Art After the "Isms" 

Northwest artists and the new sculpture

It rained for a solid four months inside the Boise Art Museum this year, a steady downpour of weirdly acrobatic precipitation, capturing and materializing shafts of sunlight during cloud breaks, haunting the place at night. At least, that is how it seemed while Idaho artist Gerri Saylor's site-specific installation, Ad Infinitum, graced BAM's Sculpture Court.

Upon closer inspection, the transparent, loopy strands of solidified glue, so responsive to air currents and human presence, assumed a lightweight, zany energy. The work was elemental, ethereal, playful, even spiritual; all characteristics we have been seeing more and more of in sculpture recently. As with a number of works that have inhabited this space for lengthy periods, when Ad Infinitum closed Oct. 5, we felt a sense of loss, evidence that it had touched something within us that is apparently starved for attention.

Then, in a dramatic turnabout that took the artists and a team of installers weeks to realize, Saylor's natural-light show was replaced by a grittier, earthier architectural environment indoors and a conceptually linked sculptural structure just beyond in BAM's outdoor Sculpture Garden by Seattle's Lead Pencil Studio (Daniel Mihalyo and Annie Han). Their piece After is an intentionally unfinished fabrication of man-made construction materials that considers the cyclical and transitional forces at work in what we normally view as a non-organic process. It will be in place until May 2009.

And so it seems to go with increasing frequency in art these days, ambitious sculptural installations being conceived and designed site-specific for both outdoor and indoor venues, coming to stay with us for extended periods, inviting us to interact with an aesthetic environment that is outside the norm. Usually monumental in scale, these works often strive to be intimate as well.

click to enlarge John Grade -  -  - Seeps of Winter -  -  - Suyama Space, Seattle -  -  - Paper pulp, cellulose, fumed silica and glassine -  -  - 10 ft x 30 ft x 50 ft -  -  - 2008 - RICHARD NICOL/COURTESY JOHN GRADE
  • Richard Nicol/Courtesy John Grade
  • John Grade

    Seeps of Winter

    Suyama Space, Seattle

    Paper pulp, cellulose, fumed silica and glassine

    10 ft x 30 ft x 50 ft


There has been a sea change in the art of sculpture in the last two decades, one that, thanks to BAM, we in Boise have been able to witness firsthand. While there have been new things happening in painting, too, and video seems in a perpetual state of self-evaluation (in some cases becoming a sculptural medium itself), in sculpture, the transformation has been more comprehensive and deep.

More than the other art forms, sculpture is in the process of reinventing itself, and the implications of this process compel us to try to put the phenomenon in perspective. Aesthetically, much of it is in reaction to profound changes in our culture in general. It is also due to advances in the mediums and materials available these days, which have allowed for a greater breadth and freedom in the art form at a time when the dictates of hallowed aesthetic and critical categories are being shrugged off, and artists have moved beyond prescribed theoretical and historical imperatives. We see evidence of this fact in many parts of the globe. However, we are fortunate in our proximity to the Pacific Northwest, for the region has proven to be a fertile ground for this new species of organically informed, technologically savvy art.

These developments have had another impact as well—on the practice of art criticism itself. The shopworn categories of the last 50 years used in classifying and interpreting contemporary visual art have the effect now of stifling creative thinking about sculpture in particular today, and are ineffectual tools in elucidating for the viewing public the multiplicity of perspectives and influences that go into an artist's work. Even the term "post-modernism," which came to designate art that succeeded the fracturing monolithic modernist aesthetic in the late 1960s and early '70s, has been drained of its usefulness. In a time when the question of form alone is no longer the sole distinguishing characteristic of a work of art, a more subtle and diverse approach is required.

Not too long ago, sculpture was a male-dominated, object-oriented art focused on conceiving solid, three-dimensional form and volume. Throughout art history and well into the 20th century, sculpture was trapped within the limited nature of its defining medium. In the hands of several pioneers of modernist sculpture in Europe, the art form began its transition from traditional materials such as stone and cast bronze to fabrications of welded steel and other metals.

The first major paradigm shift in 20th century sculpture came after the Second World War. As American artists came to dominate modern sculpture, the small-scale, thematically complex European style gave way to a new monumentality with simplified forms and a non-narrative approach. David Smith's colossal, polished steel "Cubi" series from 1964, comprised of delicately balanced geometric forms perched high on steel pedestals, and Richard Serra's more recent, leaning canyons of curved steel are among the ultimate embodiments of that post-war sculptural aesthetic (although Serra's work remains very relevant today, helping shape the new art as well). At the Boise Art Museum, one can see in the Sculpture Garden a 16-foot-high steel and stone work by Mark Stasz entitled Graceful Passage that conveniently reminds us of the type of sculpture that reigned until recently.

