If art is a record of the struggle between an artist’s will and a resistant medium, for Clement Meadmore, the Melbourne-born, New York sculptor who died in 2005 after pioneering new feats of exactitude in the casting of bronze, that medium was geometry. Sharp edged and sufficiently polished, even bronze can, like the rule-edged oils of a Mondrian, stand in for an immaterial Platonic idea. A compact but career-spanning show at Marlborough Gallery follows a single perfect square as Meadmore pushes it through tense swoops and sinuous curves.
Pieces from the mid-’60s to the late ’90s, welded almost invisibly at the corners and ranging in size from table-top squiggles to arboreal monuments, are all constructed from the same few elements: the square; a stumpy pillar produced by moving the square in a straight line (think of Edwin Abbot’s geometry novel Flatland); the curve; and the perfect elbow, made by joining two pillars into one, twice as wide.
It’s simple, but it isn’t easy. A sculpture without a back also has no front, and different emphases and views seem not to coexist but to take turns presenting themselves, as if the pieces were not in three but only two and a half dimensions. Swing (1969), for example, turns from a snail on one side to an inchworm on the other, with each animal obscuring and obliterating its rival. What gives the swoops their tension, and what makes the otherwise serenely uncompromising realm of Euclidean geometry almost malleable, is that the sculptures are erected in stages, and every stage contradicts the one that came before it.
The square is flat and clean, but the line it makes is stumpy. The line is stumpy, but when it curves, it doesn’t flatten or bulge, the way you’d expect, but remains as even as a letter on a subway sign. The curve, at any given point, is frozen, but in the context of the piece, it’s the elegant, dynamic gesture of a dancer, and at their best, these stolidly made pieces are all light and air.
The medium in the capacious group show currently filling the tiny Kathleen Cullen Gallery is wood; but where Clement Meadmore made bronze grow like a vine, the most striking pieces in “You Would” are the ones that treat wood as a product not of nature, but of industry.
Ray Smith carves whimsical curves through scores of layers of coarsely glued wood to make Maricruz, a beehive-haired, seven-foot-tall figure with a hole where her face should be and another hole through her heart. Every flat surface cuts at an angle, so that the whole piece is striped—by the layers of wood in one direction and by long yellow drips of glue in the other—with the violence of its making. Cordy Ryman takes similar material in an opposite direction: Unstacked Garcybot, a rough, three-by-three grid of partially painted, partially triangular pieces cut from the ends of wooden beams, doesn’t contest the industrial form so much as diminish it by curation. In Yellow Spine 2, in which more partially painted end pieces climb up the corner like a zipper, the shape and varnish of the ready-made beams become a stand-in for the total environment.
Tom Sachs’s Hasselblad Camera is a defiantly nonfunctional replica constructed meticulously out of an old Con Ed barrier, with pieces glued and screwed together to simulate a solid mass—as if the camera were carved rather than assembled—and arranged so that the worn, fragmentary, red-and-white painted stripes of the original barrier are deliberately placed. The piece integrates different degrees of nature and artifice into a single whole, revealing the man-made to be equally natural. Lens markings and the brand name are burned on. Mel Kendrick’s Blockhead, about the size of a bread box on its end, consists of two halves: on top, a single rectangular piece with cylindrical holes bored through; and on the bottom, a support of about the same size made of the bored-out cylinders cut and fastened together. The support is the positive of the supported’s negative, and vice versa. (Does the artist shape the medium, or does the medium shape him?) With the heavy horizontality of the upper half and the slightly converging angle of the legs, and in its dry, dark brown color, Blockhead brings to mind an oak water tank.
For Gwen Smith, material both is and isn’t material—and is and isn’t wood. Seven digital photos—their titles are the dates they were taken—document various scrawls and squiggles on the plywood barriers that go up around construction sites. (November 5, 2010 (you would), on which bloody pink letters stand out against the drippy, orange and white grain, gives the show its title.) Each photo is computer printed, laminated and displayed on a plywood backing, so that they seem, at first glance, to have been actually chopped out of fences. This trompe l’oeil quality can read as a vertiginous indictment not only of photography, but of art and bourgeois culture more generally—are we colonizing vernacular culture, sanitizing it or denying it? But this only holds if you assume that it’s the graffiti that’s the focus. If the graffiti serves to highlight, by contrast, the wood grain, it’s the very nature of being in the physical world that’s unbalanced, instead.