CHATHAM, New York — Common use of the phrase “environmental impact” to describe the effects of human activity on the natural world derives from the text of the National Environmental Policy Act of 1969, which called for an “environmental impact assessment” during the initial planning stage of a development project or new construction.
Thus NEPA’s text construes “impact” as a collision between humans and their terrestrial habitat. Even if the paradigm of this watershed legislation was stewardship, and the mitigation of ill effects its goal, its terminology acknowledges the violence inherent in the expansion of industrialized economies.
Dan Devine takes this metaphor for a spin in his current exhibition at Thompson Giroux Gallery in Chatham, New York. Titled Dan Devine: Impact, this beautiful, surprising, and thought-provoking show includes seven sculptures and seven drawings, all dated 2019. The sculptures are both elegant and ungainly, in gleaming plaster resting on wooden bases designed to resemble warehouse skids (and to function like them, presumably).
Their surfaces smoothly swell in some areas, and elsewhere are abruptly angled, as if pieces had broken off in the process of fabrication. At first they resemble fragments of ancient statuary distributed around the gallery floor. You may be able to lift smallest one, with help; the largest you figure you could tip over if you tried, but to move it anywhere you’d need a pallet jack.
It’s fashionable these days to talk about whole-body perception in the encounter with visual art. If I wanted to recruit converts to that dogma, Impact would be Exhibit A, and not just because you have to walk around these free-standing objects to comprehend them. William Tucker has played that game for years, but when circumnavigating his enormous lumps of plaster and bronze in search of that “aha” angle of view, I don’t think I’ve ever sensed their massiveness with the muscles of my arms or in the small of my back. That’s where Devine’s sculptures hit me.
Then this really hit me: these odd volumes of plaster — with their crumpled, discontinuous surfaces, their weird industrial articulations, their enigmatic protuberances — were formed using a demolished car as a mold. (That strangely familiar scooped-out disk lined with the texture of a tire tread suggests this, and the abundant gallery information confirms it. A Subaru was involved.)
The cast plaster records the damage to steel, plastic, glass, and rubber that was sustained in a crash, and amounts to an aleatoric hybrid of the automobile designer’s specifications and the incalculable vagaries of extreme duress. They are monuments to randomness and entropy.
“Serac” (44 x 48 x 10 inches), one of the larger sculptures, looks geological in morphology, tapering to a ragged peak; “Calf” (43 x 55 x 12 inches) more strongly evokes fragments of Classical sculpture, through its suggestion of an eye beneath the rim of a helmet. Much taller and wider than they are deep, these two are roughly shell-like, with one side of the shell obviously formed by hand; we surmise that the wet plaster was packed onto the side of the car to form the impression.
The smaller sculptures appear to be cast on all sides, or nearly, as if they were pulled from a gap or crevasse between surfaces. To appreciate the fluid intricacies of “Moulin” (16 x 22 x 22 inches), you really need to look at it from a vantage point near the floor, but “Kettle” (15 x 22 x 15 inches) is placed near eye level atop a flat file, where it’s dramatically lit. It’s distinguished by a flat-topped arm or branch sticking up like (from some angles) the neck and head of a wary little creature.
The titles are derived from the technical terminology of glaciers and icebergs, particularly formations caused by melting. As verbal supplements to the objects themselves, they link these chunks of snow-white plaster to polar phenomena, global climate change, fossil fuels, and greenhouse gasses — to which auto exhaust (in Paul Simon’s dated but still pungent phrase, “the ol’ Detroit perfume”) is an indirect yet significant contributor. The deteriorating glacier, calving at an accelerated pace, has emerged as a symbol of the environmental crisis that our planet faces in much the same way that the Santa Barbara oil spill in 1969 symbolized human disregard for the fragility of natural ecosystems, and the cumulative impact of homo sapiens.
The sculptures in Impact prompt consideration of the interplay of creation and destruction. They’re predicated on the wreckage of the star-crossed sedan; their existence was made possible because of the high-speed crash that yielded Devine’s multifarious mold. Do these works memorialize trauma, like Warhol’s Death and Disaster series of auto wreck paintings? Do they aestheticize violence like John Chamberlain’s crumpled car sculptures? Maybe. What is certain is their alignment of destruction in the individual human context with the greater disaster, the more enduring violence occurring on a planetary scale.
The drawings are graphite rubbings, and they offer respite from the conceptual tightness of the sculpture — a bit of breathing room. It is refreshingly incongruous to come upon “Cabbage Map” (44 x 30 inches), in which that vegetable appears splayed out in a many-angled, leafy shape similar to Buckminster Fuller’s Dymaxion map of the world. Similarly indexical, the towering “Grace’s Duc” (118 x 120 inches, on 9 sheets) is a symmetrical documentation of both sides of a Ducati motorcycle.
A motorsports professional, mechanic, and restorer of vintage motorbikes, Devine knows his way around his subject. He’s been thinking about the symbolic and metaphorical potential of vehicles for a long time, and about what surfaces reveal or conceal. His sculpture “Inside-Out NASCAR” has made a few laps around the gallery circuit since its fabrication a decade or so ago. He’s even disseminated instructions for “How to Turn Your Car Inside Out.” But this guidance is itself rather inside-out, emphasizing incidental matters (“Be sure to have a pile of clean rags at your disposal”) and obfuscating major ones (“The re-assembly will require some cutting, bending and welding. Use your own judgment […]”). The undercurrent of absurdity serves Devine well in his newest work, as he approaches the onset of the Anthropocene epoch with about as much playfulness and humor as humanly possible.
Dan Devine: Impact continues at Thompson Giroux Gallery (57 Main Street, Chatham, New York) through May 5.