The transformation we have been witnessing in the past 20 years is the second major paradigmatic change in sculptural art, in the course of which it has lost its hardness. Many of the artists contributing to this renaissance are women. A new sensibility is at work here, one that is more generous and suggestive than demanding or insistent, often leading to an open-ended result rather than a definitively resolved one. The structures and installations this new sculpture envisions are often lightweight, elemental and transparent rather than earthbound and contained. Form has become more mutable and expansive, empty space is given volume, with light a crucial compositional element. Even those works having a denser, more substantive presence are organic in nature rather than inanimate, evoking form in flux with cycles of regeneration and decay. As Saylor explained, "It is all about essences, bare essentials, but seeing them on a macro level."

Although this radically different vision of sculpture defies the standard "isms" that have been applied by critics over the years, it does have its aesthetic roots in certain important trends of the past. First and foremost is Postminimalism, which began in the late 1960s, and the Conceptual Art movement it spawned. In their reaction to the purity and sterility of Minimalist sculpture in particular, artists like Eva Hesse, Bruce Nauman, Lynda Benglis, Lygia Clark and others (including the early Serra) initiated a new emphasis on process, impermanence and randomness in the art form.

Hesse, who died in 1970 at age 34, anticipated much of the philosophical bent we see in sculpture today in her self-described "absurd" choice of improbable, impermanent and disintegrative materials. Art historian Kristine Stiles has written that "in juxtaposing binary categories (hard/soft, straight/round, etc.), Hesse attempted to visualize qualities of 'soul, introspection and inner feelings' related to the professional conflicts that she, as a female artist, felt and recorded in her diaries and letters."

Another artist who is an important precedent for what we are seeing today is conceptual sculptor Gordon Matta-Clark. His urban version of earth art in the 1970s in which he turned existing architectural environments inside out, and his interest in issues of decay and renewal, has influenced a number of contemporary artists, including Lead Pencil Studio.

This effort to reconnect to flesh and blood corresponds to the prevailing, underlying sentiment that one suspects is at the heart of the work being done in sculpture today, a notion that is borne out from conversations with the artists involved. In our highly sophisticated digital age, virtual reality has replaced the real thing, with technology enabling us to experience the world secondhand through images and sound on a screen—"the world in the palm of your hand" sort of thing. Consequently, viewers and artists alike are starved for the opportunity to respond, in the flesh, to a work of art that has tactility, a physical or environmental presence, and an immediacy that resonates on a visceral and sensuous level, not just an intellectual one. It is a matter of re-introducing the human component and making art that is neither tidy nor packaged nor distant.

We have seen the impact of this locally in recent years, such as in last year's Idaho Triennial. Polish-born Katarzyna Cepek's pensive mixed-media installation entitled communion was a moving consideration of "the frail and elusive nature of memory" and her ongoing effort to reconcile two different cultures in her life. Both earthy and ephemeral, her combination of printmaking techniques, recorded recitations, and three-dimensional objects was a moving act of remembrance and self-discovery.

Moscow artist Saylor, whose fiber and bamboo sculptures in the Idaho Triennial earned her the juror's first prize, which included in this year's solo exhibition at BAM, also makes note of this new aesthetic when speaking of the transition to her large-scale installation, Ad Infinitum, which is her first. Her wall piece in the Triennial, entitled Potentia, was a sculpted mass of unraveled rope fibers set in cast acrylic that evoked the Western landscape that inspired it. Similarly, the long strands of solidified hot glue in Ad Infinitum also curled as they unraveled like the earlier rope fibers, echoing the rolling topography of northern Idaho's Palouse and the North Dakota grasslands of her past. The grid work configuration of the ceiling panels anchoring the piece, and the architectonics of the space itself, stood in contrast to the unruliness of the strands, a metaphor for the messiness of organic matter in the face of intellectually imposed order. Perhaps most importantly, the installation process gave her the opportunity, on a grand scale, to continue her emphasis on repetitive hand work: "women's work," as it has traditionally been known. For Saylor, reconnecting with the sense of touch, the imprint of the human hand, is a prerequisite for making sculpture relevant again. Despite its size and environmental aspect, Ad Infinitum was in large part about the details.

click to enlarge Gerri Saylor -  -  - Ad Infinitum -  -  - Boise Art Museum -  -  - Hot glue, monofilament, cast acrylic -  -  - 2008 - COURTESY BOISE ART MUSEUM

A young sculptor who would totally agree with Saylor and who is on a similar mission of unraveling and recombining both unconventional materials and our conventional prejudices about what is legitimately art, is Hildur Bjarnadottir, who was working in Portland, Ore., but has since returned to her native Iceland. Her 2005 show at BAM, appropriately titled "Unraveled," combined traditional Icelandic crafts, a personal, nonpartisan feminism and a subversive inclination to create unique, fabric-based sculptural pieces that were contemporary, edgy or macabre. Even her experiments in video and digital imagery were grounded in fabric work and craft.

