Steel Life, organized by Zak Kitnick

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Whitney Claflin “Aggressiveness in ______”, 2012; Ida Ekblad Untitled, 2012; Heather Rowe, Untitled, 2012. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

I  didn’t read the press release before half way through Steel Life at Michael Benevento Gallery, and when I did I snorted with laughter. The pr quoted an artisan iron craftsperson as this iron guy was himself quoted in the catalog of high-end lifestyle accessory management firm Restoration Hardware. Gruff, romantic, simple and sensitive (all to a bombastic degree), this person extolls the virtues of hand-madedness (“his door handles are sculptures that just happen to be attached to doors”), he assures the reader of the life force, or chi,  that courses through his metalsmithing (this chi increases an object’s interest and value to people). “I want to know how to do things the best way possible. I’m kind of obsessive that way” The Restoration Hardware artisan continues in a similar vein for 15 heartfelt paragraphs. As against computers and our “over-technologized culture” his work “…is honest, made by hand.”

Such are the fantastic demands marketers make on our credulity. “Believe in us (and our craftspeople) because we bring magic to materials.” Hah! Come to think of it, if you switch a few terms and ratchet down the soulful, sensitive artist rap, this merchandising catalog entry reads very much like the promises a gallerist will make about the next big thing in a current exhibition at said theoretical gallerists space. (Everybody engages in bullshit, stuff like this is why no artist since maybe Andy Warhol should market themselves. Any claims one makes for what is essentially inexpressible (art) are necessarily expressed in words that devour more meaning than they convey, and claim too many of the wrong things. Dealers are paid to bear this burden for artists.)

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Michael E. Smith Untitled, 2012; Wolfgang Breuer, “Flug War Gut, Landung Auch” 2011; Wade Guyton “Action Sculpture (Marcel Breuer)” 2003. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

Steel Life is a large exhibition, with 17 artists in two galleries. The works and my experiences of them are too specific to call the show sprawling – sprawl to me implies a greater affinity among the works than is present. The use of steel connects each object to the other, but nothing here is about steel any more than an interesting story is about the paper on which it is written.

Gedi Siboney’s Untitled, 2012 (galvanized steel pipes, steel rods, sprinkler spouts), which forms a square in the center of the floor at the 7556 Sunset space is exactly what it reads to be: the bare bones of a sprinkler system (I think of fire sprinklers, as would hang above the ceiling – but the steel rods have handles so I wonder). What this sculpture brought to my mind was not, “oh, what a beautiful and soul filling use of steel,” instead I had a vision of a room that might rise above these sprinklers. I remembered seeing Do Ho Suh’s hanging fabric room installed once, and it was nice having such a ghostly presence manifested by mundane galvanized steel. That Siboney’s implied room might simply have been a small space in a floor of office cubicles, or some such banal interior is reassuring. In its presence I did not wish to escape my so-called boring reality by way of art, instead I was moved to credit my experience in such rooms as having what value I could find in them. Siboney left the decision to me, I think, to locate or to create romance and ideals.

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Melvin Edwards, “New Cult” 2007 and “Iraq” 2003; Kenji Fujita “Study For an Object #5” 2007-2012; Melvin Edwards “Now” 2003. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

Also in the 7556 space is Work No. 1355, by Martin Creed, twelve nails of varying sizes set horizontally in the wall, ranged from largest to smallest. Thinking of the press release, I supposed that our iron-crafting friend might want to hammer these modest pins out of the flesh and bones of the earth – as though to bring them grace with his hands; I am pretty certain Creed’s nails are store-bought and for reasons that arise from this condition. As a group, installed so they diminish in  size from the entry view, they create a vanishing point with no horizon. This economy of means starts me thinking that the economies of the world – from largest to smallest – are currently engaged in finding their own vanishing points, one by one in a horizon-less, border-less hyper-field of financial misadventure.

Glitter, at the moment light strikes it to spark, loses its connection to any surface; it seems to hover in space. I think this as brilliant pinpoints catch my attention from the corner of my eye, causing me to turn and look at Whitney Claflin’s Aggressiveness in ________, 2012, a small painting hanging to the left of and behind me as I enter the 7578 Sunset gallery space. Another material reflects a dim, dirty light and I move my upper body to find its source and then to see how much area I can white out with this reflection from a painted plastic square. The paint on the plastic defeats my attempts, as my eye defines the outlines of this flat object.

