Small Sculpture Looms Large at the Sculpture Center
Every year the Sculpture Center holds a Juried Exhibition dedicated to small sculpture, called “After the Pedestal”. The rules require that each work be smaller than 3 x 3 x 3 ft., all dimensions added together. Initially I found it odd that a separate show is required to feature diminutive objects, but if you do a bit of digging, you begin to realize that small sculpture are kind of the black sheep of the art world.
When thinking about “small sculpture”, I am reminded of the art historical term “objet d’art”. This term has long been used in English to describe works of art that are NOT paintings, large or medium-sized sculptures, prints or drawings. It therefore covers a wide range of works, usually small and three-dimensional decorative art items that are also occasionally referred to as “table pieces”. An art historian in training will recall being taught the ultimate example of this term, Benvenuto Cellini’s famous Salt Cellar.
Measuring only 10 inches tall and 13 inches wide, this extraordinary object was sculpted by hand from rolled gold, with a base made of ebony that has tiny ivory bearings hidden inside it, so it can roll around the table. Functional, yes. Beautiful, undoubtedly.
Relegated to the often-seen-as-pejorative term of decorative art, historically small sculptures have struggled to raise their status from “table-piece” to that of fine art. There are exceptions of course (you might see a nice Frederic Remington bronco in a museum), but it’s hard to compete with the dazzling scale of the Claus Oldenburgs, Henry Moores, Ron Muecks, etc. of the world.
The over thirty works on view at the Sculpture Center offer the chance to see a wide array of approaches to making small objects, all chosen by juror Sara O’Keeffe, an Associate Curator at the New Museum. Some are more successful than others, but it is of great interest to see very different artists with very different outlooks, mediums, and goals tackle the limit of spatial dimensions – and the oftentimes fraught relationship of small items to “decorative art”.
Interestingly, all the artists I gravitated to addressed the natural world in some way. Lauren Baker’s Stibnite Daydream resembles a small crystalline rock on display in a natural history museum, but closer inspection reveals it to be made of rather flimsy materials. So flimsy, that you could easily crush it with your fist. It might weigh an ounce – you could probably blow it off the pedestal. Stibnite is one of those healing crystals that purportedly has metaphysical properties that will cure sadness, fear, difficulties, and even bring wealth. Paradoxically, this mineral is also used in pyrotechnics and is extremely
toxic. I love how Baker’s facsimile walks the line between honesty and dishonesty (it can’t possibly elicit any of these healing powers, but it is made of synthetic materials that could potentially be toxic), it’s definitely the stuff of daydreams.
Fiber artist Rebecca Cross also addresses the natural world with her diminutive Preservation Sequences. Presented like tiny specimens, each of the three cubes contain small bits of fabric, manipulated into crystal-like structures. Using shibori dye-resist techniques, Cross is best-known for her large-scale fiber installations, so seeing these individual jewel-like bits of silk is surprising. Trapped inside their plexi boxes, Cross has engraved the tops with patterns developed from the shadows first cast by the silk forms. Her attention to capturing the detail of each blossom is quite scientific – again, they would be welcome in a dusty hall of Minerals and Gemstones. But like Baker’s piece, a swift wind would likely blow them right out of their boxes. Both artists ephemeral treatment of natural subjects is prescient in a world that is currently collapsing on a global scale.
Peggy Breidenbach, in habit, 2018, ceramic – pinched stoneware with terra sigillata, stone-fired, 14 x 14 x 6″ (below)
Indianapolis-based ceramic artist and educator Peggy Briedenbach creates stoneware forms based on tiny artifacts of the living world, but blown up to huge proportions – which lends a bit of humor in the context of a “small sculpture” exhibition. Calling to mind seeds, pods, husks, and the other unsung heroes of the forest floor, Breidenbach’s beautiful forms are created using traditional techniques, including terra sigillata – a buttery slip used in lieu of glaze by the Greeks and Romans. re collection calls to mind the ridges of a locust pod, the soft blue of a robin’s egg, perhaps an ancient stone fossil – in habit is like barnacles, the stones, shells, nooks and crannies formed by water. Breidenbach’s work invites the viewer to recall and appreciate these fragile, beautiful things.
But by far the most interesting work in the show belongs to glass artist Benjamin Johnson, who is also the chair of the Glass Department at CIA. All three of his sculptures in the show call to mind microscopic single-celled organisms, crossed with the creations of H.R. Giger. From the realms of some futuristic science fiction plot – they could be the larvae of an alien species on Star Trek the Next Generation.
Johnson’s unfamiliar objects may call to mind aliens, but he wants the viewer: “to leave
with the idea that they are a small part of the frail world that we live in. I wish for the viewer to consider their own presence and relation to intangible micro and macrocosmic realities.” Indeed, the protozoan shapes of his creatures are reminiscent of the unseen natural world, teeming all around us.
Impression Unforeseen, placed in the storefront, is a masterpiece of technique – its undulating form and viscous translucent surface are made even more impressive in the sunlight. And while it certainly functions as a discrete fine art object, I cannot help but picture it in a residential context – sat on a majestic table, bathed in sunlight. So it doesn’t hold salt like Cellini’s salt cellar, but its size and beauty would serve the function of celebrated centerpiece on any table. The delicate dance that these small sculptures perform between fine and decorative art is hardly problematic for me – not all art can be lived with after all – and if it can, and looks great on a table, is that a bad thing?
After the Pedestal is on view at The Sculpture Center through August 2, 2019. Free and open to the public, Wed – Fri 10 am – 4 pm, Sat noon – 4 pm. Other weekdays and hours by appointment or take your chances to drop in. You can always call ahead at 216-229-6527.