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Glorious by Design

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Two years ago someone named "Sky Brown" wrote a letter in response to my favorable review of Richard Tuttle, who makes art using junk materials like cardboard. This reader reviewed the alley behind his or her apartment: if one lets one's "preconceptions fall away" in this setting, such a work as "'Rock'...might not be...a stone at all, but quite possibly a slightly dehydrated dog dropping." The letter writer also satirized the idea that looking at art deepens one's seeing of rawer stuff as well.

I have to wonder what "Sky" would think of two current exhibits also lacking the usual degree of artistic intentionality and control. Intuit is showing found objects, some modified for practical use, and the Columbia College Art Gallery is displaying more than 100 mostly custom-built laboratory apparatuses from Fermilab, the world's largest atomic accelerator. There's little or no evidence of psychological or emotional expression in these exhibits, but the viewer who lets his preconceptions of art "fall away" can be richly rewarded.

Most of the objects at Intuit, drawn from various collections, were made by artisans and are subject to decay or other natural processes. Tree Branch Gate is a large, almost rectangular skein of tree branches or roots grown together that appears to be unmodified except for hinges affixed to one edge, transforming it into a gate. Midway between natural and human geometries, the rough wood is joined at right angles and diagonals; bent into an unnatural shape, the whole has a wonderful force. In a gallery setting the symmetrical disk of Large Foundry Mold suggests a mandala (as do several pieces in the Fermilab show). The imposing hole at its center accentuates the metal's weight and integrity. The incrustations on Conductivity Rods for Electroplating Tanks are oddly similar globules; I thought of stalagmites and the repeating patterns of a coral reef.

While it's possible to imagine how these forms might have been created, the fun of many other pieces is their enigma. Many are decades old, their creation part of a distant and anonymous past we cannot know. Tree Burl Surrounding Arrow is a piece of knotty wood wrapped around a rusty metal arrow: how did this happen? The surreal Tray of Glass Eyes is a box of 50, each colored and shaped a bit differently, their ovoid shapes surprising. The owner thinks this was once a salesman's sample kit, but the eyes don't seem to be arranged in any order. Equally strange is Porcelain Doll Legs (circa 1920), limbs of all sizes mounted on Peg-Board. Was this part of an obsessive collector's trove, or was its maker haunted by fantasies of dismemberment?

Certain items I'm certain I would have passed by in a used-clothing or junk store. But mounting the anonymous Handball Glove in a gallery makes one see an almost humorous elegance in the spiral stitching on the palm, a seeming target for the ball--a talismanic hint of the glove's function. The hangers in Collection of Clothes Hangers (1800s to 1940) are more functional: twists and loops and rectangles of wire have been added to accommodate different types of clothing. The hangers' functionality doesn't make the shapes any less wonderful.

The objects in "Virtu: Homage to Physics Artisans at Fermilab" were also made for use, but the feel of this show couldn't be more different from that of "Found." Replacing birds' nests, tree roots, and rusted wire are clean, Euclidean circuit boards and elements from particle detectors made of glass, plastic, and metal. Standing in front of the four-foot Large Board--a huge copper disk whose surface is punctuated by parallel gray lines--I found myself thinking that despite the lack of "self-expression," many of these objects have an amazing clarity and perfection. Their very impersonality gives them a peculiar power; indeed, some recall Mondrian, early Smithson, or Tony Smith.

The Fermilab artisans and scientists are not unaware of the aesthetic dimension. In a booklet called "The Humanness of Physics," Fermilab founder and chief designer Robert Rathburn Wilson argues that physics is not as devoid of the "human" as many think. He says he cannot accurately calculate every aspect of the design of an accelerator, for example, and is often guided at first by what "looks and feels right." Other Fermilab designers have also suggested that aesthetics plays a role--that the most elegant designs are often the best functioning.

The objects in "Virtu" give more pleasure when one understands a bit of how they work. The explanations in the exhibition booklet could have been better, but one doesn't have to know what a "small angle proton" is to understand that CDF Luminosity Monitor is some sort of particle detector, or to guess from the gauge attached to it that the circular space within is supposed to be a vacuum for a beam to pass through. Like most such objects, it has a clean, austere beauty; its very lack of self-expression leaves it more open to various interpretations, as an elegant articulation of geometry in steel and glass forms or as a vaguely menacing machine.

