Arts & Culture » Art Review

Moving Beyond Modernism



Joseph A. Ruiz II

at Zeus Gallery, through August 1

Evan Lewis

at Klein Art Works, through July 22

Two decades ago New York Times art critic Hilton Kramer was asked by movie critic Vincent Canby to consider reviewing some avant-garde abstract films by Paul Sharits that Canby had found puzzling. Kramer replied that he had long ago determined "If it moves, it's not for us." This story has been used to illustrate Kramer's conservatism or myopia, and perhaps it does, but he did have a point. Kinetic sculpture, for example, involves very different issues from stationary work: movement tends to fix the viewer's gaze on the moving parts and to make him less inclined to walk around the piece, which would introduce movement of his own, or to imagine the movement suggested but not realized by the forms.

In his exhibit at Zeus Gallery Joseph A. Ruiz II has included 16 polished copper sculptures each consisting of two slabs set on a round wooden base and rotating, but so slowly that at a glance each seems static. Most slabs are less than a foot high and have a pared, elegant geometric form, usually with three or four faces. The paired slabs are just different enough from each other to form a noticeable contrast, between flat and concave surfaces, for example, or slightly different heights. Yet the seamless, smooth surfaces give each pair a feeling of perfection and completion.

They look seamless because they are. Ruiz formed each out of solid copper, cut with a band saw and lathe, then hand filed, ground with abrasives, and polished to a reflective sheen. None are representational, yet each seems like a sign from some lost language, from a new vocabulary of forms.

Ruiz is the son of Jose de Rivera, a noted abstract metal sculptor who executed many public commissions and whose works are in the collections of New York's Metropolitan Museum of Art and the Art Institute of Chicago (though not currently on view here). Ruiz, who was born in Chicago in 1929 and has lived here most of his life, often worked as his father's studio assistant until Rivera's death in 1985. And he cites Rivera as his principal teacher: "Take the work out of the sculpture," his father often told him. He meant, Ruiz recalls, that "when someone looks at the work they should not see the hammer marks" or other signs of fabrication. Rivera was influenced by Brancusi and Mondrian, and that influence also appears in Ruiz's work: they sought abstract forms that would express the essence of things, not the particularities of nature--Brancusi even spoke of the "search for God." Ruiz's abstracted forms are well within this tradition.

The effects of rotation on Ruiz's pieces become more apparent as one looks for a while. Each makes a complete revolution every two minutes, increasing visual interest as the relationship between the slabs continually shifts. But at first the movement annoyed me. Rivera's sculptures rotated, and Brancusi himself mounted at least one work on a turning platform in his studio, but I felt discouraged from moving around Ruiz's pieces to view them from various angles--discouraged from the participation sculpture usually in-

vites. Here the slow, almost hypnotic rotation seemed to lock my eye into a steady stare, almost as if I were being told how to view the relationships between the forms.

Until I started kneeling. The sculptures are mounted at Zeus on shelves about waist high, so the standing viewer looks down on them as they turn--they almost look like kitschy tchotchkes. But if you kneel, or sit in a chair (which the gallery will provide), a whole new world appears: the turning forms become almost monumental. The fraction of an inch by which one slab is higher than another suddenly seems important, vested with meaning. A space opens up, and a few moments later closes again. One slab blocks part of another from view; then the other becomes visible from a different angle. One is reminded of the fallibility of a single perspective, of how much all images are determined by one's viewing position. In Ruiz's work, a complete two-minute cycle produces more than a dozen utterly different images--if photographs of these arrangements were placed side by side, they'd scarcely look like they were of the same work.

The reflective copper surfaces add another kind of movement: here the works really sing. Each polished surface reflects the other slab, various parts of the room, and the viewer, and while the flat faces give accurate reflections, the curved ones alter the scene. As 3A and 3B rotates, for example, various parts of the room come into view: other sculptures, the walls, a fireplace, beams of sunlight on the floor, sky seen through windows. In 16A and 16B one slab has four convex faces and the other has one that's convex, one that's concave, and two that are flat. As it turned, I saw my reflection in all eight faces, sometimes in two at once, distorted and re-formed. And the different curvatures not only distort in different ways but, because the convex surfaces magnify and the concave ones reduce the images, the room appears to move at different speeds. The apparently monotonous rotation whose steadiness had at first bothered me actually multiplies views.

Though the sculptures' rotation and the shelves discourage one from moving around them, it is possible to view them from different angles. This doesn't change the relationships between the two slabs, but it does change what you see of the room. Shift your angle on 16A and 16B by 45 degrees, for example, and a new window comes into view, the sky dominates the copper color of the surface, a light switch is magnified, and a back room with another window is visible from time to time.

Each sculpture reveals itself and the room differently. A slightly convex face in 19A and 19B greatly magnifies little beads of white paint on the wall behind. One of the concave faces in 13A and 13B is curved like a lens, so it inverts the reflected room and the viewer's image. As 6A and 6B rotates the two slabs at one point reflect each other like two mirrors, in a kind of infinite regress; each slab gets more and more darkly golden toward the center of the reflection.

