Thursday, 23 June 2011

John Chamberlain

On my short list of things to see in New York was the John Chamberlain show at the Gagosian Gallery in Chelsea. Tom was up for that, having been very interested in the Wall Street Journal article about contemporary artists who don’t actually make their own work and reading that Chamberlain had left Pace Gallery for Gagosian over this issue. Trained in Renaissance art history, I’m not particularly concerned about artists’ studios executing their designs, especially when the work involves substantial labor. Fabricators have been serving sculptors for decades (see Jeff Koons, Maya Lin, Dale Chihuly, Damian Hirst, Donald Judd, not to mention Michelangelo). The recent trend toward painting assistants seems a bit more problematic, but only if the work asks you to look at it as the expression of an artist’s hand rather than his/her spirit.

What struck me about these new Chamberlains was not their size or complexity, but rather their decorative quality. While his earlier crushed vehicle sculptures always seemed to manifest the force of c rushing and the density of the material, these seemed to be all about the surface. The professor who taught the survey of sixteenth-century sculpture at NYU talked about Mannerist artists’ work as pneumatic and that seems the term to apply to these recent Chamberlains. You don’t look at them and think about how heavy they must be; they look light, sometimes almost inflated.

Gagosian Gallery doesn’t know me from a hole in the wall, but I know them well because despite their museum-like ambience, they do not seem to have a toilet in the whole place. When I asked for the ground plan so I could identifiy the sculptures by name, the desk attendant surprised me by giving me the entire press packet, which consists of all the reviews of Chamberlain’s work for the past 30 years or so. And she was very kind to give me a gallery layout as well.

And when you read the titles of the works, it becomes clear that Chamberlain himself had a sense of, even embraced, their decorative qualities and emphasis on surface rather than substance. A big blue form in the second gallery titled Peaudesoimusic just has to be a transvestite sashaying down the runway in a billowing blue kimono. A stack of silver bumpers clustered vertically, Elmzeppelin, is reminiscent of a Chihuly cluster of glass rods. The tallest one, C’estzesty - big sheets of lightly crusthed metal in black, silver, and gunmetal colors - doesn’t suggest automobiles, even though the silver bumpers in it make the connection. There’s a red and whilte one called Euphoriainahat and a blue and black one that looks like it should be a hat called Awesomemeatloaf. Tambourinefrappe is the only one with the colored silver crinkle wrap around the top and down one side, on a flat red column. It’s whimsical like birthday ribbons on a cupcake.

While my favorite is probably Peaudesoimusic, just because it billows out with gay insouciance, I was quite attracted also to Superjuice, to the lovely pastel colors of some of its metal ribbons – pink, blue, yellow, and peach – and the touch of purple on the inside of one of the bottom bumpers. It’s not all just lovely painting, however; the backside of this one is distressed white metal that speaks very much of the scrapyard. Perhaps at a certain age it’s really o.k. to play with the structures you invented as an earnest dedicated youth. On the one hand I was disappointed at their lightness; on the other hand I had fun looking at them.

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