By recording the actions of subatomic particles, Fermilab provides insight into the nature of matter itself. But measurements must be incredibly precise. Large Panel consists of white sheets of "plastic scintillator," designed to capture light emitted as subatomic particles pass through it, mounted adjacent to one another on the wall. Fibers intended to transmit the light to the edges of each panel so it can be measured make geometrical patterns on the surface. A light pulse on any of these fibers, the booklet points out, "takes approximately the same amount of time to reach the outside edge" because each fiber is approximately the same length, about two feet. And one can see that the fibers beginning closer to the edges are laid down in more elaborate curves that gain in beauty when the reason for their twisting shapes is understood. Though the amount of time it would take light--which moves at about 186,000 miles per second--to travel a few feet is almost unimaginably small, minute variations in this time would disturb the measurements. This piece made visible, even awe-inspiring, exactly how small things are on the subatomic scale. I rarely see exhibits that make me wish I had children; this was one.

The plastic Light Guides, a few of which are displayed, are especially beautiful. Used to funnel tiny light bursts from sheets of scintillation material to round photomultiplier tubes, which convert them to electrical signals, these begin at the top as a long rectangle, which then diverges into multiple strands, each of which twists about and reconverges at a circular area at the bottom. The "designer's job," the booklet tells us, "is to convert the rectangular shape at the scintillator to the circular shape at the photomultiplier while retaining as much light as [possible]"; the elegant twists transforming a rectangle into a circle make that task visible.

Fermilab itself, by the way, is very much worth a visit. From the top of the main office building you can see the raised circle of earth that marks the huge main accelerator ring, a landscape that's itself a magnificent example of earth art.

John Gerding, a young Massachusetts sculptor with 14 pieces at InsideArt, provides a contrast to these two shows, demonstrating what a self-conscious artist can add to his raw materials; his less successful works show how an artist can also subtract from them. There's a provocative humor to Running the Right Way/Wrong Way, a bronze sculpture of four feet cut off at the calf and arrayed in a swastikalike form on a ramp; arranged like the spokes of a wheel, the feet hint at rolling blindly downhill. A label defines "swastika," reminding us it was a positive symbol before the Nazis got hold of it. The bronze, anatomically complete on one side, is cut away on the other to reveal a nearly rectilinear "skeleton" within that accentuates the swastika shape: behavior is not merely a matter of outward appearance but of innate structure. Lure, a five-foot-tall wooden cylinder with a hook dangling from its bottom, gives a humble bit of fishing equipment a mixture of heroic monumentality and ominousness.

Some of Gerding's work with found materials I found more obvious, less successful. In Top, four rusty wrenches, two that Gerding found and two that he fabricated to look found, project from a metal center in a curvy cross not unlike the swastika shape of Running. Rust itself--iron's lowest energy state, to which it naturally tends--has a peculiar beauty, as a Cor-Ten steel building demonstrates; the rust on Gerding's wrenches is particularly dense. But the whole wheel-like arrangement is dogged by a certain obviousness: the mildly amusing curved wrenches hint at self-satisfied cuteness, at some kind of one-liner, that seems reductive of the complex surface.

I had similar problems with Wing, one of several constructions of wood and stone. Gerding carved lines, like the ridges left in sand by waves, in a large wing-shaped piece of wood; presumably he did not create the wood's web of irregular cracks. The "wing" stands upright, and affixed along one edge are slabs of stone Gerding sheared off; their roughly broken surfaces have a rustlike complexity. While the rough and carved surfaces of Wing exude a raw power, the way the stone slabs are regularly arranged in an ascending line is as predictable as beads on a necklace.

Here the artist's intentionality diminishes the power of his materials. There's real visual excitement in the surfaces of Gerding's wood and stone, especially if you look with the same active eye you use in "Found" and "Virtu." But the form as a whole looks all too much like the decorative, easy objets d'art found in the living rooms of many homes. Though the human imagination can soar to spectacular heights, it can also slip into more predictable modes, reenvisioning raw stone as baubles, as the adornment of costume jewelry.

Found: The Collector's Eye
at Intuit, through November 15
Virtu: Homage to Physics Artisans at Fermilab
at Columbia College Art Gallery, through November 21
John Gerding
at InsideArt, through November 8

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): Tray of Glass Eyes/ CDF Luminosity Monitor/ "Running the Right Way/Wrong Way" by John Gerding.

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