Sunday, April 1st, 2007

Gordon Senior: Standing on Earth

Truckee Meadows Community College
7000 Dandini Blvd
Reno, Nevada 89512-3999
775 673 7000

March 5 to 30, 2007

Gordon Senior, Towers, 2004-7, wood and metal, 72 inches high
Gordon Senior, Towers, 2004-7, wood and metal, 72 inches high
Conversation, 2007, cast iron, wood, paint and metal, 60 x 9 inches
Conversation, 2007, cast iron, wood, paint and metal, 60 x 9 inches

Conversation, detail
Conversation, detailHow does an artist whose memories are rooted in the English landscape and whose practice for the last thirty years has been grounded in the history, politics and folklore of man’s impact on nature, adjust to being displaced to the San Joaquin Valley of California, where farming is practiced on an vast industrial scale. It seems that this question has been central to Senior’s work since his arrival in the United States in 2001.

A number of works address the preparation and the journey itself. These include most notably Conversation, which consists of eight tower-like structures surmounted by clay or bronze animals, mostly crows and hares. On one level, that of their natural scale, these are animal sculptures on pedestals, but they rapidly shrug off this convention and behave like maquettes for an architectural monument or, on a more narrative and whimsical level, symbols of the victory of nature over culture. The high-rise buildings of New York City, which so impressed Senior when he flew over them on his way to California, are here reduced to pedestals. The animals become cross-Atlantic psychopomps feeling out the territory, at once lookouts, border guards, harbingers, and messengers.

The ambivalence of the journey is spotlighted in Hare Fleet. It is anything but fleet in terms of transatlantic passage or the normal locomotive abilities of this quicksilver mammal. This flotilla of hares seems tense, ill at ease, like freshly press-ganged crews of Viking longboats, victims of some bizarre practical joke, alert to the possibility that instead of plundering they may be sacrificed. The boats line the wall like an unlikely armada uncertain about where they are headed, uncertain whether they are painting or sculpture but elegant despite themselves. They suspect they will be deployed in new works of art in a place where they are described as ‘bunnies’. They hope that their cultural baggage will remain intact and that they will not be interbred with what passes for a hare on the other side of the water. They hope we will not notice that if they tip upside down they become a type of scrubbing brush.

The promise of cultural hybridization we see in Conversation is fulfilled in Hand Tools of Unknown Use. This is the most autobiographical work of Senior’s recent output. Estranged from his father, the fledgling artist found a surrogate in an uncle who initiated him into rural craftsmanship and the use of hand tools. So central is the sanctity of tools to Senior that most of the meanings in his work spin out these or the craft they endorse. Hand Tools of Unknown Use consists of a loose convocation of wooden handles, elegantly carved from branches broken from the eponymous sycamore tree of the street where Senior has relocated, to each of which is attached a single colored plastic business end salvaged mostly from discarded children’s toys.  These toy/tool hybrids are suspended, handles up, on a large wall. The theme and variations create enticing visual patterns, but beyond that we feel a gentle irony, almost a dig at some of the artist’s previous more orthodox exploitation of tools. The tools are clearly a metaphor for the artist himself and express his uncertainty, his sense of alienation and his powers of adaptation and renewal. He is now of ‘unknown use’ and must struggle to reinvent himself.  These tools precede their function and we struggle and delight in trying to elaborate uses for them as if invention were the mother of necessity. We are stimulated to devise activities or processes in some cases not yet known to humanity. How would it be if humans had started with tools and discovered functions to which they might fit rather than the reverse? How might human history have differed?  In this sense, and the plastic components provoke it, we are like children standing at the entrance to a world as yet unnamed but rich with imaginative possibilities.

Senior has thus transformed uncertainty into invention and has charted the process in his recent series of object groups.  In some he converts what is natural to his past into the form of his present and in others he transposes the objects of his present environment into a language of nostalgia for his former existence. Towers is a monument that embodies both of these practices. The eight structures of which it consists loosely conform to the skyscraper format, but through transpositions of materials and scale and utility they stand as testaments to a re-jigged nostalgia, a hybrid of memory and innovation in which the artist can cast the old forms into new molds. It is the signal achievement of Senior’s recent work to have invigorated the tendency to nostalgia in his earlier work, by exploiting the necessity of his current cultural alienation, and thus creating a potent meditation on the nature of memory as well as a subtle critique of multiculturalism.