Still Standing

John Haber
in New York City

Summer Sculpture 2010: George Herms

Maybe it was the recession or the eve of a midterm election without heroes. For once, sculpture in the parks seemed in need of something at once monumental and human. In fact, it needed statues.

Then again, maybe artists and curators were just running out of ideas. Antony Gormley, for one, simply repeated work that had made a splash in London. His bronze nudes seemed more comical and less revealing in Madison Square, but people turned out to like them that way. Meanwhile, outside City Hall, "Statuesque" reaches for grandeur. Oddly enough, it has some of the artists in an earlier attempt at a trendy theme show indoors, "Unmonumental." Maybe one should just call it decrepit. Antony Gormley's Event Horizon (Sean Kelly/Madison Square Park Conservancy, 2007)

After all that, someone really ought to walk the streets and salvage the mess. George Herms does just that. His sculpture crosses beat poetry, music, madness, and a junk yard. Statuary should be so lucky to survive in New York. Related articles follow Kate Gilmore to Bryant Park shortly before, me to the Grand Concourse, and competing sculpture exhibitions on Governors Island. Somewhere, no doubt, art is still standing.

Where's naked Waldo?

Antony Gormley picked a bad night for his opening. A bell had tolled that very day on Washington Square, once for each woman who died in the Triangle Shirtwaist fire ninety-nine years before, and children read their names. One hundred forty-six garment workers were trapped inside the burning building, the exits locked to keep them working, and many leapt to their deaths.

Gormley's Chelsea opening also coincided with his outdoor sculpture at Madison Square Park. Through mid-August, thirty-one statues stood in and around the park, all but four on the edge of rooftops facing the street. He molded them all from himself, his arms stiffly at his side as if poised to fall. Event Horizon was already a hit in London, and its recreation is the first installation to stretch beyond the park grounds. One can see why he leapt at the chance.

Probably few will think of seamstresses, for all the neighborhood's history. If anyone has a sinking feeling that something is terribly amiss, they will remember 9/11. Perhaps some will take the work as a tribute to the fallen. As part of " Haunted" at the Guggenheim, the tumbling silhouettes in The 7 Lights, by Paul Chan, still pack a punch. Regardless, Gormley is by no means callous or exploitative. In transposing his work from home, he simply does not get New York.

Blindness to one's surroundings does not bode well for an installation, and it shows even more in the work's scale. Rather than outrage, one is likely to feel nothing at all, although tourists came to photograph themselves beside one statue at ground level—and even give it an "I Love New York" t-shirt. Madison Square does not have the city's tallest skyscrapers, which cluster in midtown or downtown where bedrock is closer to the surface. Still, the Flatiron Building and former Met Life tower are landmarks, and Gormley's London setting had nothing like them and their neighbors. New York rooftops also have that endearing mix of water towers, vents, and smokestacks, and a dark brown man of average height blends right in even with his balls showing. I enjoyed it well enough, but I was just playing "Where's Naked Waldo?"

Gormley tries too hard, too, but with more vivid sensory impact and less sweetness than Jaume Plensa. In the pitch-black main space of Breathing Room, the outlines of an enclosure somehow glow. Up closer I could see dark forms much like myself, as in a mirror. Hesitantly, I discovered not polished surfaces but an open lattice that Sol LeWitt might have designed, and I could enter. Only then, too, did I make out its arrangement of overlapping rectangles, like a Greek cross in three dimensions. And then I stumbled my way back to perceived asymmetry and into daylight.

The artist goes through literal contortions to underline the darkness, with a snake-like entry that adds little more than the risk of walking into walls. He also illuminates the space for maybe thirty seconds every ten minutes, needlessly and without even the additional cheap thrills of a blinding light. Still, as with his past walls of iron and mist, the perceptual changes are real, and they extend to four sculptures up front. Two resemble his self-portrait in the park, but in cast iron that one might mistake for small wooden beams. The other two shapes open further, closer to the installation inside. The transition between closed and open, the human body and architecture, is Gormley's most lasting event horizon.

Fighting City Hall

Public sculpture has a long tradition of statuary, but of the statuesque? Ah, for women of fashion and a proper regal bearing—and of men with the proper sense of entitlement regarding them. And, ah, for art inane enough to commend them both. Kate Gilmore had it down with the season's first outdoor art, in Bryant Park some weeks ago. Women in heels marched around a platform for hours in Bryant Park, like the ultimate expression of shop till you drop. Those were the days.

Seriously, a show called "Statuesque" has at the very least a tin ear, along with other welding. True, the word means massive or majestic, but hoping to recapture that meaning betrays a longing for the past. It begs to put sculpture back on its pedestal, long after first Modernism threw away the pedestal and then Minimalism kept the pedestal and threw away the sculpture. It runs against the expected outdoor sculpture, as relaxed as New York parks in summer. But this is City Hall Park, near all sorts of movers and shakers. It is also the rare show there that looks coherent rather than thrown together from more or less familiar names.

Not that they all aspire to the vertical. An aluminum nude by Paweł Althamer lies on her back like Danaë awaiting the rape of Zeus—or perhaps of a Wall Street professional. Not that art has given up monumentality either, not when Mark di Suvero reaches to his gallery's skylight. People pose in front of the enormous Isamu Noguchi Red Cube on Broadway, just blocks below City Hall. However, "Statuesque" aims for deep history, with the twenty-first century take on "the primitive." It means raw, crude, mythic, emotive, and anything but statuesque in the sense of dignity, grace, or beauty.

