Art

An Ohio Sculpture Festival that Is Curiously Light on Sculpture

Heavy on interactive works, audience intervention, and social practice art, Toledo’s annual sculpture festival raises the question of why we organize festivals around the theme of common discipline.

Series of five weapons by artist Jova Lynne, part of her solo installation, Soft Thrones, at the University of Toledo’s Center for the Visual Arts Gallery, within Sculpture X 2018. All images by the author.

TOLEDO, Ohio — I missed both the keynote for Sculpture X 2018, presented by artist Mel Chin on September 28, and the September 29 symposium keynote by Laurie Jo Reynolds, a policy advocate and artist who seems to be the ideal representative for this year’s festival, themed “Igniting Change.” This year’s offerings are exhibitions heavy on interactive works, audience intervention, and social practice art, but also, perhaps unsurprisingly, a little light on sculpture.

At Toledo Museum of Art, for example, a large installation work, called “TWO ME,” by Chin, is positioned on the front terrace of the TMA campus. This interactive work was originally commissioned for the courtyard in front of Philadelphia’s City Hall in 2017, and is comprised of two white scaffold-like ramps that lead participants to two terminal points glassed in at roughly waist height on four sides. What can only be seen by facing the installation head-on is that these terminuses are actually high stone pedestals, each labeled “ME” — essentially placing whoever has walked up there in the position of ancient marble statuary. The participants finish the art, and by having two pedestals, they may also create intentional or inadvertent tableaux with someone who has chosen to mount the adjoining pedestal.

“TWO ME” by Mel Chin, installation view

This is a playful kind of social practice art, and certainly employs some of the artist’s signature moves: Chin’s work often leverages symmetry and is often extremely literal. It is also inarguably an interactive sculptural work. But whether it can be judged aesthetically as a sculpture is difficult to say. The ramps by which participants approach the platforms are visually distracting to the actual presentation point of pedestals. The glass walls atop the pedestals interfere with the finished effect, which would be more like the thing it emulates without them. Presumably, the artist has made these choices to accommodate considerations of safety and inclusion; the ramp makes these terminal points handicapped-accessible, where the more visually discreet direct-approach of a staircase would not, and the glass walls hedge against the possibility that any of these works of living statuary slip from the pedestal (statues, after all, seem to accept loss of limb with magnanimity; museum-goers are rather more likely to sue).

Making the concessions in the interest of access and safety are laudable, to be sure — but it raises questions about the metrics by which we evaluate a work of sculpture. Chin’s message here seems to be the idea that any/everyone is (or can be) a work of art, or perhaps a monolith of their own perspective in life (“ME”). A different kind of social practice art might make these pedestals intentionally difficult to access, as a commentary on the exclusivity of the forms that have been traditionally commemorated in this medium. But that is perhaps not in keeping with the humanist spirit of the artist, or the current imperative of most museums to impress upon the general public that all are welcome.

A scene from Jimmy Kuehnle’s presentation during the Sculpture X symposium on Sept. 29

If the travails of public sculpture are not evident via thought experiments such as these, they were highlighted in comedic detail in the symposium presentation of Cleveland-based artist James “Jimmy” Kuehnle. Kuehnle — who has made a name for himself via the public presentation of complex, whimsical, largely inflatable, and sometimes unofficially sanctioned works of interactive sculpture — ran the audience through the complete evolution of a public work commissioned by the city of Cleveland. The number of concept and venue changes that plagued the artist in the development of this work probably caused more than a few blood pressure spikes among audience members, many of whom were artists that have had their own share of bureaucratic tangles. Obviously, those entities that deal with public spaces have to ensure, at the end of the day, that they are safe places for the public — the sanctity and freedom of art is, for them, perhaps a secondary concern. But one has to wonder where this leaves artists, in terms of their ability to convey their ideas; is the trade-off, in terms of access to the public via display in prominent places, worth the compromises in vision?

“Epiphany” (2015) by Susan Byrnes (foreground) and a work by Bob Marsh in the background. Sculpture by Jake Beckman (background left) resembles an extension cord.

Of course, SculptureX presented numerous works that are both uncompromised in their conceptual underpinnings and conventional, in terms of their sculpture-ness. But even the less interactive exhibitions presented artists very much at play with the idea of building an alternative sculptural relationship with real-world space. A solo show, Soft Thrones: Sites of Power, by intermedia artist Jova Lynne, presented a series of photographic portraits in juxtaposition with a series of objects — machetes — that were inspired by the portrait subjects. The portraits were taken in Lynne’s ancestral homeland of Jamaica, and feature five female-identified queer Jamaicans of the artist’s acquaintance, posed variously in seated positions against a background of lush jungle. Working from these portraits, Lynne then created five machetes to correlate with her subjects, and the whole assortment is presented in a gallery dominated by a wall-sized blow-up of one portraits, “Soft Throne” (2018), and punctuated by a freestanding piece of decorative iron fencing, “Thresh(Hold)” (2018). Where is the sculpture, here? At least half the works are photographs, and the only freestanding item is a piece of fencing, presumably prefabricated. The five machetes can be argued as sculpture, but the artist also specifically classifies them as weapons; it is unclear whether an art historian might characterize these as a more vernacular kind of artwork, as is the case with ornate scrimshaw carvings on the handles of pocketknives, for example.

Jova Lynne’s “Soft Thrones,” installation view

Does this matter? Not really. With a theme that places such focus on the social impact of sculpture, it stands to reason that the defining aspects of sculpture might be stretched to include, for example, sound sculpture, as with Susan Byrnes’s “Epiphany” — a subset of a larger work called “Discover;” direct political action, as with “RUN,” a collection of souvenirs from the 2017 mayoral campaign of Erie, Pennsylvania-based “social sculptor” Lisa Austin; and “Survey,” the lo-tech survey apparatus by Micaela de Vivero, which keeps tally by inviting visitors to take a number from two opposing signs, in this case one that instructs “If you want to live in this country take a number” or “If you do not want to live in this country take a number.” These were all part of the group show, Igniting Change, which ran at BGSU’s Dorothy Uber Bryan Gallery during the symposium and core weekend for Sculpture X.

“Survey” by Micaela de Vivero, installation view

This year’s Sculpture X underscores the increasingly interdisciplinary nature of contemporary art, the current wisdom that we gain little by strictly siloing artists by medium, and the often necessary changes that must be made when an artist chooses to physically involve the public in a work of art. Perhaps the greater quibble here is whether or not it remains productive to create festivals and showcases that hinge on the theme of common discipline, only to shatter that construct in every way conceivable.

Gallery and installation aspects of SculptureX continue at various locations in Toledo, OH, through November 11. The festival features various curators, including Halona Norton-Westbrook, who is the curator of the Mel Chin exhibition at the Toledo Museum of Art.

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