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Robert Hudson @ Brian Gross

Frame of Mind, 2012/2015, steel, stainless shell, cast iron with porcelain enamel, found objects, epoxy, 87 x 51 x 49"

At the dawn of the space age, when the superpowers were vying for celestial one-upmanship, we were told that the satellites and rockets then being launched into orbit would someday fall back to Earth as heat-blasted fragments called “space junk.”  I always imagined Robert Hudson out in the hinterlands collecting this stuff.  He does no such thing, but it’s easy to imagine him doing so because so much of what appears in his sculptures points to that possibility. They’re built of machine parts, plumbing fixtures, farm implements, garden tools, pottery shards and other stuff culled from secondhand shops and flea markets, along with metal objects that Hudson fabricates himself. The resulting assemblages suggest an explosion in a junkyard, choreographed by Duchamp, Picasso and Tinguely.

Hudson’s relied on this method for more than 50 years and has never once failed to deliver invigorating work. This show follows suit, upholding his reputation as one of the leading exemplars of second-generation Funk, a species distinct from the earlier, truly abject version of Funk pioneered in the 1950s by Bruce Conner and others, well-known (George Herms) and obscure (Frederic Hobbs).  Today, Hudson’s only true peers are his boyhood friend and former art school classmate, William T. Wiley, and Richard Shaw, the trompe-l'oeil master with whom Hudson collaborated in early 1970s. All three artists remain eternally fresh, immune to the comings and goings of trends and isms. 
 
Much of Hudson’s appeal rests on a contradiction: His work appears chaotic; yet there’s nothing provisional or haphazard about it.  It evinces an almost classical sense of balance, with each component set in a state of perfect state of equipoise relative to its surroundings. (Titles of two pieces, Float and Balance, attest to this ethos.) Still, there’s no getting around the fact that the process by which Hudson combines these elements is exceedingly complicated given the shapes, colors, patterns and textures that must be weighed before they’re

Float, 2015, stainless steel, cast iron with porcelain enamel, found objects, acrylic, epoxy, 45 x 42 x 34

welded into place.  Metal objects and ragged ceramic shapes — some carrying geometric patterns painted in bold primary colors — appear perched in or on supports, suggesting both cubist painting and Dada-inspired kinetic sculpture.  That they can’t be activated with the flip of a switch yields distinct benefits, the biggest being a heightened level of audience engagement.  To inventory the contents — and to pursue narratives that pretend to exist but don’t – you must circumnavigate each sculpture.  That, in turn, yields radically different views depending on where you stand. It also leaves the interpretive possibilities deliciously open-ended, owing to the fact that the associations called by up familiar objects tend to evaporate once they’re deployed abstractly.

The largest, most complex work in the show, Frame of Mind, is dominated by maze of interlocking stainless steel frames off of which hang metal rings, ceramic scraps, rusted shards, iron filigrees, painted squares and much else.  The fames form a something akin to a see-through corridor, jam-packed with discordant shapes and forms that shift back and forth between painterly illusionism and sculptural dimensionality.  It’s sharp a poke at long-outmoded notions about how painting should be flat and how sculpture (think: Primary Structures) ought to eschew evidence of the artist’s hand.  Looking at it, you can practically hear Hudson taunting Clement Greenberg. “You want flat?  Take this hall of mirrors — get lost in it!  Mind the edges?  Ha!  I’ll hang them with baubles and pretend it’s Christmas!”  Hudson, of course, wasn’t the first to dispute Greenberg’s dictates or to dissolve the lines between painting and sculpture, but apart from Robert Rauschenberg and Frank Stella and later, Elizabeth Murray and Judy Pfaff, it’s hard to think of anyone who’s done so with greater panache and with less regard for formalist purity.  In this regard, Frame of Mind is something of an outlier in that it has an obvious art-historical axe to grind. The rest of what’s on view seems quirkier if not highly personal, though I’d be hard-pressed to say how.  What for, example, can be made of

Scissors, 2104, steel, stainless steel, cast iron with porcelain enamel, photo, found objects, catalog image, clear epoxy, acrylic, wire, 47 x 22 x 20"

Float which has, as its centerpiece, a pair of blacksmith’s tongs attached to a pair of monkey wrenches, along with sprockets and other circular shapes?  Or Scissors, which features an tintype photograph of a woman topped by two rakes and surrounded by metal spheres hung at odd angles?  It’s a votive — of a sort — but beyond that what can be made of it?   

Much, as it turns out.  Look beyond the apparent chaos and out jumps a theme: Nearly every piece in the show contains circular or spherical shapes.  These, to my eye, imply an unmistakable planetary or cosmic orientation.  I’ve long harbored this notion; but what convinced me of its validity was the profusion of these forms in Hudson’s drawings, often a litmus test of any sculptor’s (or painter’s) innermost thoughts. In these, overlapping circular shapes, precisely incised, perhaps with a compass, dominate.  They set up centrifugal force fields, echoing those alluded to by the same forms seen in the sculptures.  What surrounds them – the porcelain shards, the tools, the figurines and all the other recognizable objects – speak of everything that’s not of cosmic origin.  Which is to say, Hudson, in these works, is “speaking” about a meeting of heaven and earth, however messy and disjointed that convergence may be.  It’s only a theory at this point, but it’s the one I’m going with right now.  
 
Meantime, keep your eyes trained upward.  If you see debris falling from the sky it may be part of next Robert Hudson sculpture, making its way to Earth.
–DAVID M. ROTH
 
“Robert Hudson: Recent Sculpture and Drawings” @ Brian Gross Fine Art through January 2, 2016. 

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