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ROCKLAND, Maine — John Bisbee: American Steel at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art begins with a declaration. Through the glass façade in the foyer of the Toshiko Mori-designed building on Winter Street, visitors can read the artist’s seven-line statement, fabricated from his signature — and only — medium: nails. The text, a kind of ars metalica, appears in all caps in a simple, neo-rustic font. It reads in full:
WE TRUMPET THE COMMON NAIL
THE OVERLOOKED LITTLE PRICK
THAT HOLDS THE WHOLE THING TOGETHER
THEIR HEADS GET BENT
POUNDED BY EVERY PENNY
ALTHOUGH THEY GET SCREWED
THEY ALWAYS STAY SHARP AND BRIGHT.
Bisbee has never been outspokenly political in his work, but, going by the work in this show, he has decided enough is enough. As Glen Adamson notes in his essay for the exhibition catalogue, “The toxic lies that have been pouring out of the White House, like a river full of waste, have set off a chemical reaction in [Bisbee’s] creative soul.” He is, says Adamson, “one pissed-off artist.”
Bisbee is sounding the alarm — trumpeting it, actually. Accompanying the declaration is “The Trumpet,” a shapely object placed on the floor that resembles a cross between a parasol and a vintage His Master’s Voice gramophone horn (all works are 2018 unless otherwise noted). The craft is exquisite: bronze nails twist and curve, renderinge an almost lace-like appearance. The brilliance of this exhibition lies precisely in Bisbee’s creation of stunning and meticulously crafted metalwork in the midst of fits of rage.
Completing this opening act — the first of four installations in the show — is “American Bits,” a wall map of the United States made of nails shaped into coins, held in place by magnets in the wall. The country appears to be coming apart as individual coins seem to fly off the map from every direction. Do they represent people fleeing? The U.S. exploding? As Bisbee explains in a statement for the show, “Further erosion in our government’s already limited empathy has demanded that I move from the realm of pure abstraction to one of allegorical realism.”
Bisbee calls the three-part opening salvo Trumpence, turning the bully-in-chief and his toadie into a kind of lowly British coinage. This clever wordplay is new for the artist. While it doesn’t lighten the weight of his nail assemblages, it adds a dimension of engaging pique.
The other three acts occur in the CMCA’s main gallery. On one wall, the phrase “DREAM ON” is written in letters that reach to the ceiling (the full dimensions are 18 by 52 feet). Each letter is composed of horizontal lines of barbed wire made from three-inch finish nails. Barbed wire is as literal a symbol of oppression as exists. Here, the lethal wire we have created to keep people in or out has been cut into strips and repurposed to form a John Lennon-esque call to overcome.
This call is enhanced by two free-standing pieces, “Migration Case” and “Stanchions (Departing Embrace).” The former is a filigree suitcase with a bird perched on top and another inside, a lovely and mournful representation of the displacement occurring every day around the world. The latter consists of two stanchions entangled in a chained clinch. How often does one feel empathy before a sculpture made of welded nails and cast nail element?
Act III, Ozymandias (2009-2018), takes up one corner of the gallery. Another multi-part piece incorporates the words “DON’T BET ON ME,” which curve up the wall behind an arrangement of pillars, some standing, some tipped over by a “viper” shaped from welded spikes. The artist riffs on the symbolism of the phrase “Don’t Tread on Me,” coupled with a coiled snake. Deeply rooted in American patriotism, and championed by members of the Tea Party movement, the Gadsden flag is transformed into an image of the pillars of government pulled down by a dark, spitting serpent. Politically, the work is loaded and effective. It also contains art historical and literary associations. The columns bring to mind both Brancusi’s “Endless Column” (1918) and the “trunkless legs of stone” in Shelley’s poem about the ruins of the pharaoh Ozymandias’s monumental statuary.
The work in the CMCA show is not without its precedents in Bisbee’s oeuvre. On several occasions he has used room corners for installations (witness the remarkable grouping of large, tumbleweed-like balls of spikes in the 2004 installation Scree). The setting adds to the sense of dynamic movement in his work, as objects come out of the intersection of walls and floor, advancing on the floor or twisting in place.
The final act (which could be the first, depending on how you circumambulate the show) is the title piece, American Steel. For this, Bisbee pulls out all the stops. The title of the show is rendered in large chain letters that loop across the wall, framed on either side by wall-mounted pieces: “Bouquet (This Arrangement No Longer Works For Us)” to the left and “Putin (Bear Witness To This Circus Dance)” to the right. The floor in front of these wall pieces is strewn with a wide assortment of objects: an anvil; a sword; tools such as pliers and a vise; an axe; a pistol; a short lengths of chain; and a bathtub that appears perforated, with a set of oars.
This smorgasbord of hammered and welded nail-work represents a bravado take on the times, at once flippant, political, and provocative. It invokes our state of disunion, be it the tampering Russian bear or the tariffs that are threatening our economy (one wonders if they’ve had any effect on Bisbee’s supply of nails).
Bisbee has moved between the elegant and gnarly over the years, between tight formalism and bristling entanglements, without ever sacrificing his inherent, and brilliant, sense of craft. One of the commonest responses to his work has been wonder: how did he turn a ton of welded 12-inch spikes into, for example, “Grist” (2004), a wonderfully dangerous-looking bristling thicket, or “Helio” (2006), a stunning circle of even spike stacks that might be the cog for some mighty tool-and-dye machine?
Bisbee wields his hammer and welding gun with fearless skill. He doesn’t let the challenges of his chosen medium defeat him. “A nail is a line,” he has said. “How do you run out of things to do with a line? It’s the building block of all language, literally and figuratively.”
There’s something homegrown, authentic and tough about this artist — a cross between Bruce Springsteen and the village blacksmith. With American Steel, Bisbee has brought a new voice to his art, one, in his words, that “summons the utilitarian associations of the nail with new vigor and responds to the world outside of myself, pointedly and with humor.” He calls American Steel “an aggressive spectacle,” his “patriotic and poetic reexamination of America.” It’s all that and then some. Excuse the pun: Bisbee has nailed it.
John Bisbee: American Steel continues at the Center for Maine Contemporary Art (21 Winter Street, Rockland, Maine) through October 14.