Atomic Minimalism: Jeff Williams at Jack Hanley
November 15 to December 21, 2013
Jack Hanley Gallery
327 Broome Street
New York City, 646-918-6824
NEW/USED/WET/BROKEN, the debut solo exhibition of Jeff Williams at Jack Hanley Gallery, features work that tests its own structural or material vulnerabilities. Williams, an artist who divides his time between Brooklyn and Austin, Texas, highlights and isolates various scientific processes behind physical degeneration. His intricate sculptural installations (all 2013) are composed as chemistry and physics experiments. Going beyond illustrating the effects of age and erosion, many of his works activate entropic processes and house the ingredients of their own undoing. The show consists of eight pieces ranging from a twenty-foot monumental steel column to a photo printed on newsprint, to floor sculptures, wall propositions, and video.
In #13, a two-foot-long aluminum I-beam protruding from the wall about four feet off the ground, looks sleek with a single buxom wine glass hanging upside down by a wire stemware rack attached to its underside. The I-beam is bent just enough to perfectly curve around a one-inch-thick threaded metal rod that buttresses it from the floor. Williams has coated the wine glass with liquid gallium, a camouflaged threat, as gallium’s smooth silvery sheen mimics the surface of the aluminum. Gallium and aluminum are in the same periodic group (called Group 13), but gallium “attacks” aluminum—it is so highly corrosive to some metals that it can weaken or dissolve them. In #13, these elemental enemies are held together in risky proximity so that the glass endangers its own aluminum support.
Oxidation Table is a six-foot-long metal fabrication table that was found by the artist this summer on the Skowhegan campus in Maine. It’s composed of a rebar frame supporting 18 rusty steel slats, upright and spaced at regular intervals. The table’s heavily rusted surface is friable and brittle and the top edges of the metal slats have been eaten away into craggy, fingerlike formations. The rows of steel rails resemble miniature ruins or models of early Richard Serras. Three slats are so warped by corrosion that they no longer lay flat in the table’s slotted base, but wrench upward into dramatic arcs.
Multiple times a day, gallery personnel spray the table with a solution of hydrogen peroxide so that the piece continues to degenerate over the course of the exhibition. Because the slats are made of untreated metal, the surface begins to bubble right away and one can watch the oxidation process happen within minutes. The work spotlights the high degree of technology built into everyday materials and brings to attention the fact that most of the metal in our built environments is chemically engineered (galvanized, coated, blued) to resist the natural processes of oxidation and material decay. On a subsequent visit to the gallery, I found that a large section had broken off one of the rails. As the structural integrity is further compromised, the table becomes a kind garden to rust and its rich, powdery red-oxide pigments. Flaking pieces of rust that range between Indian and Venetian reds, siennas, and umbers continually reveal a fresh layer of cool gray steel underneath, waiting to be disintegrated.
Cibolo Creek is a floor sculpture that juxtaposes old and new, and human interference with natural processes. The work consists of a shiny yellow blowtorch fitted into an upright steel slab, facing a limestone fossil—a pairing that bridges the primordial with the contemporary and creates a strange visual approximation for a large span of time. The opposition of these two objects also plays with thermal decomposition. According to gallery staff, Williams lights the torch during impromptu performances in the space, exploiting a chemical reaction that happens when the limestone is heated. Breaking the 60 million-year-old Texas fossil into calcium oxide and carbon dioxide, the flame causes it to sputter and spew ancient debris onto the gallery floor, later cleaned up by gallery staff.
Chemical reactions and other unseen mechanisms yield striking physical changes in raw materials. In his art practice Williams repeatedly asks “Why?” all the way down to the atomic level. The artist’s embedded research adds conceptual drama and playfulness to works that are formally inscrutable. There’s a wonder and sensitivity in testing a material’s range and resiliency—that aluminum, for example, can be formed into a weight-bearing I-beam, or broken down by another metal or, in another sculpture, extruded as a foam. Williams is attentive to details, like the exposed bluish seams that bisect each of the two twenty-foot-long torqued building ties in Column, or Cibolo Creek’s interdependent, propped components, which seem to perfectly anticipate one another. Delicate decisions like these ensure that the sculptures’ experimental and procedural components are not deadened, but incredibly vivid.