Subterranean Sculptural Bluesby Samuel Feldblum
TOPS GALLERY | APRIL 23 – JUNE 11, 2016
In Memphis, a sun-baked blues town where history oozes from ramshackle brick façades, the musician’s studio often trumps the painter’s. Perhaps it’s fitting, then, that downtown Tops Gallery is underground, in a basement behind a working stained glass factory. From April 23 – June 11, Tops exhibited Island States, a group show featuring the sculpture of twelve artists. Many have Memphian ties, including the curator, Memphis-born and New York-based, Corinne Jones. The curatorial statement sets up the show as a meditation on individuality via standing up and standing for; ultimately, though, the pieces point toward a more relational vision of the self, of islands amid archipelagos.
Jones also contributed the first piece in the show, Res Nullius sundial II (2016), a sundial on the sidewalk outside the gallery. A black boomerang indicating six o’clock is painted beside a white circle, which the viewer is to stand within in order to become the gnomon, casting the shadow that tells the time. I arrived, like a gunslinger, at high noon. It was both a welcome engagement with the surrounding environment—the sun in Memphis is a formidable companion—and an upfront reminder that the individual is shaped by circumstances; one’s representation in the piece depends on the time of encounter.
Downstairs, Memphis native Derek Fordjour offers Topdog (2016), the most striking work in the show: six clay-and-coal busts stand atop one another, alternating between right-side-up and inverted. Clad in old football helmets, the heads suggest a particular strain of masculine self-definition, predicated on conquering and competition, while also positing that such an identity is a house of cards, turtles all the way down. We see how easy it would be to flip the tower. The sculpture channels a totemic magnetism in its simple power—coal set atop a solid tree stump. Beside it is Terri Phillips’s Soul Blueprint (2016), a round wooden pedestal with nine colored glass chunks contoured to look like crystals. In a time in which our choices of what to consume define us, these ersatz stones remind us of the poverty of that process. Squint, and we become just so many mantelpieces.
Brad Kahlhamer’s Next Level Figure 12 (2014), a multimedia bird emerging from a central woodblock head, was more traditional in its depiction of individuality: figure atop stand. In LaKela Brown’s Ground Beneath My Feet (2016), two lower legs are cast in plaster and covered in black glitter, reflecting the sparkle of Fordjour’s nearby coal. Scrolled paper pokes out where the tibiae and fibulae would emerge, giving a lopped-off feel and suggesting the violence that shapes many communities. Renee Delosh’s Tropical Staycation (2016) and Josef Bull’s Sustainable Earth (by Staples) (2016) reconstruct a stalked plant and a head-like monument in kitschy materials. Atop Bull’s sculpture sits a shining piece of Arctic mud. As our natural bounties wane, our dreams become more plastic. As Delosh and Bull suggest, so do we.
Abutting the industrial miscellanea at the entrance, we encounter Jim Buchman’s Zoe (2016). A white inch-thick layer of polyethylene flutters around a steel pole holding it upright, bringing to mind an abstracted Winged Victory of Samothrace. The marble-like appearance of the work and its industrial core echo the process of rechristening industrial ruins as art spaces, à la Tops and seemingly everywhere else. An offset room—less post-industrial than just industrial, full as it is of working HVAC pipes and valves—is dark, lit by the aura of Robbie McDonald’s Strange Loop (2016). In it, twin wires threaded through baseball-bat pillars connect to purplish tubes of excited noble gases, twisting like arteries. The title—presumably a reference to Douglas Hofstadter’s Gödel, Escher, Bach—suggests that meaning comes from mapping empirical observations about the world onto meaningless sets of symbols. To a cynic, the piece might aptly describe love (and could double as an ironic take on art criticism). But strange though the connection may be, the tubes loop together, and, in linking, glow.
At the center of the exhibition, Anne Eastman’s États (2016), slightly bent polygonal mirrors hang from a hexagrammatic wooden frame. The mirrors twist slowly to and fro, the other sculptures entering and exiting their frames, sometimes recursively repeating themselves into a distant infinity as the mirrors catch one another just so. Alongside Strange Loop and Topdog, it casts individuality as intimately related to others. Here, then, is the capstone vision of autonomy in the show. Standing up, standing for, cannot possibly happen in isolation; we are in fact reflecting one another, borrowing and learning from others—who themselves do the same—in order to become who we are. Nobody’s state is in fact an island.
SAMUEL FELDBLUM lives in North Carolina and writes across the South.