Steve Reber steps outdoors
Steve Reber, a Chicago sculptor who works in wood, plaster, and concrete, has taken a giant step forward by stepping out of the house. He does not think that he's made a major breakthrough, but we disagree. His latest work looks both forward and backward, which often happens when an artist gets to something new.
For many years, Reber built rounded, pale-colored forms with smooth surfaces that resembled oversized telephones, hot water bottles, plastic bowls and other familiar household items. Some pieces had hoses attached. All evoked a world of domestic comfort.
At Bodybuilder & Sportsman Gallery in August, Reber showed four new sculptures. Two of them were frying-pan forms in which he humorously manipulated scale and presentation. Deutsch Loaf, matte black and at least four times life size, has a handle that sticks up uselessly in the air, a lovely handle shadow on its dome-like cover, and a silly little round foot.
Deutsch Loaf is not a comfort form like Reber's earlier work, but a lively visual invention based on a kitchen shape. A Cold Place in the Winter ventures into fresh territory. We see an oversized white dome-covered fry pan resting on cinder blocks with white bubbles on top. In these two sculptures, it seems that the artist may be sending up his earlier work.
A Pace More Relaxed is Reber's first step out of the house. This three-foot-high wall-like assemblage of cinder blocks separated by wooden shims has roundish pieces of white plaster attached to its front. These forms, which recall animation art, vary in shape and scale, creating a pleasing, quirky rhythm. A Pace More Relaxed is entirely frontal.
I Don't Travel Far/Humboldt is the most advanced work in Reber's show. The artist constructs a compelling floor piece that completely commands its space. We look down to see four white loaf-like shapes on low wooden platforms, connected with lime green wooden sticks that recall tracks or roads in a transport system. Each stick has a bent wood edge.
The loaf shapes, which suggest termination points, either have smooth surfaces, pointing back to Reber's domestic forms, or the wrinkled, organic surfaces we associate with plants and vegetables, which grow outdoors.
On top of this floor construction, the artist places a long, horizontal, square-sided wooden four-by-four with rounded rectangular shapes painted on it that could be windows in a train or bus. Atop this four-by-four is a shorter one colored lime green. These two wooden horizontals suggest movement through a landscape, but we associate lime green with home interiors. I Don't Travel Far/Humboldt is a fully three-dimensional sculpture that changes as we walk around it.
Reber will decide where he takes this intriguing body of work. All we know is that he has created forms and a visual language that are entirely his own.
Summer's not over yet!
Friday, Sept. 13 was Opening Day in Chicago's art world. The liveliest opening, an evening drenched in sorbet colors, took place at Klein Art Works. There we saw the bright abstract alkyd paintings of Marco Casentini, who works on Plexiglas.
Not satisfied just to show his work, Casentini painted Klein's back wall in his trademark colors, then hung four of his works on it. The result is four little paintings on one big one -- from an artist who's not ready yet to part with summer. Phyllis Stein, Klein's gallery assistant, gets to spend four weeks looking at Casentini's wall. We envy her.
David Plowden, the photographer and historian, has revised and updated his Bridges: The Spans of North America, which first appeared in 1974. The 2002 edition, published by Norton, contains 185 full-page photographs and a comprehensive history of bridge technology arranged by building material -- stone and brick, wood, iron, steel, and concrete.
Plowden spent six years on original research for the first edition and traveled all over North America to take photographs and interview bridge experts. His revision includes information on bridges built since 1975 and descriptions of many demolished or abandoned structures. Bridges combines fine art and documentary photography with a text that contributes to the history of technology.
The photographs could hardly be better. By carefully selecting his angle of view, Plowden captures the dramatic rhythms of bridge towers and spans -- and gives us a sense of the sheer audacity that went into their conception and construction. He shoots early in the day, so we see many bridges in soft light, often with mist or fog behind them.
The text of Bridges disappoints because it ignores editing fundamentals. Plowden uses engineering terms like "truss" and "chord" without ever defining them and should have provided an illustrated page of bridge basics. There are no subheads in the text, which makes it hard to follow and exhausting to read. The author provides no textual cross-references to the photographs, which are separately printed and bound into the middle of each chapter.
Readers who seek a photograph of a bridge mentioned in the text must hunt through the photo pages, often in vain, for Plowden does not provide photos of every bridge he describes. If the reader sees an interesting photograph and wants to know more, the captions do not refer back to the text so the reader is lost again. It would have taken very little to make this book much, much better.
Fletcher Benton The New Constructivism of Fletcher Benton was published early this summer by Acatos in Lausanne, Switzerland. It updates Benton's career since 1991, when Edward Lucie-Smith and Paul Karlstrom produced a monograph on his work. The New Constructivism contains an interview with the artist, an essay, documentation and masses of excellent color photographs of Benton's work.
Heart and soul a sculptor, Benton goes directly into form when he works and does not pause to make sketches. He has little use for drawings anyway, because they are flat and he says he "cannot see the other side."
Benton fills his studio with small steel squares, boxes, circles, arcs, spirals, saw teeth and alphabet letters in three-dimensions. Starting with a central form or a vertical, he rapidly builds maquettes from these shapes, piling them up to create precarious towers that must be welded together so they do not fall down. When Benton is satisfied with a maquette, he hands it to assistants who fabricate the final piece at full scale.
Benton has compared his working method to Kandinsky's. "I understand Kandinsky," he says, "because I do somewhat the same thing. I use a group of shapes . . . and that's all very intuitive. The palette is very formal and rigid." The resulting sculpture is perfectly straightforward with no rhetoric, ambiguity, or hidden agenda. We never wonder what's inside Benton's hollow forms. What we see is what we get.
David Smith is a key influence, though Benton constructs in space rather than drawing in it. Benton's forms, exclusively geometric, are roughly equivalent in scale, but vary in thickness. Forms maintain their integrity and never melt or flow into each other. Joining is purely functional. Benton's way of assembling forms is what makes people call him a constructivist.
Blocks on Blocks: One on Two, Ball and Wave (1995) is Benton at his best. This tense, off-kilter seven-foot-tall construction incorporates the letter S, three metal boxes, a sphere, a rod, a cylinder and smaller shapes. Visual issues -- space, volume, form -- drive this work, which has an air of mild nuttiness about it. Alphabet letters are key elements in this and many other sculptures. The artist was a sign painter in his younger days and declares that there is "nothing more beautiful to me in geometry than the alphabet."
Alexander Calder has influenced Benton's dense, muscular public sculptures and the forms and colors of his lighter pieces. Folded Circle L (1988), shown during installation, is a deceptively simple work that's destined for a plaza. Benton really cuts the circle apart and reconstructs it -- there is no fold or bend to be seen. Steel Watercolor 91: China Moon (1990) is a graceful, witty tower with a Calderesque red circle at its center. Exuberantly cheerful and optimistic, China Moon sweeps upward like a fantasy ballerina.
Benton gives his works neutral titles and we wonder whether he sometimes has sly narrative intentions. Cologne Construct 3 (1995), with a ladder, a staircase, and a half moon, suggests an elopement in progress. Half Pipe 8 (1999) would be convenient for communicating with other worlds. The artist has made elegant, hilariously impractical three-legged chairs, which he calls "Fletchairs."
Benton's paintings are really wall-hung sculptures constructed from diagonal metal forms that burst beyond the frame and leap out at the viewer. His "Odes to Kandinsky" are wall pieces that dramatize Kandinsky's geometrics, but ignore his color and mysticism.
Fletcher Benton celebrates his 71st birthday this year. He's an artist at the height of his powers whose work bubbles with invention and optimism. Do we need a younger generation when we have sculptors like this?