GAGOSIAN GALLERY | MAY 5 – JULY 8, 2011
Despite Roberta Smith’s gushing review of this show—finding the works “stately,” “architectural,” fairly “erupt[ing]” from the gallery’s floors—my own feeling was, “Poor John Chamberlain, how did he fall so far?”
Let me explain. It isn’t that Chamberlain isn’t an artist I admire: on the contrary, full disclosure, I have been the happy owner of one of his works. It’s rather that the Chamberlain I admire is the the crusher and twister of steel cars, aluminum sheets, foam, and other materials, all done with an apparent combination of playfulness and havoc. The playfulness I have in mind is like that of a child with his toys; the havoc comes when the child throws a temper tantrum. The result, with Chamberlain, is not mere detritus, as one would find, for example, in an automobile junkyard once the cranes and crushers had gotten hold of things. Rather, at its best, his work shows the controlling restraint of the artist’s hand in knowing what colors to juxtapose before the crushing starts; what volume of any given material to use; and when to stop the crushing machine. But what is equally true is that Chamberlain’s signature works retain a sense of chance composition, of random relationships, of works not wholly planned or “sculpted” by the artist. Indeed, for me it is the absence of over-crafting that distinguishes Chamberlain’s works from those of some of his contemporaries in the ’60s and which gives it the kind of freshness that can make you smile.
In this current exhibition, the “child” has some very big toys, which he might have smashed with hands of steel. But the latest works lack this spontaneity; instead, they have a virtual corporate-lobby feel to them and, disappointingly enough, left this critic cold. Take the ridiculously-named “AWESOMEMEATLOAF,” for example. Chamberlain has, in this instance, rather purposefully assembled a transverse grouping of white elements on a vertical base, such that the resulting sculpture is deprived of the chance formations described above. Setting aside that it resembles one of Warhol’s fright wigs more than it does meatloaf, the point is that it is way over-aestheticized. Why should his works remind us of anything? It was, in fact, the absence—indeed the rejection—of anthropomorphic or other natural references that seemed to me essential to his work, letting the metal, rather than any imposed form, do the talking.
Works such as “WITCHESOASIS”(2011), a largely black construction with rivulets of unpainted chrome along its sides, share the same defects. In the first instance, the color matching is far more deliberate and controlled than in Chamberlain’s more free-flowing works. It evidences the kind of careful manipulation and assembling of materials that Chamberlain had jettisoned in earlier works. I think the proof of this is found in many similarly over-controlled works in the show, including “TAMBOURINEFRAPPE” (2011)—an assemblage of all red elements with a few inserts of unpainted chrome—and “SUPERJUKE” (2011) – all white elements with another few chrome inserts. Black, red, white. Carefully selected. Carefully assembled.
In essence, the show left me flat, just the opposite of the real John Chamberlain.
MICHAEL STRAUS is a Contributing Writer for The Brooklyn Rail as well as one of its Board members. He is also Chairman of the Robert Rauschenberg Foundation, past Chairman of the Andy Warhol Foundation for the Visual Arts, and a member of the Drawings Committee of the Whitney Museum of American Art.