The curatorial staff at BAM made a point of bringing this different sculptural perspective to Boise from early on. Even before the Sculpture Court was put in, BAM was turning over space to installation artists. In its "Altered Spaces" series beginning in 1994, the museum commissioned four Northwest artists to individually transform precious, prominent gallery space into sculptural environments that suggested elaborate interiors of the mind. It drove home, perhaps, the need to accommodate this new breed of art that has come to dominate contemporary sculpture, allowing BAM to invite and commission works by regional and national artists who are in the vanguard of this wave.

So construction of the Sculpture Court in 1997 was very timely, and coincided with the opening of Suyama Space in Seattle, another cavernous venue dedicated to commissioning site-specific installations by sculptural and architectural artists that under director George Suyama and curator Beth Sellars has been presenting ground-breaking work ever since. According to Sellars, "1999 was the defining moment, when George and I realized we could provide opportunities for experimentation, inspiration and education in contemporary art." Similarly, BAM's Sculpture Court is the kind of space that can be daunting on one hand (with 27-foot-high ceilings) but on the other hand, its challenges invite innovation, and its openness offers natural light in abundance.

On the international and national scene, two artists especially have epitomized the unlimited potential of the new sculpture. One is the Danish/Icelandic artist Olafur Eliasson, for whom "dematerialization of the object" is a fundamental aesthetic principle. His ability to transform immaterialities into compelling sculptural mediums can only be described as visionary. Inspired by nature—particularly landscape—possessing the ingenuity of an engineer and the discipline of a scientist, he is a poet and phenomenologist, creating natural events and experiences rather than static representations.

A relatively small work of his was in BAM's 2004 group show "Thin Skin" and harnessed dripping water and reflected light to produce kinetic imagery on the wall. At the other end of the spectrum were his multi-story, waterfall installations at four sites in New York Harbor this year and his 2003 Weather Project, whose giant mist-enshrouded sun turned the Turbine Hall of the Tate Modern in London into humid beachfront property (visitors actually took to sunning themselves underneath it). Such multi-sensory, mood-altering atmospherics may seem like overdoing it, yet it was not an act of mere illusionistic gimmickry. How it was accomplished was intentionally obvious, and as he described it, his point was all about "how people engage sensually with the qualities of weather."

American sculptor Ann Hamilton is another important artist whose work has taught us that art should not be for our eyes alone. Since the 1980s, in her sculptural installations and accumulations, sometimes accompanied by restrained performances, she has addressed our sense of smell, hearing and touch as well, often exploring the gap between immediate experience and its verbal articulation (in this respect, Cepek's communion demonstrated Hamilton's influence). Much of Hamilton's art has to do with the process of change, and toward this end she uses natural and non-art materials that are familiar to us but whose unusual combinations or suggestive circumstances leave us temporarily speechless. German critic Doris von Drathen has written that "in each of her walk-through sculptures Hamilton establishes a situation that defies and annuls linguistic nomenclature and intellectual comprehension."

The environmentally and multiculturally rich Pacific Northwest has been particularly conducive to the kind of aesthetic represented by Eliasson and Hamilton, and a number of artists working there are at the forefront of contemporary sculpture. They have been stimulated by the region's unique mix of flourishing non-Western cultures and sensibilities, high-tech resources, close proximity to the natural world, and evocative marine atmospherics, to take the art form in new directions and dissolve the boundaries distinguishing traditional modes of art-making.

Seattle artist Katy Stone is one example. Her art may be best described as sculptural assemblages and is in fact a hybrid of painting, drawing, relief and sculpture in which two- and three-dimensional form, color, light and shadow interact. For 10 months in 2005, her site-specific installation Fall, comprised of three stunning monumental works, hung in BAM's Sculpture Court, ceiling to floor. Painting on strips or cut forms of archival acetate with vibrant, saturated colors that can seem erotically charged, Stone builds her organic and pluvial sculptural work with multiple strands and layers, relying on negative space, projection and reflection, directional lighting and accumulation to flesh out her forms. Recently, she has been painting on laser-cut metal to create elemental and atmospheric abstract landscapes. Stone said. "The exuberance and fecundity of my work conceals ... a human desire for permanence, a wish against decay," while her imagery's "fleeting presence acknowledges the vulnerability of such yearnings."

