Thursday, August 19, 2010

Art review: Quiet abstract sculpture at Norton speaks volumes about forms

A view of the Beyond the Figure exhibit.‭
(‬Photo by Kelli Marin‭)

By Amy Broderick

Entering‭ ‬Beyond the Figure at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach,‭ ‬one enters a darkened gallery in which strange‭ ‬forms emerge from the shadows.‭ ‬Although artifacts from our own culture,‭ ‬these forms also point toward a parallel universe — a realm where we understand and know objects with all our senses and our imaginations.‭

The roughly‭ ‬20‭ ‬sculptural works on view do not depict recognizable subjects,‭ ‬so each viewer is left to search for other clues to unlock their mysteries.‭ ‬One gains a deep appreciation for the materiality of each work,‭ ‬encountering objects that are tactile,‭ ‬physical,‭ ‬and irresistible.

These sculptures are remarkably rooted.‭ ‬While the forms are mysterious,‭ ‬the materials and fabrication are amazingly familiar and recognizable.‭ ‬The works invite engagement because they exist in the same space that viewers occupy,‭ ‬giving the curious visitor both physical and visual access to them.‭ ‬This literal access facilitates intellectual access,‭ ‬offering opportunities to spend time appreciating each work.

Macchia Forest‭ (‬1994‭)‬,‭ ‬by Dale Chihuly.

As the light rakes across the surfaces of the pieces,‭ ‬each step of the creative process is revealed.‭ ‬The smooth,‭ ‬seemingly bioluminescent curves of Dale Chihuly’s‭ ‬Macchia Forest‭ (‬1994‭) ‬float along one wall in dramatic contrast with the earthy,‭ ‬sullen crevasses of Ursula von Rydingsvard’s‭ ‬Bowl-in-a-Bowl‭ (‬1999‭)‬.‭ ‬As one moves through the galleries,‭ ‬the mass,‭ ‬interest,‭ ‬and texture of each elegant‭ ‬and refined form are revealed.

Although the exhibition showcases a number of highly reduced,‭ ‬even austere objects,‭ ‬their physical presence,‭ ‬direct presentation,‭ ‬and thoughtful lighting make them endlessly engaging.‭ ‬Close inspection reveals the details of the joinery in Sol LeWitt’s‭ ‬2‭ ‬x‭ ‬7‭ ‬x‭ ‬7‭ (‬1989‭)‬.‭ ‬The brass spines of Harry Bertoia’s‭ ‬Sunburst III‭ (‬1968‭) ‬vibrate and shimmer with light and texture in the subtle meteorology of the gallery.‭ ‬Elsewhere,‭ ‬attentively carved wood transforms into a voluptuous puddle at the base of Toshio Odate’s‭ ‬Suspended Column Melting‭ (‬1974‭)‬.‭

Allan McCollum’s‭ ‬Ninety-Six Plaster Surrogates No.‭ ‬4‭ (‬1982/89‭) ‬and John McCracken’s‭ ‬Black Plank‭ (‬1974‭) ‬are examples of the simplified abstractions in the exhibition.‭ ‬This work creates ambiguities for viewers to consider.‭ ‬Beyond the Figure offers an enormous amount of space,‭ ‬both the physical space of the gallery and intellectual space,‭ ‬space into which viewers — as bodies and as thinkers—are able to project,‭ ‬imagine,‭ ‬and rewrite meaning.

McCollum’s work is an especially good example of this.‭ ‬This work is a seemingly endless number of blank,‭ ‬provisional,‭ ‬repeating forms.‭ ‬These framed gray rectangles are incomplete by their very design,‭ ‬inviting the viewer to complete them.

Dream Builder XVII‭ (‬1994‭)‬,‭ ‬by William Christenberry.

The strong physical presence of McCracken’s sculpture tempts viewers to assign an identity to‭ ‬this otherwise obscure object.‭ ‬The immense black slab becomes something relative to the viewer’s body,‭ ‬but its scale is just uncertain enough that it refuses to point directly to any referent in the world beyond the gallery.‭ ‬Instead,‭ ‬it has an insistent‭ ‬here-ness,‭ ‬demanding acceptance as it is.‭

Tension grows between its strong presence and its ambiguity,‭ ‬allowing one to push it in any number of directions while moving around it.‭ ‬If only I could be under it,‭ ‬it could be a shelter.‭ ‬There might be just enough space behind‭ ‬it for me to use it as a door.‭ ‬It might be flush enough against this wall‭ ‬to be part of the wall itself.‭ ‬It might be just narrow enough for me to dance with it as if it were another body.‭

Joel Shapiro’s‭ ‬Untitled‭ (‬1985‭) ‬is arguably more familiar,‭ ‬precisely scaled to the human figure.‭ ‬Forms are cantilevered as if the sculpture were bending at the waist like one of Edgar Degas‭’ ‬dancers.‭ ‬Although not obviously figural,‭ ‬these rectilinear forms appear to locomote as if human.‭ ‬This familiarity tests the limits of one’s ability to empathize with objects that might otherwise seem distant or blank.‭ ‬This kind of abstraction is so pared down that the objects themselves become invitations to enter into a sensory and contemplative relationship with them.‭

These are incredibly quiet forms,‭ ‬ones that might easily be overlooked in other contexts.‭ ‬Presented together in this exhibition,‭ ‬installed as they are in the company of one another,‭ ‬all this quiet mystery invites—and rewards—careful inspection and patient appreciation.

Amy Broderick is an artist,‭ ‬writer,‭ ‬and professor.‭ ‬She is currently associate professor of drawing and painting at Florida Atlantic University in Boca Raton.‭ ‬She regularly exhibits and delivers lectures about her work locally and nationally.‭ ‬Visit her at

Beyond the Figure:‭ ‬Abstract Sculpture in the Norton Museum Collection‭ ‬runs through Sept.‭ ‬5‭ ‬at the Norton Museum of Art in West Palm Beach.‭ ‬For more information,‭ ‬call‭ ‬832-5136‭ ‬or visit‭ ‬

Another view of Beyond the Figure.‭
(‬Photo by Kelli Marin‭)

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