Monday, August 29, 2011

Rustbelt Ruminations

Rustbelt Ruminations
By Tom Wachunas

“Art is the raw stuff which comes from aggressiveness by men who got that way fighting for survival.”
- sculptor David Smith –
“I have never felt and don’t feel now that art needs any justification outside of itself. One can only be suspicious of those artists and architects “who gotta serve somebody (Bob Dylan’s Jesus Christ capitalist theology).” - sculptor Richard Serra –

The kind of extreme industrial abstractions or Minimalism that most brutally sets my teeth on edge was best embodied by Richard Serra’a infamous “Tilted Arc” installation, originally placed in New York City’s Federal Plaza in 1981. The piece was an aggressive, incredibly ugly impediment to plaza foot traffic, and the furor it caused led to a protracted legal battle that climaxed with its removal in 1989. I was there, dumbfounded when the work – a menacing wall of rolled steel 120’ long and 12’ high - first appeared. And I walked through the plaza – elated - on morning after it had disappeared in the wee hours of the night. I never regarded the decision to remove it as a censorship issue. It was more a judicious re-assessment of its philosophical and aesthetic hubris. You can see a picture of the work, along with some additional commentary, archived here in my post of October 20, 2009.

Modernism in the second half of the 20th century gave us plenty of other examples of Minimalist sculpture at its most “pure” by artists such as Carl Andre, Donald Judd, and Tony Smith, to name only some. In most of those cases the works’ raison d’etre was clearly a deliberate eschewing of emotional content. Forms, often made of industrial materials, were severely reduced to geometric simplicities in an attempt to redefine “the art experience.” The resulting new experience was a radical shift in our traditional sense of art’s contexts, roles, and meanings. These objects were intended to simply “be” on their own terms, divested of any necessary capacity to conjure, suggest, or declare anything but…themselves.

Still, I never believed that Minimalism’s intended down-playing (if not outright elimination) of emotional relationship with - or interpretation of - the art object could ever be completely accomplished. Even when encountering Minimalism at its most intrusive or interruptive, as humans we’re emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually wired to seek out meaning and purpose to our art, no matter what it’s made of or what it looks like. OK fine, so call me a Romantic.

Currently in the first floor gallery of the Fine Arts building at Kent State University Stark campus is a show by sculptor Terry Klausman called “Steel: A Welded Sculpture Exhibition.” He’s not a trained artist in the traditional academic or formal sense, so in some ways you might regard his pieces as “outsider art.” No matter, really. As demonstrated here, his workmanship is clear and crisp, and his eye for fusing elegant lines, textures, and intriguing forms is very well-practiced and refined. In his statement he writes that he’s been influenced by Minimalism. But beyond his presenting us with unadorned, cut-and-welded steel shapes of considerable weight, his is a “humanized” Minimalism, infused with – dare I say it? – real personality.

From the largest of his monolithic Vertical Series pieces, to the smaller, more intricate “IS-11” series, variously suggestive of gear boxes or mechanical “guts,” there’s a human-scale intimacy and that belies their metallic, machine shop patina. Is this a collective homage to the steel industry that once ringed this part of the country like a bold and shiny necklace around Pittsburgh, Youngstown, Cleveland, and Canton? A love song, or a swansong? In any case, these works aren’t so many mute sentinels of a bygone era as they are impeccably crafted recitations of sculpted rustbelt poetry. A passionate declaration of human hand united with industrial machine. And in as much as they might be reflections on past or waning livelihoods, they speak now with remarkable liveliness.

Photo: “IS-11-10” by Terry Klausman, ON VIEW THROUGH SEPTEMBER 15 in the Fine Arts building first-floor gallery at Kent State University Stark campus, 6000 Frank Avenue NW, Canton. Viewing hours are Monday – Thursday 8am to 8pm, Friday 8am to 5pm.

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