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If you shrink yourself down enough until you are about six inches high, you will be able to walk around in some of Joe Howe’s remarkable sculptures that he made from discarded wood scraps. One might naturally ask, why go through all the trouble, why travel across Brooklyn to Manhattan only to navigate White Columns, and then shrink oneself down? The American poet and critic Susan Stewart explains the magic of small-scale experiences, in her brilliant book, On Longing: Narratives of the Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir and the Collection:
The inanimate toy repeats the still life’s theme of arrested life, the life of the tableau. But once the toy becomes animated, it initiates another world, the world of the daydream.
The sculptures on view in the project room feel like the results of a lot of daydreaming by Howe, who is 87 and happens to be developmentally disabled. If you get the chance to spend some time with the smallish, toy-sized works, it’s hard not to think of them as interior, or “inner,” spaces, because the artist has been mostly nonverbal his whole life. For several decades he has been making work at Gateway Arts in Brookline, Massachusetts, a place which provides art studio space specifically for people with disabilities.
His works are not about particular buildings and are not maquettes, but instead have an uncanny effect of evoking the psychological space of architecture without actually being about architecture. For example, one tall work is made up of long, rectangular slats glued together unevenly and then set onto a base that doesn’t quite fit. It’s painted a solid umber color and although it resembles a skyscraper in form, there are no doors or windows. In other words, there’s no way in and there is no way out.
The other 12 pieces in the project room line the shelves in no particular order. Most are wood constructions but there are a few ceramic objects, too. Like the wooden sculptures, they are also well considered and possess a powerful sense of intention. Nothing in the show seems ornamental or decorative, but rather urgent and necessary. Art like this is a reminder that it itself is a kind of language with its own logic, its own building blocks and grammar. It’s tempting to play the archaeologist and puzzle over the precise meaning of a Joe Howe object as if these works were from some long lost civilization that vanished without a trace of or any indication of who their maker was.
Even so, there is a playfulness in these works and a feeling of navigation — reminiscent of how kids with no toys will find a way to make their own out of whatever is around them. A stick becomes a sword, a garbage can lid a shield, and bed sheets a fort.
Stewart’s book is an excellent point of departure when appreciating what Howe has accomplished. On Longing investigates concepts of space and time and how they relate to both psychological and physical space. Stewart discusses how time has a different, impersonal meaning at the scale of monuments and enormous structures, but at the scale of toys or marbles, time is much more localized and personal. Living a life far away from the hustle and bustle of a big city, one can only speculate about Howe’s own personal sense of time as he creates these structures and paints them in bold red, green, and orange. Many feel like miniature fortresses, or shelters that suggest both protection and confinement.
The discerning art viewer might observe some formal aesthetic connections to contemporary artists like Vincent Fecteau or Sterling Ruby, and some psychological connections to such works like “Room with My Soul Left Out Room, That Does Not Care” (1984) by Bruce Nauman and Alice Aycock’s “How to Catch and Manufacture Ghosts” (1981). Such fine art comparisons may help provide viewers with a context with which to understand them, but the true motivations may remain locked away forever.
Joe Howe continues at the Project Room at White Columns (320 W 13th St, Chelsea, Manhattan) through December 17.