Another artist for whom working in Seattle has been crucial to his career is John Grade. He said: "In the Northwest, there is such a collision of interesting and stimulating forces. And there is great support, both from other artists and local foundations like Artists Trust. Being far from traditional art centers has strengthened the sense of community, and artists here like being able to publicize that support."

Grade's 2004 solo exhibition at Boise Art Museum was an eye-opener to those for whom sculpture seems stuck. His biomorphic work ranged from small-scale objects on pedestals to life-size pieces hovering in space or seemingly sprouting from the walls and floor. Landscape, geography and the designs and patterns found in nature clearly inspired an art that evoked the organic processes of decay and regeneration. Although the works were essentially abstract, formal and cultural references to the human body and its particular lifecycle were everywhere. In short, the sculpture seemed vital: a world of suspended animation enhanced by Grade's dexterity with advanced industrial materials and his talent for instilling a sense of awe and mystery.

The exhibit represented a turning point for Grade as he was set to move beyond single objects to large-scale sculptural installations. Grade's interest in the human body's relationship to landscape led him to conceive environmental projects that allowed the viewer to literally enter or be imposed upon by the art. He also came to consider change itself as a sculptural practice and developed the idea of exposing conceptually complex works to the elements in disparate, often harsh, natural settings, in effect giving them multiple lives and creating sculpture through landscape. Relinquishing control in this way changes the experience for him and the viewer: "Although this often means the anticipated results fall short, it is always more interesting in the end ... they become living, breathing things where there is no single, optimum moment when it is best to see them, rather than organizing the work for people in advance. It is sculpture as expanding space."

Two recent exhibits this year were the culmination of this approach. Suyama Space presented Grade's dramatic installation, Seeps of Winter, which hung suspended from the ceiling and practically filled Suyama's entire 1,500-square-foot venue. Inspired by poet Seamus Heaney's odes to Ireland's lost "bog people" and by Grade's own exposure to bogs during a residency there, its cratered, moon-like surface of dense gray paper pulp swooping down to just above our heads as if to engulf us, offered a disorienting, visceral experience that is rare in sculpture. Despite Seeps' dark connotations, the brochure observed, "its scale and formal beauty is stripped of any association but its own formidable presence."

click to enlarge Katy Stone -  -  - Spider Wind -  -  - blackened steel, pins, shadows -  -  - 29 in. x 55 in. x 5 in. -  -  - 2008 -  - COURTESY KATY STONE
  • Courtesy Katy Stone
  • Katy Stone

    Spider Wind

    blackened steel, pins, shadows

    29 in. x 55 in. x 5 in.


This autumn, four new sculptural works by Grade were exhibited at the Bellevue Arts Museum in Washington in a show entitled "Dis-Integration: Sculpture Through Landscape." All were designed up front for specific outdoor sites, including embedded structural responses to anticipated natural events. Two were works in progress, having already been altered by time in the wild and retrieved for exhibition, while the others, like the complex, otherworldly Meridian, had yet to embark on their itinerant careers.

Out of all the sculptural projects that have appeared in the Sculpture Court in the past decade, probably the one that best summed up the range of new priorities in the art form was Kendall Buster's site installation New Growth, which occupied the space for most of 2007. Buster currently teaches sculpture in Richmond, Va., and her piece was an unusual mix of architecture, organic forms and processes and fabric art. Her vision embraces a background in microbiology (shades of Grade, the scientist/poet) which sees buildings and urban development in terms of cell division and growth (echoes of Lead Pencil Studio), a respect for the intricate handwork of textile crafts (like Bjarnadottir and Saylor) and for the architecture of other cultures and times. Her white, ethereal, floating city, suspended to allow visitors within it (Grade again), was a lightweight steel framework covered in membrane-like shade cloth, evoking what she called a "peculiar mix of euphoria and vulnerability" (qualities Stone strives for). It was a singular yet all-encompassing experience.

Of the many terms and descriptions that may apply generally to this new, and varied, sculptural aesthetic, one of the most appropriate is serendipity, that faculty of achieving fortunate yet unexpected results by accident in your art, signifying a process of discovery rather than a habit of formula-following. It is found in all the art discussed above, which might just make an electronics junkie pick up a sketch pad and start dreaming.


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