tracy Jacobs, Randy Jewart, Joanne Kent, Zoe Leodacki, Paolo Machado, Tim Makepeace, Brendan Morse, Walter Ratzat, Fumihito Sato, Lucy Spencer, and Dan Steinhilber.

Glenn Harper
artdesigncafé - art | 12 March 2011
This juror’s essay accompanied the exhibition Futur Skulptur(e) at the McLean Project for the Arts in May 2001.

Futur Skulptur

The polyglot title of this show is echoed in the pluralism of materials in the works themselves: watercolor and oil paint are used as sculptural materials, as are coins, velveteen, wax, salt, concrete, and grocery bags (not to mention video, computer animation, and hypertext). These materials are not new in sculpture—many can be traced back to Post-Minimalism, and even digital and video art are hardly new any longer. What is new, and is perhaps a harbinger of the future in sculpture, is an exuberant multiplicity, a polymorphous plurality (to paraphrase the Freudian "polymorphous perversity"). Artists are still, of course, making important work in stone, welded and cast metal, and carved wood. But the future can perhaps be seen in the attraction of sculptors today to the ephemeral and non-monumental materials that are in evidence in Futur Skulptur. The steady timeline of sculpture from representation to abstraction and from hand tools to industrial methods was shattered in the late 1960s. By the end of the century, it was obvious that notions of a linear progress or an increasing rationalization of form had faded out in a haze of the perpetual present, a permissive environment in which everything is available to artists, and nothing is privileged—steel is not a "higher" or "nobler" material than sheetrock or cardboard. That welded or cast metal and carved stone or wood are missing from this exhibition of sculpture is not a sign of their demise but an indication that they share the field with a vast array of possible choices that confronts any sculptor every time he or she crosses the threshold of the studio.

The title Futur Skulptur also makes me think of Kafka: not the Kafka of totalitarian nightmare (The Trial or The Castle) but of Amerika, which is perhaps where we all live in the post-Cold-War, globalized, new world order. That German spelling of America was carried over into the English translation, and is one of the sources of subsequent subversive misspellings. But Kafka imagined his Amerika from whole cloth, never having left Prague. His Amerika is a bizarre carnival of open possibilities and terrifying vacancies: an almost limitless theater.

And what do sculptors do within this open field? Zoe Leodacki uses the most advanced and decentralized technology of the 21st century (so far) to explore the experience of fear. Tim Makepeace dissects the walls that we enclose ourselves with. Randy Jewart, known for his work in metal and other traditional materials, chose to work for this show in another kind of metal: coins. He will build and then scatter a tower of money. Paolo Machado confronts us with the aesthetic form of the most everyday of objects, brown paper bags. These artists are confronting timeless human experiences in the languages of today: the information, construction, and exchange realities of daily experience. That is the future of sculpture: the encounter with the everyday, the re-engagement of both viewer and artist in the ephemera as well as the solidities of life, virtual as well as tangible reality.

Beginning with Minimalism, sculpture first implicated and then enveloped the viewer. The "theatricality" for which Minimalism was initially criticized and Kafka’s all-encompassing theater of life have converged. Even the tiniest of these sculptures, a miniature salt tower by Lucy Spencer, for example, draws a viewer into a discourse on its own terms, as surely as a room-sized installation would. Evidence of this relation to installation art can also be seen in Ronald Gonzalez’s heads: they are studies for a much larger work, yet the totality of the room-size installation is already there in the evocative heads, which seem to be speaking, or even groaning, as we confront them—they implicate us in the agonies of history and of today. Other works are interactive in a more direct way: Dan Steinhilber’s bags of watercolor are meant to be manipulated, felt, played with. Walter Ratzat leads us into his work by means of digital choices and intimate experiences. In his combination of high-tech imagery and low-tech construction, Brendan Morse sutures us into the middle of a virtual world by making us lean into a space created by the most ordinary and palpable objects: a couple of TV sets and a simple table.

Sculpture can no longer be passive, since no one can any longer claim a universal language which should (with all the moral and hierarchical implications that have been attached to that "should") be understandable by everyone. The sculpture of today and the future starts from the ground up, speaking to viewers on their own turf. The artists bring the history of sculpture into the dialogue, but without assuming the viewer’s foreknowledge—the resulting conversation carries that history, as well as the immediate concerns of the individual artists and works of art, into the future.

Some of these works have simple forms and direct relationships with a viewer: Joanne Kent’s small panels of color leap out at you with both the intensity of color and the exuberant modeling of the paint. Mary Early’s wax and concrete forms are simultaneously simple shapes and resonant languages. Kristin Caskey’s more complex, even baroque, form pushes out at us, in terms of scale, color, material, and placement. Tracy Jacobs’s simple languages of form fail to resolve into simple forms: they literally and figuratively short circuit our shared social space, recirculating ideas and views and receding into infinity. Fumihito Sato’s construction, a steel frame, wooden boxes, and stretch fabric, creates a visual and conceptual tension that is palpable.

The phonetic spelling of the title Futur Skulptur suggests the universalist aspirations of Esperanto, a language that would have been understood by all, a language that would draw us all together. The work in Futur Skulptur suggests a more skeptical universalism: an attempt to reach out to those with whom the works and their creators share space, to establish communication anew with each confrontation. Our future and the future of sculpture is in question: it begins again at every moment, in a polymorphous, polylingual, multi-dimensional interaction among our phenomenal and material projections of ourselves.