by David M. Roth
Constructs 2.0, the second pairing in this space of sculptors Marc D’Estout and Jay Kelly, features a broad range of psychologically freighted works. Their origins trace to the tribal/totemic forms that undergird so much modernist sculpture. Disentangling these influences from the artists’ own considerable innovations isn’t always easy – famous names continuously spring to mind — yet there are plenty of instances in this spirited and sometimes spooky exhibition where the artists assert their own peculiar identity in hybrids that are at once recognizable and strange.
The initial surprise has to do with scale. Photos of these primarily metal works suggest forms that are substantially larger, and that gap — between the possible and the actual — tugs hard at the imagination, particularly in Kelly’s works, which you can easily envision at monumental scale. If there’s a thread connecting the two artists, it’s a shared a surrealist sensibility, visible in the way both bend archetypical forms to their own ends.
Kelly, a New Yorker, does so with upright shapes made of carved wood and/or wire, both of which allude simultaneously to architecture and figures. These works, which are small enough to fit in the palm of your hand, are displayed on pedestals — two, three and sometimes four-abreast. Those made of wood are cylindrically shaped and painted with horizontal bands of muted color, abraded to look mildly weathered. With splayed “feet” and truncated appendages sprouting from their “shoulders,” several of them call to mind the space-age structures of Oscar Niemeyer, the architect of Brasilia. Similarly conceived forms, rendered as slender wire cages with elongated spires, bring to mind the architecture of Antoni Gaudí. In these, you can also catch echoes of Miró, an association that comes from tiny metal orbs set atop slender lengths of black wire that read as winking eyes or orifices. One such sculpture, Untitled # 457, backed on the inside with milky Japanese paper, takes on the appearance of an ancient vessel, a nod to functional ceramics that ends up feeling vaguely anthropomorphic owing to a worm-like “head,” a feature that reappears in other pieces looking more like a prehensile tail. The main variable in these wire works is density. Untitled # 471, the piece that stands in memory, is practically a thicket — so much so that you might take it for a work of Claire Falkensten in miniature. (Its longitudinal bulk also brings to mind fertility figures painted by Jean Dubuffet. In other pieces — a total of 14 are on view — whiffs of Martin Puryear can also be sensed.) Yet for all these weighty quotations, if that is in fact what they are, the overall feeling imparted is one of whimsy, not gravitas: proof that sometimes size really does matter.
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In contrast, D' Estout’s works, made of hand-formed steel, issue a bold primordial charge. It’s activated by biomorphic shapes derived from aquatic plants, birds and animals. The largest and most imposing, J’Accuse, resembles the head of a pterodactyl as it might be portrayed in an outsized ceremonial mask: a downward facing concatenation of beveled angles ending in a deadly sharp point. It greets visitors at the entrance to the gallery and dominates a small wall. In other works D’Estout conjures medieval weapons, mutant animal parts and a giant Venetian carnival mask. The latter stands on a sagging tripod at about eye level: mute and disembodied. Little Dictator, with its “bloodied” pointy head, razor teeth and gleaming steel shoulders is scarier still, recalling the fierceness of Bella Feldman’s War Toys, an example of which you can see in the gallery’s back room.
Powerful as these works are, I found myself more attracted to (and entranced by) the artist’s forays into purely nonobjective shapes. Three such works are arrayed side-by-side on a wall near the front of the gallery. They’re exercises in geometric lyricism, visual puzzles that present different views according to where you stand. The obvious reference point for the centerpiece of this grouping, Bluebird, is Brancusi’s Bird in Space (1924), a sharp, slender wing-like shape that in D’Estout’s handling is broken into two conjoined segments, blue on one side, white on the other. It suggests a split personality or dual nature – a designation that might, to a certain extent, also apply to the artist whose output has, since his last show in this space, expanded from objects that evince a fascination with car culture and Finish Fetish to a more encompassing oeuvre that probes even more deeply the primitive roots of Modernism and the relationship between industrial power and animal instinct.
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Marc D’Estout & Jay Kelly: “constructs 2.0” @ Jack Fischer Gallery through December 30, 2017.
About the author:
David M. Roth is the editor and publisher of Squarecylinder.