There are shadows too that interest me – a slender shadow from a twig and a chunkier one from a piece of wood that is nailed vertically and hangs a bit from the bottom of the canvas. This wood is split from the force of the nails that fix it in place.

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Heather Rowe, Untitled, 2012; Michael E. Smith, Untitled, 2012, Wolfgang Breuer, “Flug War Gut, Landung Auch” 2011, Wade Guyton “Action Sculpture (Marcel Breuer)” 2003. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

This painting is itself reflected in Heather Rowe’s sculpture Untitled, 2012 and in this reflection two nails stick out and cast their own shadows and they merge with their dark wood support. Hmm. Is the relationship of wood and nail one of force or of accommodation? The painting is messy, I like how the plastic is painted with several bold strokes that resemble claw marks.

A window with a swiveling center panel is delicately split by ruched sheer curtains (a vanity shield?), the fabric has a  moiré effect and this is reflected in strips of mirror that cover the French door-like framework of the sculpture. Rough cut plasterboard lines the verso, this is papered with old fashion voile embossed wallpaper. As though this frame was cut whole from a wall, the edges remain unfinished. Everything about Heather Rowe’s structure confuses my eyes with shadows and with reflected light. This sculpture seems not to be about something as much as it is several things: an art object, a doorway or window or combination of these, very much it is also light and shadow and the air that moves through its open center.

Matthew Buckingham and Joachim Koester Steel, Northern European, 2003, a photograph and text, makes me think of Joseph Kosuth’s pieces from the 1960’s that used a picture of a thing as well as text or a definition to represent the thing. This is partly a response to the formal structure – the photo is of a suit of armor taken head on and full face, with parts of two more knights in the background, and the text on a separate panel is is black on white, like a page from a book. The text begins as a first person account of an experience with such a suit of armor in a castle in Denmark, “I found myself awkwardly trying to return the gaze of…” From the beginning a presence is placed in the helmet. Indeed the suits of armor in the background are spoken of as “friends.” The artists make very clear the location of this armor, giving specific geographic terms. Then the accounting takes a turn and our unnamed reporter begins to identify with “an unseen and unknowable predecessor” and then the writer “found himself awkwardly trying to return the gaze of someone who was not there.”

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Gedi Siboney, Untitled, 2012; Whitney Claflin, “KR15T1NA” 2012. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

The text gives the title of the armor as  “Tournament Helmet, Steel, Northern European,” and I wonder about the artists’ choice for the title of their own work, “Steel,  Northern European.” Why take away “Tournament Helmet” and leave “Steel?”

And the text personalizes at both ends of the time continuum – the writer and the knight are conflated. The writer closes his remembrance facing his predecessor, “or, at least the empty space left by a predecessor, vacated after becoming obsolete.” The voice is unpredictable – unlike in Kosuth’s earlier work, which depended on specificity – and Buckingham and Koester seem to have literary minds and seek perhaps a romantics of conceptualism. Did the armor become obsolete? Did the long ago knight become so after he died or was killed? Did the artists vacate meaning when they discarded the complete title and kept only the the material – steel – and the place?

It’s a queer piece, queer as in odd and  confusing. As such Steel, Northern European stands very well in my mind as a brief, cogent summing up of the show, Steel Life.

Steel does a different thing in each of these works of art – as well as in the dozen or so I didn’t mention. In a document written by the curator, Zak Kitnick, and given to me by the gallery, Kitnick states that, “Metal has long meant progress, from the bronze age to the machine age. Here it means potential. To do whatever it wants to do.”

Steel Life, organized by Zak Kitnick, is on view through August 4, 2012.

“Steel Life” installation view. Left to right: Sam Falls, Untitled (Blue, Green, Purple, and Yellow #3), 2012; Martin Creed, “Work No. 1355” 2012; Gedi Siboney, Untitled, 2012; Kenji Fujita, “Study For an Object” 2007-2012; Whitney Claflin “KR15T1NA” 2012; Melvin Edwards, “New Cult” 2007, “Iraq” 2003, Now 2002. Photo courtesy Michael Benevento.

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