The basic forms assembling themselves for the pieces of this show derive from constructivist sculpture of the 1910s and 1920s, where they look like peels, slivers or chips off platonic forms. Adopted by surrealism by way of Dada, they easily adapted to simplified, geometricized versions of organs from the body – livers, breasts, brain-pans, tongues. And via the Bauhaus they make their way into interior design to provide the simple forms of mid-century furniture and appliances. All three of these movements, with their associations in mathematical abstraction, sexual psychology, and domestic design, are indicated and utilized by this knowledgeable show.
These are known not as academic history, but through an intensive and wide-ranging practical study of the mechanics of sculpture. Not all of the method of this work is on show to the eye; but what is, demonstrates a high level of training and understanding of the crafts required for extrusion, woodworking (this going by the catalogue – these are the kind of pieces you don’t want to touch, let alone knock on), fastening, and then, most impressively, the crafts which know how to create an object of 3-dimensional strength and structure by weaving and knotting a 1-dimensional strand, of jute or hemp or wool.
The show can be read as a commentary on both sides of Richard Serra’s basic critique of sculpture prior to himself – that it was just painting with solid objects. In their extrusion from a plane, their organization on a plane – and yes, that they are painted – the pieces present themselves as 2-dimensional compositions. And Bonsai is that, after all: an editing of form to find a visual balance, pleasing through its composition of the imbalances of form and space, regarded from different viewpoints around the bonsai tree. But simultaneously we are teased by a thought, both hinted and denied – through a sly delicacy very nicely maintained through all the pieces – that the bonsai trees of this show are holding themselves together by a physical balancing of their forms’ masses. Of course they are not; hidden fasteners are doing that job. But the thought is needling enough to keep you from touching the objects. It’s a disturbing feeling to be looking at the largest, central piece – large and sharp enough to recall death by Serra – while through the soles of your feet the bouncing jute fiber is reminding you of the rules of materiality, mass, dimensionality, structure, gravity.
Because of the flatness of the earth-plane, human bipedality, our frontal-aligned vision, our skin; we can only experience the 3-dimensional world as an always-incomplete sequence of 2-dimensional, surface experiences, assessed in recollection. In that recollection it is for us to choose the fact from the illusion, the real from the fake, the authentic from the distraction; amid a mental realm pervaded by memory, desire, nostalgia, sentiment, prejudice, preference, taste, fashion. This is the realm of play for these pieces, they fully plug you into it and charge you from it. Personally, I wish the show left it at that; so that, in James Turrell’s words, the subject of contemplation becomes not what you are watching, but your watching of it.
The trouble is, the pieces know that; and, in their self-consciousness, somewhat congratulate themselves, to the extent that the viewer becomes not taken in to contemplate the fictional frame, but set back, to observe the pieces watching each other contemplate the fictional frame.
Then there is a whole additional narrative, laid like icing on top of the work (it is often better to leave the icing off): these sculptures are also figurative. That is to say, by the time we arrive back at the central sculpture, via the wall-pieces, the paintings and the watercolor-drawings (which are symmetrically-arranged domestic scenes viewed in elevation – but so composed as to suggest allegorical diagrams of esoteric processes, like sephirotic drawings) we have been schooled to read, in the composition of the work, a correlation with the human head and body. Every one of the paintings, drawings and pieces, whether more or less tree-like, has by now become a simultaneous mapping of the head’s mental and emotional processes and a more zoomed-out map of the from-the-neck-down-body’s biophysics, which prompts those mental processes, and registers them, in anatomical activity.
Once this bodily association is opened, it invites a potential can-load of worms to set off all over the conceptual space of the gallery, taking with them in a thousand different directions the conceptual import of the whole show. At this point we put our trust in the bonsai master: that he will come with precise pruning scissors, select what is to be meaningful, what suppressed, what removed; but to edit this bonsai space there is no conceptual master of anything like the daring, decisiveness, and accuracy of the master of form or the master of craft.
This may well be asking of the work something the work is not interested in. But the fence we’ve come to is the edge between art and design. Art is a vast undiscovered world beyond this fence. An artist chooses the thankless journey called artmaking, only if dogged by the need to find and free a fellow human being; someone imprisoned, tyrannized over, neglected or unappreciated; a person or persons alive or long gone; people who need a champion to explain them to the world, or someone to explain to them the necessity of their own fate. That person can be one’s own self; the version of yourself you can still hear singing a song of defiance deep in the cellar of your unexplored past or potential.
Such a quest is present in this work. The open, searching hand, which seems incapable of grasping or articulating but can only either pronate or supinate (their location in the nether regions of a drawing suggest wriggly penises trying to decide whether to point up or down) is a symbol so clumsy and unsubtle as to smash all the frames of fiction otherwise meticulously constructed within this work: but it is, for all that – or maybe because of it – the thing and the thought that saves this work from merely jogging on the spot of knowledgeability, decorativeness, and wit; and drags it through into an unquiet place where we sense the presence of a captive cousin, with a story he wants us to know and relate.
To find him, we would have to slog our own path to the ultimate destination glimpsed through this artwork; unguided, unaccompanied, and, really, unprompted by the artwork itself. At the point where he would have had to jettison some emptied baggage; sacrifice some fond friends; and select the cruelest and sharpest of his tools to hack his way on through to wherever this is going to take him and us, the artist instead has spread us a picnic: where we enjoy his fine cooking, appreciate the view, then take an afternoon nap and return home early by a shorter, safer trail. Our day’s been illuminated, we’ve been entertained, in the company of this witty and educated host: but we arrive back at our own doorstep as friendless as when we set out; and will still have to go to work in the morning.
Under the Bonsai Tree
September 7 – November 2, 2019