Wednesday, June 3, 2009

Deconstruction on the West Side Highway

by Drew Martin

When we look at great, massive sculptures by artists like Michelangelo, Serra and Kapoor, we not only feel the heaviness of their mass but also a weight of impossibility in ever executing such work by ourselves. The very idea is intimidating and the material resources, cost and physical labor involved make our heads spin.

We can deconstruct buildings and bridges in our minds and contemplate their architectural units but sculpture is typically holistic, seamless in thought and total in completion. Its singularity seduces us into thinking it is a one-man show.

It is hard for Americans, including me, to embrace the idea that big art requires teams of people, quarries, steelworks, factories and machines. We are more comfortable with lone, eccentric, misunderstood artists who produce unrefined work that sells for a lot of money because it gives us hope that we can be recognized and famous (or at least appreciated) without much effort for a few scribbles or a unique concept.

We somehow confuse amassing technical knowledge and reproducible skills as an intrusion of our creative flow but when we consider an artist, like the filmmaker Roman Polanski, his genius was only enhanced by and expressed with his thorough knowledge of lenses, lighting and music: a result of rigorous film schools in Poland. Most of our art schools teach concept over technique, which leaves us brainy and proud of our ideas but also a bit like the professional yet incompetent husband who cannot change the sink faucet washers for his family at home.

Ironically, the United States is stuck in a Main Street mythological world that, despite its urban and industrialized reality, celebrates a dumbed-down suburbia, especially through garage culture with affection for garage sale economics and garage band culture. Just as colonial Jamestown and Plymouth override thousands of years of Middle Eastern culture, Chinese empires and European kingdoms with simple, woodsy tales of pilgrims and pioneers, the suburban garage is, for us, the source of nascent industries. We love to trace a successful company like Apple back to its garage roots because we find it purer than anything that might have come initially out of a corporate think tank.

In the absence of ministries, guilds, creative competition for bids, robust industries and busy factories we have become a nation of potentially good ideas and junk artists. When someone in the art-world makes an effort to recreate a more evolved system, we find a Jeff Koons, whose intentions are distrusted. It should not be his job to have to explain to the public that this was how the artist workshops in the past operated, albeit with a greater sense of aesthetics.

When it is too difficult to tell the work of an MFA graduate apart from that of a primitive outside artist then I feel like we are aiming too low and expecting too little. A thought that personally haunts me concerning art, careers and even family relationships is the idea that no one ever achieves his or her potential. Rising to the highest expectation of oneself is really just a matter of finding the right environment to grow into and to overcome all the obstacles that keep us back: a parent's reprimand, a spouse's jealousy, a lack of money and worse of all our own resignation and fear of rejection. These are street-level problems but there is often a philosophical and atmospheric choke on people, which Alexis de Tocqueville captures so well as early as 1835 in his Democracy in America:

"the democratic principle not only tends to direct the human mind to the useful arts, but it induces the artisan to produce with great rapidity many imperfect commodities. Not that, in democracies, the arts are incapable, in case of need, of producing wonders. This may occasionally be the case, if customers appear who are ready to pay for time and trouble. In this rivalry of every kind of industry, in the midst of immense competition and these countless experiments, some excellent workmen are found, who reach the utmost limits of their craft. But they have rarely an opportunity of showing what they can do; they are scrupulously sparing of their powers; they remain in a state of accomplished mediocrity, which judges itself, and, though well able to shoot beyond the mark before it, aims only at what it hits. In aristocracies, on the contrary, workmen always do all they can; and when they stop, it is because they have reached the limit of their art."

Considering this topic I would like to redirect this writing to contemplate a series of ephemeral sculptures, which appear (and disappear) on the eastern banks of the Hudson River along the West Side Highway, below Manhattanville and above the piers and promenades. The materials are elemental: driftwood, twine and sometimes stones, and are local, found within only a few feet of the final pieces and are preferred over the array of trash littering the sites. Sometimes the driftwood and twine are crafted into recognizable forms, like a deer that once stood, looking out towards the mainland/New Jersey.

In most pieces, the driftwood and twine become abstractions, simply plays of suspension, but very different than an engineered Calder mobile. These works evoke "early man" captivated by his own curiosity. The selection of materials and placement along the river creates a series best seen by bicycle while riding along the bike path, between the West Side Highway and the Hudson River. It is refreshing to see such a series: not created for a museum or gallery show or portfolio and one that speaks of time, space and movement. The ever changing
weather and lighting on the works drastically changes the sculptures' appearance. Wet with rain, the wood is dull and heavy like lead. On a dry, summer day the wood glows like bleached whale bones.

Though these works are entirely three dimensional and sculptural, the best angle to see them is looking north, with the George Washington Bridge a few miles upstream. With this engineering wonder in the distance the driftwood and twine become not only studies of suspension but the first suspensions. This is a series of sculptures that is sincere and elemental but there is also something bittersweet in the very limits of the work and I have to ask myself if my appreciation of them is really just a naivete, which inspired Jean Jacques Rousseau and infuriated Frederich Nietzsche.