James Capper

James Capper, “Cropper” (2012), painted steel, hydraulics, plaster (all images courtesy Hannah Barry Gallery)

I’ve been napping for like three days. Armory week is a headache inducing weeklong visual binge. While the impetus of the fair is always financial, it seems that many use it the same way they might use Tumblr — to research new art and artists. Sifting through the myriad of cubicles is more similar to browsing the internet than seeing a proper exhibition. While this year’s Armory Show provided the expected dose of the boring, the polite, and the decorative, it also reminded me that it can, and has often, served as the perfect stage for challenging art. James Capper’s solo presentation Power Tools, presented by Hannah Barry Gallery of London, seems to revel in the politeness of many of its neighbors at the fair. After all, the more china in the shop, the more there is for the bull to trample.

James Capper, “Single Miller” (2012), painted steel, hydraulics, plaster

Capper’s sculptures sit there expectantly on their  plaster pediments. The artist builds each of his brightly-colored red and blue works by hand. Resembling experimental construction equipment from the turn of the cenutry, each piece is a functioning machine powered by a hydraulic engine.

Capper doesn’t mince words. At the opening he smiles widely; he is large, animated and gruff, though full of a very particular kind of grace. (One honed, no doubt, by spending his days in the company of  the precise, dangerous equipment that occupies his London studio.) There is an honest practicality that seems firmly rooted in the blue collar. At his installation, the artist recounted bonding with the army of electricians ubiquitous at any art fair, who are accustomed to being treated horribly by the equally large host of dealers.

James Capper, “Midi Marker” (2012)

James Capper, “Tread Toe” (2010)

If his works derive themselves from a builder’s sensibility they certainly do not stop there. These are manic devices, closer in reality to the laboratory experiments of some mad scientist than anything else. While the sensible steel casings and blades suggest those utilitarian engines of progress that built cities like New York, the reality is far from rosy. These are machines without purpose. They are building yard drop outs — too odd, bulbous or random to graduate from college and join the ranks of industry.

James Capper, “Twin Miller” (2012), painted steel, hydraulics, plaster

Sitting atop freshly minted cubes of white plaster, it would be easy to dismiss them as well-crafted and pretty, the way one might mistake a warrior for a model with high cheekbones. It doesn’t take long to notice that the nippers, millers, hydrascoopes and cone cutters in Hannah Barry’s booth resemble some sort of ragtag inanimate army. As the exhibition at the Armory Show continues, the true hostility of these pieces becomes increasingly apparent. With help from  artist, the sculptures begin to gnaw, scrape, pummel and burrow their way through their supports. As plaster tumbles to the ground, I can’t but help think of Allan McCollum and the “decoy” sculptures he made to look like paintings in the 1970s. Rather than impersonate art, Capper has brought a simulacrum into the Armory Show, and then fed it to his mechanical creations. He’s upped the evolutionary chain. I can’t help but imagine that this is what Edward Scissorhands would have looked like if the scissors had taken control and eaten the man. Maybe this is what Eames would have done were he tasked to re-envision the tools of the Spanish inquisition using the language of the 20th century. What I admire about this display is that it makes something substantial and conceptual out of  what should have been a project space. Rather than a survey, the display is specific, it conjures a direct and intimate look into a young artists practice. This is the kind of experience I wish I could see more of at the Armory.

James Capper’s Power Tools were on view at Hannah Barry Gallery’s booth at the Armory Show (Pier 92 & 94, Twelfth Avenue at 55th Street, West Side, Manhattan) from March 7–10.

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