"Steel Life”

Kevin McGarry

July 20, 2012
Michael Benevento, Los Angeles
May 25–July 28, 2012

With Wolfgang Breuer, Matthew Buckingham & Joachim Koester, Whitney Claflin, Martin Creed, Melvin Edwards, Ida Ekblad, Sam Falls, Kenji Fujita, Wade Guyton, Allison Katz, Rita Mcbride, Charlotte Posenenske, Sam Pulitzer, Heather Rowe, Gedi Sibony, Michael E Smith, and Anicka Yi

Like its punning title, “Steel Life,” the multigenerational group show curated by artist Zak Kitnick at Michael Benevento in Hollywood, displays the transformation of something common into something edged with spirit. All of the twenty (or so) works included are made of metal that has been altered by physical, chemical, or poetic processes. The architect Rita McBride’s polygonal sculpture is rough and rusty, riddled with an orderly pattern of expanding ovals; Martin Creed’s row of twelve nails are hammered into the wall according to size; Gedi Sibony’s composition of pipes and sprinkler spouts proposes an unoccupied architectural space; the brushy teal oil painting by Allison Katz (a key, watch, and high heel) takes a small square of steel as its canvas; a modular, minimalist, steel square tube by Charlotte Posenenske is stacked from floor to ceiling, with a triangular divot at about eye level; and an experiment by Anicka Yi leaves powdered milk, antidepressants, palm tree essence, and sundry other ingredients to lightly simmer in an aluminum pot.

In lieu of a press release, Kitnick offers us up a text taken from a Restoration Hardware catalog profiling a San Francisco blacksmith named Jefferson Mack. The piece lionizes him not merely as an artisan but an artist. He discusses chi, the energy of life, and how he imbues his metal works with it by hand-wrought and machine-operated processes alike. These heighten their aesthetic appeal, their effect on the psyche, and, likewise, their retail value. The parallel narrative doesn’t break character.

Not much should be said of the collection of works here as a whole. It neither speaks for a certain scene of artists nor does it track specific formal lineages. If anything, it could be a reflection of the curator and his own practice; his activity here is not unlike what he sometimes does as an artist, sourcing out and presenting metal forms as sculptures. A key difference, of course, is Kitnick is not in control of or responsible for these works. While the artists are, what they cannot contain are the wide-ranging cultural legacies of the material they choose to work with; this is the show’s substance.

For civilization, steel has been a vehicle of progress. In modern life, it’s a signifier and oft-used component of design, from the brushed finishes of appliances and loft-inspired interiors, to the corroded look that connotes medieval opulence by way of Orange County. In art, steel carries more than its own weight as a subject embodied in the intellectual discourses of Serra, Andre, Giacometti, and so on, in either direction. It stands for economics, politics, and patriotism, too: Andrew Carnegie, the Rust Belt, Made in the USA.

But it’s that dialectical (sometimes diaphanous) relationship between art and design that’s plumbed most explicitly here. The rest unfolds in the background of consciousness. Sam Falls, better known for bleaching minimalist forms into fabrics by exposing areas to the sun for extended periods, has welded four sheets of brilliantly colored UV- and non-UV-coated aluminum into a kind of standing screen. It screams “surface” in a way that invokes the tense proximity of the two disciplines. The gold pole bent into a winding lighting bolt shape by Wade Guyton began as the skeleton of a Marcel Breuer chair. By undoing the original object’s form and function, he leaves a monument to the reciprocal categories, defined by distance, of art and design and of man and material. All of what “Steel Life” openly if coyly indexes amounts to a productively unfocused focus on a ubiquitous material, priming it for thoughtful oxidation.

Sculpture, Design

Kevin McGarry lives in Los Angeles and São Paulo. He has worked as an art critic, culture reporter, communications consultant, film programmer and interior designer.

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Michael Benevento
July 20, 2012

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