Thinking big with small pieces: After the Pedestal at The Sculpture Center
“After the Pedestal” is the Sculpture Center’s tenth exhibition of smaller works. How small? Not small enough to be distracting. This isn’t a competition to see who can make the smallest recognizable image, or to cram the most detail into a compressed space.
But even the largest pieces could be carried by one person (save perhaps Mark Rubelowsky’s aptly-named “Table.” This piece consists of a handsome coffee table-sized piece of decorative furniture topped by a mosaic of icy glass). The smallest pieces can be held in one hand—and in fact, exactly one of the works invites viewers to manipulate it. Laura Shope invites gallerygoers to feel the smoothness and surprising heft of “Hand-Held #25,” a piece of alabaster carved to fit the contours of the human hand. (It must be emphasized, however, that every other participating artist insists on the rule of “Look, Don’t Touch.”)
A total of 21 artists from Ohio and the surrounding space contribute pieces. It is usually impossible to summarize group shows unless they are designed around an explicit theme (for example, the first 100 days of Trumpism). However, whether by curatorial choices or the character of the Zeitgeist, “After the Pedestal” features many works emulating organic forms. Specifically, flora and viscera seem to have been important reference points.
Shope’s “Handheld #25” is a little bigger than a human kidney, and the shape suggesting a liver. Ceramic forms like basket fungus and sea urchins sit atop crushed brick in Beth Lindenberger’s “Clear Divide.” Cardboard, paint, and other miscellaneous materials were shaped into mossy pebbles for Jonah Jacob’s mandala “Green Internode #1.”
A subclass of featured objects blend nature with artifice in one way or another, provoking thought on humanity’s complex relationship with the biological world. For example, Eric D. Johnson’s “Defense Failure” is a bronze cast of a piece of fruit pierced by nails. The exterior of the fruit has the stem and tapered roundness of an apple. However, a bite mark reveals flesh pulpier than that of an apple, more reminiscent of a plum.
“Defense Failure” is a startling image, made more potent when viewers learn its context. During a gallery visit, Ann Albano described the work as concerned with the corruption of the purity of childhood. Looking at “Defense Failure” with this knowledge invokes both a sense of inevitability and sadness. We could argue how pure or innocent children really are, but no reasonable person would deny that becoming an adult often involves trauma, or at least disillusionment. Like fruit, we might be bitten—but fruit is meant to be eaten, and children are meant to grow up.
The dozen or so figures in Mary Skrenta’s “Eulogia” twist and plop like shapeless living matter, but are topped by dabs of gold leaf. The figures invoke the paintings the French surrealist Yves Tanguy, who populated bleak spaces with shapes that alternated between spindly and bulbous. The lumps and tendrils of “Eulogia” are shaped out of foam and epoxy clay, but feature gossamer shrouds made from pig intestines. The translucence of the gossamer creates an otherworldly effect, which is appropriate—the Greek word “Eulogia” refers to holy objects. So it is tempting to think of the spots of gold leaf as little halos, and the figurines themselves as fetishes for half-formed gods.
“Green Trees, Red Sky” by James Barker is a digital print propped up by a wooden cutout stand, weighted down by a sandbag. The print is a life-sized, high-resolution photograph of a tire from a construction vehicle, caked in gray mud. The title suggests intriguing context. “Green Trees, Red Sky” might not be a description of a single scene, but the name of two forces opposing each other. “Green Trees” of course would represent nature untouched by human hands. “Red Sky” could be twilight—the cyclical occurrence of dusk, or the threat of anthropogenic gloom caused by unrestrained industry. The bulldozer tire exists as a means for humanity to clear land and build structures, but it inevitably accumulates mud—nature always pushes back against our intrusions. In the short term, the pushback might not slow us down; mud can be washed off. But in the long run, we might pay dearly, when we live under skies bloodied by pollution.
The tension between the impulse to preserve and escape nature is more explicitly explored in Jennifer Whitten’s “Cultivation.” It consists of four pieces of gold-and-red beaded jewelry tipped with gardening implements—a shovel head, lawn shears, a rake, and a hoe. The juxtaposition of glamor and grit is very funny. But if Witten’s “Cultivation” is a joke, it’s one that points at a truth. “Cultivation’s” dissonance comes from the combination of two goods that can’t be enjoyed at the same time—glamor and playing in the dirt. The rustic and the luxurious can both be appreciated, but not quite like this. We are attracted to raw nature sometimes, and at others repelled and chased into the arms of refinement.
Not all the powerful pieces in “After the Pedestal” can be fit under the theme “humanity and nature.” Robert Carpenter’s mixed media “other rooms” ranks as the show’s most whimsical piece, being made of a motely array of materials—wood, rocks, wire, foam, vines, and a plastic toy elephant marching down a vertical plane.
Brian Nelson “This is my bag of (k)nots” is the most emotionally compelling piece on display. It consists of a bronze replica of a brown paper bag, filled to the top with pill bottles bearing the artist’s own name. One of the legible scripts identifies one of the drugs as alprazolam, the generic form of the anti-anxiety medication Xanax.
The work is a powerful, stigma-breaking confession about mental illness, and an important statement about it. There is probably years’ worth of pill bottles in Nelson’s “bag.” This reminds us that mentally ill people often struggle with their condition(s) for years, even if they receive treatment. But it also reminds us that treatment is possible. It can be long, hard, uneven, or even just boringly repetitive, but management can work, and it can work in the long run. This is neither an optimistic nor a pessimistic work, but a realistic one.
“After the Pedestal” runs through August 4 at the Sculpture Center. The gallery is located at 1834 East 123rd St. For more information, call 216-229-6527 or go to sculpturecenter.org.
Special thanks to exhibition juror Steve Locke and Ann Craddock Albano, the Sculpture Center’s executive director and chief curator. All images curtesy of the artists.