I felt I was an observer at some magical miniature cinema being offered a continually new unfolding of reality, but with a difference. The illusions I was seeing were all explainable by the physical objects around me--by the varying surfaces of the sculptures, by the things in the room. One could pass freely from viewing the reflections to focusing on the solid copper surfaces to regarding the actual objects. It was as if one were moving at will between viewing a movie and traveling through time and space to the locations where it was shot--a movement that would rob the screen image of its authority by allowing one to compare it to the "reality" from which it was drawn.

For this reason, Ruiz's work diverges from the ethos of high modernism in which he was raised. The forms of Brancusi and Mondrian abandon the particularities of nature to point toward some absolute truth. But just as the changing relations between Ruiz's moving slabs deny any one image primacy, so the reflections make the sculptures into mirrors of the surrounding reality. If high modernism aims for perfect forms that transcend daily things, Ruiz has used such "perfect" shapes to open the viewer to the ordinary things around him. The artist as icon maker is replaced by an artist who enriches everyday seeing, reflecting realities as particular and as drained of transcendent meaning as a chair in a room.

If Ruiz opens his sculptures to the room, Evan Lewis (a former Reader contributor) opens his to the wind. His three large metal constructions installed outdoors at Klein Art Works all contain fanlike blades connected to rods that pivot on axles. Which is to say, the wind makes them move.

An untitled 1995 work will also be changed by the wind over time. A long vertical rod with a large blade at the top and a thick granite block at the bottom pivots on an axle in the sculpture's base. Two other granite blocks are mounted on the base, so that as the wind blows against the blade the block at the bottom moves, often hitting one of the stationary blocks. If the air is completely calm, the rod is vertical and the block is motionless. A strong, steady wind will keep the block pressed against one of the stationary ones. But more commonly the wind is gusty, and the block moves, sometimes hitting another block with a dull clang. In variable winds the center block may flip between one stationary block and the other. And with each clang, some of the granite is chipped away.

This erosion opens the sculpture up to nature more than usual: museums and galleries generally try to save artwork from the decay that this piece welcomes. The process Lewis introduces recalls the way that concrete structures like seawalls are eroded by waves or that rocks, even mountains, are worn away by water and wind. The loud noise and the change of position each time the blocks make contact also suggest that the entire work has somehow changed states--like a particle undergoing a quantum jump or a solid suddenly turning into a gas. The wind, Lewis seems to be saying, can effect a complete alteration in physical states.

Born in New York City in 1958, Lewis has lived in Chicago since 1986. Though he moved often as a child, he settled in Santa Barbara when he was nine. Wilderness backpacking trips, he says, had "a big effect on how I think in terms of forms": the steel bars of his sculptures seem arranged almost organically, repeating in plantlike patterns. Lewis hiked, he told me, near many fault lines. "The San Andreas fault makes a right angle [near where he hiked], so you see strata revealed and how rock breaks away--trees that were smashed by boulders." I immediately recalled the clanging granite blocks.

Rom and Reem has a more complex relationship to the wind than the untitled work. A three-legged base leads to a curved shape that extends gracefully toward the sky; at the top of the curve is a horizontal armature. At each end of the armature are two blades that can pivot on a rod. These propellerlike blades--Lewis compares them to fish fins--are curved like spoons. Since the force of the wind has a greater effect on the concave surfaces, one can usually predict which way each set of blades will spin from the wind direction. But since the curved armature almost never aligns the propellers at the same angle to the wind, they turn at different speeds. And the armature itself frequently rotates, adding another level of motion and further changing the propellers' orientation to the wind. Though one can often predict which way each set of blades will turn, I found it impossible to guess when or where the arm would move. Lewis confirms that he worked hard to make the sculpture's motions unpredictable: "They're not weather vanes," he says. Instead he wants "as much of that random haphazard activity as possible."

One can view Rom and Reem from a variety of angles. Lying on the grass, one sees it against the sky. Standing, one can see it against a wall covered with ivy; from another angle it's set against the downtown skyline. Various winds also affect the piece, as they do a larger propeller piece nearby called Cisne. On "light, variable" days the sculptures flutter about uncertainly; on a blustery day the blades rotate furiously, arms spinning almost violently. Frequently a propeller or its supporting arm slows, stops, even reverses direction, and one searches in vain for the wind change that caused the shift. I've observed one propeller spinning steadily while the other made tentative half or quarter turns, even changed direction, then suddenly moved speedily in one direction. If Ruiz's movements, born of the machine and made visible in the gallery, are comprehensible, Lewis's--as befits the wind--are not. By making even tiny changes in the wind visible Lewis demonstrates that nature is constantly reversing itself, full of upheaval.

Lewis's forms aren't as elegant as Ruiz's, and they clearly reveal how they've been put together. Each propeller is covered with hammer dents; the welds are everywhere visible on the frames. Similarly, where Ruiz created steady, repeated rotations, Lewis gives us a symphony of polyrhythms. Cisne has six blades arranged around four axles, making for even more complex movements than in the other sculptures. And the large, dramatically curved arm in Cisne goes from parallel to the ground to almost vertical, reaching for the sky like a shaman praying for rain.

I watched these sculptures for a long time; I could have stayed many hours. They're hypnotic in the best sense: their multiple movements, neither predictable nor strictly random, seem to be telling a new story every minute. Even more than Ruiz, Lewis has moved away from sculpture as self-contained forms. These works need the wind to complete them; they don't pretend to calculated perfection. They don't encourage the inward spiritual journeys of modernist masters but open the viewer up to the world.

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