Saturday, July 01, 2006

Robert Lobe

Imagine the sound - being in a deep forest and hearing the clink, clink, clink, of hammer on metal.  Only a hundred years ago it wouldn't have been so unfamiliar as smiths and masons did their work.  Imagine the sight - coming across a figure, bent over a rock or standing next to a tree and hammering over it a gleaming sheet of metal.  It's an image elfish and folkloric, yet the reality is neither.  The figure is Robert Lobe, the metal is aluminum, and the work he's engaged in is making sculpture.  Lobe's technique is a type of repousse, but rather than hammering thin sheets of metal into the hollow of a form, he hammers around rocks and trees.  Lobe leaves the marks of the tools and hammer to mimic the textures of bark and stone.  Even when using the percussive force of pneumatic equipment, the intensity of the time and closeness to the subject turns the labor from the power of hammer blows into the love of a caress.  In their tenderness and individuality the sculptures approach the character of portraits.  

Rocks and trees are among the small collection of landscape elements which form the bases of almost all figurative sculpture from the Greeks through the early Twentieth century when the base began to be considered old fashioned and unnecessary, and gradually disappeared in sculpture considered to be modern.  This little bit of landscape defined the territory of the figure above and declared, now you're in my world, now you're in the presence of art.  If one is familiar with this history there is enough similarity to the accustomed landscape of bases in Lobe's sculpture that an echo is produced and the absence of a figure becomes a noticeable one.  It isn't that every one of Lobe's sculptures is identifiable with another from history that has a figure.  The feeling that something is missing is more teasing and general than that.  Lobe gives a nod towards the figure in Bacchus at the Leap.  He's hammered in the god's attributes of grapes onto the rock, but where is Bacchus at Bacchus at the Leap? 

Gray, a forest of gray.  The color of winter, of leafless trees in rain, and granite.  Leaves are to a tree as color is to sculpture - distractions that interfere with the clarity of the more fundamental quality of structure, the bones of both tree and sculpture.  What gives sculpture its structure are its physical qualities, the thrust and concentration of its mass and volume.  For trees its their enduring elements of trunk and limbs.  For the most part Lobe dispenses with the distractions and leaves his work both leafless and the silver-gray of the aluminum, concentrating our attention on the light and shadow which molds and defines them.  When he does add leaves its only a small sprig.  When the sculptor Alberto Giacometti made the tree for the first production of Samuel Beckett's Waiting for Godot he placed on it a single leaf.  The effect was a tragicomic absurdity that was fitting for the play.  We know that Lobe's leaves aren't the result of hammering and they look stuck on, like a sentimental afterthought.  So full and resonant are his sculptures already, the leaves don't add anything .  Like the absence of a figure, were the leaves not included they would still be there as an absent presence.
Far from being the sublime and heroic landscape forms of art and imagination, Lobe's sculptures   have the character of memorials.  They cease to fulfill the expectations for landscape, especially those of an American landscape.  For truly no landscape has been viewed as heroically and imbued with so much of a nation's aspirations and personae as has the American, particularly that of the Northeast United States where Lobe lives and works.  This is the territory of the painters of the Hudson River School, the birth site of the vision and aesthetic of the American Landscape.  From here came not only the artists and writers of the aesthetic, but the consciousness that led to the founding of the National Park System beginning with Yellowstone in 1872 - the world's first national park.

What makes Lobe carry his sheets of aluminum out into the forest to pound over rocks and trees?
The reason for this is probably the same as for the continuing success and necessity of his sculpture even though relatively unchanged for thirty years.  "Men must retire from the world from time to time" the German author Goethe wrote, "for the world with its lewd and superficial activity interferes with the awakening of the best."  The site of that retreat and awakening is the wilderness - desert, ocean, but very often forest.  It lies deep in our arboreal ancestry, a memory of which is stirred by Lobe's sculpture. 

Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Brian Jungen

Alongside the towering motifs of Fetishization, Commercialism, Globalization and Transformation with which Brian Jungen's work is concerned, Loss stands off in a corner like a young child.  Call it the Loss of Splendor.  Mainly it's that of Aboriginal culture - to stereotypes, to jail, to alcoholism - but also of the natural world, and those of art and architecture.  The way loss is revealed is what makes Jungen a difficult artist - not because his work is difficult, but because it's difficult to know if it should be liked at all.  No, liked is the wrong word.  His work is impossible not to like because it's inventive, clever, well crafted and visually splendid.  The word is endorsed.   

The story of the catapult of Brian Jungen's success as an artist is becoming as well worn and as much a part of legend as the characters he represents in his series of sculptures that stand at the beginning of it.  In 1998, Jungen saw something in the colors of Nike Air Jordan shoes that probably hadn't been intended by Nike, or seen by anyone else.  Jungen took the shoes apart, and using the red, black and white of the shoes as a guide, restitched them to create Prototypes for New Understanding - remarkable representations of Northwest Coast Aboriginal masks.  Together with the Prototypes, Jungen is best known for another ongoing series of sculpture - the whale skeletons Shapeshifter, Cetology, and Vienna, the bones of magnificent creatures reduced to reproduction using plastic chairs.

The meshing of images and materials in sometimes uneasy combinations is intended as a critical comment and analysis, but it comes at a price.  In part these series are a reflection of ethnographic and natural history museums, but they also cast the disturbing shadow of trading post and souvenir shop - the trinkets and knockoffs made for a tourist market.  The shapes are right, but the materials are wrong - wrong in the sense that they demean their source.  There is something disturbing about an Aboriginal mask made of shoes and a whale skeleton made of plastic.  Are there things in this world that should be respected and left alone?  Should there be a moral imperative, a responsibility, not to act?  As laudatory as Jungen's ambition to confront difficult issues is, does his work alleviate or contribute to the problems?  Should he care?  

Being censorious are we getting it all wrong and overlooking the humor, missing the joke, that Jungen, and many writers on Jungen, call attention to?  Jungen's background is Swiss and Aboriginal, and according to Ojibwa writer Drew Hayden Taylor's new book Me Funny, permitted disrespect is characteristic of Aboriginal humor, especially teasing and self-deprecation.  Even so, the intention of making, or appearing to make, a joke can also be expressly to avoid censor, a defensive behavior to defuse criticism.  As a Jew, I understand the rules for telling racist jokes and I know self-deprecating humor - still, there are certain objects and symbols that I wouldn't disrespect.  There is a nuance here between something which is verbal and something which is physical, and it's what makes Jungen not so funny.  Jungen isn't telling jokes, he's making objects, and a verbal assault is very different than a physical one as the "sticks and stones" of children's rhyme teaches.  As a witness, the decline of a culture, like the loss of uniqueness because of globalization, is no joke.

After the thrill, these are frictions that animate Jungen's best work.  The sad irony is that the farther his work gets from the friction, the more it risks a bland conceptualism like Michael -reproductions of Air Jordan shoe boxes made in aluminum - and Modern Sculpture - silver soccer balls sewn together into biomorphic shapes and filled with lava rock.  In Guernica, Picasso could comment on the horrors of war without at the same time being complicit or even seeming to be, and still produce a  moving and provocative work of art.  Is the same possible for Jungen or is the greatest loss the impossibility of doing so?