MARTIN BOYCE Sleeping Chimneys. Dead Stars.by Stephen Truax
TANYA BONAKDAR | May 3 – June 16, 2017
The title of Martin Boyce’s current show is two sentence fragments—four words, two nouns activated by one adjective each: one on human endeavor, the other a natural phenomenon—pared down to the most essential elements required to animate nature and architecture into a sullen narrative.
The sculptural installations on view evoke domestic spaces empty of figures, yet feel recently inhabited. How to make a space as austere as a Chelsea gallery intimate? The works’ titles, too, like miniature poems—A Hallway. A Lamp. Evening. (Dead Star Constellation) (2017)—create an emotional register. A lamp stands like a tree, its three branch arms empty of bulbs, without even a power cord. On the wall behind it, decorative moulding reminiscent of a Berlin Altbau apartment frames it. Further seemingly undoing the gallery’s efforts to eliminate details of a space, European one-gang light switches and non-functional two- and three-slot electrical outlets, all cast in patinated bronze, are discretely installed throughout, in places where you might regularly find them in an apartment. It’s plausible that these details might go overlooked.
Boyce’s “tree lamp” sculpture looks to a Giacometti tree sculpture that Beckett commissioned for his 1961 production of Waiting for Godot:
“We spent the whole night in the studio with that plaster tree,” Giacometti said, “trying to make it sparser, smaller, the branches thinner. It never looked any good, and neither he nor I liked it.” In their indecisiveness, Beckett and Giacometti have their dramatic equivalents in Estragon and Vladimir […] similar to the two artists’ persistent, deep-rooted doubt that they would ever find the perfect artistic form.1
In conversation, Boyce shared that despite his experience (this is his fourth solo at Bonakdar), he was overwhelmed by feelings of anxiety and self-doubt during the installation.
This sensibility—what I think makes Boyce a truly excellent artist—pervades the exhibition. One can feel him constantly questioning himself, pushing deeper into more complex psychological and formal terrain. Little chains hang from lightless lamp arms in Still Life Landscape with Branches (2017); he compares them to drips of paint, or perhaps Japanese cherry blossoms. The arms cast dappled light across one of Boyce’s signature text-based wall objects. The shadows recall Do Words Have Voices, a sculptural installation approximating a public park in autumn for which he won the Turner Prize in 2011. In that show, a metal canopy was installed over the track lighting, like a canopy of leaves. Like a great novelist, rather than leaning on his past successes, he turned instead to new, psychologically rich subject matter; he came inside after a walk in the park.
Four unevenly spaced chimneys stand in the center of the dimmed room, their antennae reaching up into the cast concrete ceiling in Sleeping Chimneys (Imagine them transmitting) (2016). The fluorescents overhead are turned off, and only the warm halogens illuminate the walls. The geometric holes at the top of the chimneys have been sealed by perfectly-shaped pieces of wood or steel; their eyes are closed, as if dreaming. A Noguchi paper lantern—And Bless Each Door That Opens Wide (2017)—hovers over the scene like a film noir moon, completing a nighttime rooftop landscape. It is an iconic 1990s design, and gives the whole arrangement the appearance of a set stage. Looking closely, one discovers the silhouette of a large inanimate spider inside the lamp: it has its own interior life.
None of the works in the exhibition are mass-produced consumer objects, though all look as though they could be. Boyce maintains an archive of thousands of images, mainly period design and architectural details (a selection is on view in the project space upstairs). Recreating objects as sculptures that reference historical designs, and then giving them a patina of fictional use, points if not to nostalgia, then to the emotional undercurrent of daily life Boyce is really after.
In the last gallery, a fireplace is centered on a custom-built floating wall beneath a skylight, like in a chapel. It bears an intricate cast concrete pattern based on the concrete trees designed by French sculptors Joël and Jan Martel, which have been central to Boyce’s recent practice. Boyce says the Martels’ designs “represent a perfect collapse of architecture and nature.” The interior fireplace doubles as a miniature living space, again like a stage dressing—the imagined life beneath his chimneys downstairs. Throughout, Boyce creates a number of pitfalls, but the patient viewer will be rewarded, uncovering Boyce’s poetic tableau. Sleeping Chimneys. Dead Stars. is a meditation on beauty, our daily lives, and where architecture encounters nature, both subtle and understated.
- Siobhan Bohnacker, “Is That O.K., Mr. Beckett?” The New Yorker, December 4, 2013.