Installation view, ‘Robin Peck: Crania’ (2015), CANADA, New York (all photos by the author for Hyperallergic)

There are nine lumps of plaster and Hydrocal — covered in yellowing shellac and polished wax — on display at CANADA on the Lower East Side, their domed tops roughly the size and shape of a human skull (hence the title of the exhibition, Crania). Despite the humility of their materials and scale, they are works that demand your attention, leading you to look and look again.

The sculptures, all sitting on matching pedestals, are by Robin Peck, who is described in the gallery’s press release as “a contributor to the traditions of minimalism, post-minimalism and conceptualism,” whose “work has served as a guardian of that legacy if only reluctantly, ambivalently so.”

That ambivalence is in full flower in Crania, where the material-qua-material precepts of Minimalism are undermined both physically and metaphorically. Throbbing with bottled-up energy, the sculptures’ uniform appearance masks a variety of unlikely elements literally buried within. Clearly molded by the artist’s hands, the gouged, scraped and mottled surfaces bear a humanity that’s at a far distance from Minimalism’s Apollonian cool.

Still, their reason for being seems to turn on a kind of sculptural essence, and in this way they remind me of the British artist William Tucker’s late abstractions. A generation older than Peck, Tucker has spent the last couple of decades making rough-hewn sculptures that are often representational and based on classical models. But when they loosen their ties to their source material, they come across as embodiments of pure energy: twisting, buckling, bursting at the seams.

Robin Peck, “Sculpture (Crania) 11” (2007–13), rosewood, aluminum, iron, steel, polyurethane, steel, Hydrocal and burlap, Hydrocal, shellac, wax, 13 x 15 x 11 inches

Peck’s allusive objects, which remain ever so tenuously in the realm of abstraction, trade Tucker’s outward-directed energy for the density of a gravitational pull they’re powerless to escape. Fixed in place, these fatalistic little clumps, like Samuel Beckett’s plays, traffic in a kind of transcendent absurdity — their formal, classicizing rigor at war with the sometimes random, sometimes willful actions of Peck’s fingers and palms.

One of the more intriguing puzzles these works present is the artist’s practice of burying each work’s initial components — which include such culturally significant materials as quartz, copper, steel, rosewood and iron — beneath the sculpture’s plaster skin.

The press release states that “Peck wants us to unfold conceptually the stages of the germination of the final form and to take pleasure at contemplating this mystery,” but that’s an insufficient answer at best. From a materials standpoint, it can be said that Peck’s layered process is to Minimalism as the work of the Italian pre-modern sculptor Medardo Rosso is to Post-Impressionism, but as an inversion of the relationship.

The uncanny resonance between Peck’s work and Rosso’s is what drew me to the show. Despite the affinities in materials, texture and movement that are clearly evident in the exhibition images on the gallery website, it seemed as if there should be little in Rosso’s wax-covered plasters of figures and portrait busts, which are marked by a kind of aching decadence — too soft, too beautiful — that would correspond to the reductive abstraction at work in Peck’s crania. That is, other than that final coating of wax, an association that felt much too facile.

Still, the connection seemed undeniable, a conclusion that was coincidentally reinforced when I signed CANADA’s guest book and found beside it a pile of announcement cards for the current Rosso exhibition at the Center for Italian Modern Art (through June 27th), a couple of blocks away at 421 Broome Street.

Rosso may have coated his sculptures with wax as a way of capturing the fleeting effects of light found in Post-Impressionist painting, but the result was a surfeit of incident, a sense of too much meeting the eye while cloaking the hard reality of plaster with an ingratiating gauziness.

Conversely, even though Peck’s materials become progressively softer as he builds his forms — quartz and iron to plaster and wax — the initial components’ weight and mass somehow manage to inform the centeredness of the piece; it expands or contracts but remains inwardly directed, bolted to the density at its core.

Robin Peck, “Sculpture (Crania) 15” (2014), neodymium, bone, aluminum, steel, pottery, plaster, shellac, wax, 3.5 x 9.5 x 6.25 inches

In an insightful review of this show published in the current Brooklyn Rail, Ben La Rocco discusses “the unseen, inner materials employed as armature and their relationship to the outward form of the object,” stating that “as long as we are conceiving of an object in terms of a relationship between inner and outer, or in terms of any relationship at all, we are looking at the object in terms of movement or travel.” He then quotes from Peck’s book, Sculpture: A Journey to the Circumference of the Earth (Broken Jaw Press Inc, 2004), in which the artist wrote, “sculptors understand travel precisely because their art is sedentary.”

These works certainly convey movement, but my sense of them suggests the truncated action of the relentlessly optimistic Winnie in Beckett’s Happy Days, buried up to her waist, and then her neck, in scorched earth. It’s conceivable to think of these nine pieces as various gyrations of the same work, stretching, shrinking, squirming, but always anchored to the weight beneath.

This is the tragicomic humanity of these objects, subsumed in the compounds of their making even as they are amplified, to an almost theatrical degree, by their humanoid crowns and dermis of wax. And there is nothing more antithetical to the pure essence of Minimalism than the theatrical. But it is precisely that layer, so discomfiting to formalists, that pulls Peck’s work out of the sureties of the past and into the disquieting present.

Robin Peck: Crania continues at CANADA (333 Broome Street, Lower East Side, Manhattan) through March 29.

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Thomas Micchelli

Thomas Micchelli is an artist, writer, and co-editor of Hyperallergic Weekend.