Peter Buggenhout’s massive stacks of debris hang off the wall or sprawl across the floor in a state of dereliction and collapse, monumental castoffs from a world spinning out of control.
The two works currently on display at Gladstone Gallery, “The Blind Leading the Blind #66” and “The Blind Leading the Blind #67,” are literally heaps of junk — twisted sheets of corrugated steel, metal rods, chassis, tarps and foam rubber — covered in copious amounts of dust.
Blackened and hulking, these sculptures, which take their title from great 1568 painting by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, possess a striking immediacy that captures almost too perfectly the cascading international tensions, environmental havoc, failed revolutions and corrupted democracies that confront us daily.
In a 2010 video interview, the artist states that such an effect is intentional, that he always proceeds from “the same idea, the idea of a chaotic world”:
The philosophy of my work is that I try to express our difficulty in understanding the evolution of the world around us. We don’t know where the world is leading us. I work the same way, without knowing what the result will be. The only thing I can decide [on] is when I want to stop.
Buggenhout is a 50-year-old Belgian artist who hasn’t had a lot of exposure in the U.S. According to his bio on the website of the Galerie Laurent Godin in Paris, his work has been seen at EXPO I: NEW YORK at MoMA PS1 (2013) and in group shows at Gladstone (2012) and Andrea Rosen (2011). This is his first solo in New York.
The Gladstone press release mentions that “The Blind Leading the Blind” is the collective title for all of Buggenhout’s dust works. He sees his working method as an ongoing process that carries from one piece to the next. As he says in the video: “We could talk about one large work instead of dozens of individual pieces. It’s a little conceptual in that sense…”
The sculptures bear a familial relationship to the works of other purveyors of roughly recycled materials — Phyllida Barlow, Anselm Kiefer and El Anatsui — as well as the sci-fi clay behemoths of Adrián Villar Rojas, and to the sensations they evoke of deterioration, abundant waste or both.
Buggenhout’s artworks, however, are conspicuously apocalyptic — less a postnuclear nightmare than a wholesale infrastructural breakdown precipitated by self-interest, bad judgment, shortsightedness and spiritual exhaustion.
It’s not surprising that he cites the “The Blind Leading the Blind” by his Flemish forebear as his metaphor of choice. Bruegel’s lucid imagery, a combination of harsh realism and allegorical whimsy, is a literal interpretation of Jesus’s admonition to his disciples: “Let them [the Pharisees] alone: they be blind leaders of the blind. And if the blind lead the blind, both shall fall into the ditch.” (Matthew 15:14, KJV).
Hemmed in by the edges of the canvas (unusual for such an inveterately panoramic painter), the line of blind beggars descends along a diagonal from the top left to the bottom right with increasing instability until the two in front tumble helplessly off the road. The severe cropping of the image extends the blindness depicted by Bruegel to our experience of the painting. We cannot see where the beggars are coming from or where they expect to be going; we are afflicted with the same tunnel vision the proverb decries.
Sculpture cannot duplicate the elisions possible in a two-dimensional image, but Buggenhout’s massed materials do echo the painting’s instability and tragicomic worldview. Simultaneously exploding and imploding, with metal appendages jutting perilously into the viewer’s space, they could be the wreckage of a spaceship, deteriorating artifacts from a remote industrial past or relics from the destruction of the Twin Towers.
The sculptures’ ability to fire the imagination and memory, to conjure a fantastical future or dredge up the painful past while remaining rooted in the socioeconomic present is among their core strengths, but mostly they simply overwhelm, exerting a magnetism that is difficult to escape.
The dust, which Buggenhout procures from vacuum cleaner bags, offers a refreshing take on the distressed surfaces popularized in the late 1980s by artists such as Mike and Doug Starn, whose torn and scraped photographs added an expressively historicist dimension to their work. With Buggenhout, the dust seems to be more of a formal, unifying device, pulling together the disparate elements of the sculpture just as a patina or a coat of paint would, but in a way that is more fragile and mutable, at least to the viewer’s eye.
The dust may be the defining element of the spectacle, but the sculptural forms are so powerfully joined that it recedes in the experience of the work (in fact, at first glance it is hard to tell what is covering the surface, which looks smoked and scorched), avoiding any potential for preciousness. As the traditional metaphor of our beginning and end (“for dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return”), dust is both living and dead. Clogged with organic matter — skin cells and hair, bacteria and mold — Buggenhout’s bristling, dust-encrusted forms appear simultaneously forsaken, dangerous and alive. The sculptures’ aggregations of variously shaped and scaled components change continually as you walk around them; alternately machines and beasts, the profusions of dust transform the surfaces into an oily, blasted metallic sheathing or a tough, patchy mammalian hide.
Part aesthetic endgame and part horror show, these sculptures would seem to rework the ingredients of 20th-century assemblage into an exercise in fatalism as beguiling as it is bleak. Responding to a chaotic time with disarming directness, Buggenhout catalogues our headlong dive into the ditch (or, as Bruegel pictures it, a muddy creek) as a pileup of trashed building materials and other, less identifiable detritus — but one that possesses, as the gallery statement suggests, “an internal logic and process […] a complex system becoming clear only upon closer examination.”
The exhibition’s overall title, Caterpillar Logic II, refers to the “innate, yet invisible logic to the butterfly form that a caterpillar will eventually assume,” which holds out a vestige of hope that we’ll someday grope our way out of the mud. In the meantime, we have these sculptures and the exhilaration of the plunge.
Peter Buggenhout: Caterpillar Logic II continues at Gladstone Gallery (515 West 24th Street, Chelsea, Manhattan) through April 19.