Thomas Houseago sets the tone with three lumpy figures. The one scratching her back comes encrusted with drips of molten bronze and a heavy stride. Red Man is even larger, blocking a path like Socrates with a game leg confronting tourists with their ignorance. Rebecca Warren, too, works in lumpy bronze, her figure encumbered by a big behind and narrow limbs mired in its base. It is a Large Concretised Monument to the Twentieth Century—or, given its spelling, to the British Empire. Althamer calls his spirit on the grass Sylvia, but nothing here looks at all sylvan.

Huma Bhaba, who like Houseago also appears in the 2010 Whitney Biennial, insists on a cosmic time scale, along with the limits of ancient wisdom. She reduces The Orientalist to an enthroned and encrusted skeleton, as if peeling away the mummy's shroud. Lumpy can also mean lumpen, as with Matthew Monahan's Nation Builder. In place of a cross, the weary Christ figure bears perhaps an automatic rifle, perhaps the Empire State Building, or perhaps the weight of modern sculpture. The staggered blocks beneath his feet positively shout that, yes, Monahan has put him up on a pedestal. Aaron Curry's reclining birds and animals, heads twisted back on themselves, may recall hieroglyphics or ancient statuary.

Curry's acid pink, green, and yellow planes approach the Disney version of Alexander Calder. They also point up the uniformity in style of the others. Maybe he was a late replacement for Magdalena Abakanowicz. Still, the gathering sticks to its point, uses the park, and nails a trend. It also gets one thinking about the tension in art right now between pretentiousness and destruction. Ironically, the New Museum introduced Curry, Monahan, and Warren in a messy show called "Unmonumental." Now the monumental has its revenge.

Mad Men

"If Poetry comes not as naturally as the leaves to a tree it had better not come at all." Keats, who wrote that fine madness, grew up in working-class London. He must have delighted in attending school north of the city, where trees and leaves came as naturally as poetry. Now with George Herms, the Beats meet Keats.

George Herms's Thelonius Sphere Monk (Nyehaus, 2004)For Herms, art comes as naturally as scrap metal to the sidewalks. He picks up rusted drums and spheres, flat irons and bedsprings, telephones and wires, and piece after piece of audio equipment. He began just a few years after Robert Rauschenberg, and one could call it appropriation or combine painting—or maybe collecting and recycling. He did attend Berkeley, after all, about as green as a city can be. Up close, though, he seems more determined to make these things work, and never mind their original function. One can almost believe that hitting the keyboard in his Thelonius Sphere Monk will send up sparks.

Nyehaus calls it "Five Decades of Madness," and Herms would surely agree. He labels one assemblage Mental Hospital Shakeup, and he describes his work as "swollen with found objects." Another jotting quotes Keats, but with the casual fidelity of Beat poetry. Associations run every which way—from Monk and Mantle to Oskar Schlemmer, who ran the theater workshop at the Bauhaus—and this is definitely a kind of street theater. It is also obsessively private. One could imagine him hardly leaving his room for all those fifty years, just waiting for electricity to flow again and sparks to fly.

In reality, he has taught in Southern California much of that time, but his art still belongs to San Francisco. Its reclusive nature alone demands it. Herms obviously shares his air of compulsion with Edward Kienholz's rotting hospital imagery, Jess's elaborate collage, and the three thousand pounds of The Rose by Jay DeFeo. Like Wallace Berman, he slides easily from the Beats into West Coast jazz. The eccentric humor that turns "friendships" into fleets of Friend Ships amounts to riffing—or the sincere charm of an honest mistake. He calls several works 20/20 Hearing, but almost every device looks ready to play or record something, only that something has long gone silent forever.

Insularity and nostalgia still define much of Bay Area art, just as with Bruce Conner before them. If Dada and Rauschenberg taught one thing, it is that a quotation takes on new meaning with every time and place. Somehow, commerce and conservatism produced the Young British Artists, with their mix of cynicism, shock art, and moral fables. Somehow, global art markets produced the trashy installations that in Chelsea already look like last year's model. Somehow, LA always had to look slick but also look inward, as in "Swell" at the same gallery this summer. And somehow, San Francisco after Richard Diebenkorn and Wayne Thiebaud wanted to grab a good graphic novel (or even a bad one) and forget the whole thing.

Even the big names in the Bay Area mean little to me, and Herms's madness may set him that much further apart. It also brings a welcome degree of sanity, at the expense of ambition, density, turmoil, and tension. Where Kienholz and DeFeo, along with Jess and Bruce Conner, traffic in sexuality, mysticism, and revulsion at modern life, Herms seems quite happy with spare parts and remembered music. His shelves and boxes are like archives of his own career. "In Poetry I have a few axioms," Keats wrote in that letter, "and you will see how far I am from their centre." For a moment, I shall try to forget that New York is the center of everything.

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jhaber@haberarts.com

Antony Gormley ran in Madison Square Park through August 15, 2010, and at Sean Kelly through May 1, "Statuesque" in City Hall Park through December 3, and George Herms at Nyehaus through October 29. Reviews continue into the present, with summer 2017.

 

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