One of the things I have always liked about Patrick Strzelec’s sculpture is his kitchen sink approach. In 2013, when I first wrote about his work, I pointed out that he “seems not to be attached to a particular material, making his work out of plaster, aluminum, epoxy, steel, ceramic, wood and/or copper.” That adaptability seems particularly useful in our current situation.
Since the beginning of our self-isolation and social distancing in the response to Covid-19 pandemic, I have been interested in how different artists I know have been responding to circumstances. This past April I wrote about Richard Van Buren, who sent me images of the drawings he began making while living in lockdown in Maine, near the Canadian border. Shortly afterwards I discussed drawings made by Anton van Dalen, who is 81 and still lives in the same building on the Lower East Side where I first visited him more than 30 years ago.
Last week, I wrote about Liu Xiaodong, who along with his wife, the painter Yu Hong, and their daughter, Liu Wa, also an artist, had been stranded in New York for months. I was not surprised that Liu, who is an immensely adaptable artist committed to chronicling what he sees, began making one watercolor per day, ostensibly a visual diary along with a written one, about the circumscribed area in Manhattan he walked around every day.
When I got in touch with Strzelec to see how he was doing during the pandemic, he told me that he had been making a lot of work, “60 sculptures in sixty days” is how he put it in an email (June 10, 2020), “but only a few can cut the mustard.”
I asked him to send me images without editing them beforehand. I was curious about the line separating the ones that cut the mustard from those that didn’t. I admit to being perhaps even more interested in the ones that occupied the zone between yes and no. What is it about the piece that made it work, and what would make it not work? What standards does one use, and what makes them right?
I wondered if it was possible to defer judgment and just look at Strzelec’s sculptures without trying to make a final assessment. When you keep a diary, some entries might be more interesting than others, but is that a reason to tear out the lesser pages and throw them away? In fact, might not the ones that don’t cut the mustard be of more interest and use in the end? These are just some of the questions I began to consider. I think the uncertainty is important, and not just because we are living in uncertain times.
What aesthetic standards do you use to judge four conical cups — the kind that are dispensed at a water cooler — sticking out from the top of what looks like a cousin to a sweet potato? Why does the base remind me of Munster star Fred Gwynne’s extraordinarily long head? Are the cups radar receivers or hair curlers? What about the four metal cans dangling from a minimally carved and stripped branch, which has been inserted into a wedge-like base complete with shims to stabilize it? And what about the silver lump sitting on a metal stool, like a grade-school science fair model of an asteroid?
Maybe I am just being optimistic, but doesn’t the current situation invite everyone to reevaluate what was once considered important? In the sliver of society known as the art world, marketplace success connotes a stable world in which the capitalist turbines are humming smoothly. What does one make of that value system now? Is it any different from the one embraced by members of gated communities, whose material and aesthetic stability was meant to ensure their protection from any change that might come?
Before Strzelec began sending me individual images, he sent me a photo taken from one end of his modest-sized studio. The space was filled with what he had made during two months of quarantine. I was immediately struck me by how vulnerable and even precarious some of the pieces appeared. I was also struck by the humor.
I get the feeling that Strzelec, as serious as he is, doesn’t take himself too seriously, which contributes to the infectiousness of his work. His humor and vulnerability, along with a playful combination of the two, are evident in his choice of materials and combinations, the sense that anything (from crumpled cans to toilet paper tubes) could be used as a sculptural material.
It is also clear that he is carrying on a lively dialogue with Constantin Brancusi, Alberto Giacometti, Hans Arp, and others without falling into parody or pastiche. A vertical stack of three shiny, crumpled cans speaks to Brancusi’s “Endless Column” as much as it does to the food hoarding of Covid time. This is what makes Strzelec’s whimsical work more than that: it is speaking to different periods, the past and present, and not just to formalism or aesthetics.
At the same, the work questions the standards by which we judge art. Maybe we can begin looking at what is before us without assessing its value. When is the last time that kind of looking took place in the art world?