Monday, October 5th, 2015

Shape of Play: Sculpture by Don Porcaro

Karen Wilkin’s essay, posted here, is taken from the catalogue of Don Porcaro’s two-part exhibition at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey in Summit, NJ. An outdoor display of his sculpture is on view through November 8, 2015 while his Cabinet of Nomads in Studio X is up through January 17, 2016.

Don Porcaro, Cabinet of Nomads, 2013-2015. Mixed media, 7 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 1 inch. Courtesy of the Artist
Don Porcaro, Cabinet of Nomads, 2013-2015. Mixed media, 7 1/2 x 15 1/2 x 1 inch. Courtesy of the Artist

Witty. Elegant. Playful. Subtle. Comical. Frontal. Multi-faceted. Confrontational. Friendly. Thoughtful. Forthright. Singular. Incremental. Alive. I made this rather erratic list in Don Porcaro’s studio during a prolonged encounter with the works in this exhibition. Inspired by a conversation with Porcaro about his family’s heritage, I jotted down the Italian word prepotente – roughly “self-important” – a response, I suspect, to the insistently animated, “look at me” quality of Porcaro’s vertical assemblages of slices of colored stone. And then there’s our awareness of both the unified form and the physicality of Porcaro’s recent constructions–the dry stoniness of the layered limestone and marble. Each of his exquisitely crafted stacks of delicately varied hues has as much personality and eccentricity as an idiosyncratic individual. Spending time with Porcaro’s upright sculptures we begin to feel as if we’re at a party with a crowd of lively, extravagantly dressed guests. The notably different tops of each of the sculptures can appear as inventive hats and the often hilarious feet on some of the most refined of them suggest that these uprights might just scuttle off if our company doesn’t hold their attention. But soon Porcaro’s ability to invent expressive masses claims our attention—we begin to think about his suavely articulated volumes in relation to Constantin Brancusi’s ravishingly pared-down, eloquent forms and the party chatter quiets down.

This double reading of Porcaro’s sculpture is obviously what triggered the wide-ranging list of words that introduced this essay. It’s also an important aspect of what makes his work so compelling. His earlier polychromed pieces combining stone, metal, concrete and paint were unabashed fusions of the grotesque and the toy-like, conflations, as the artist has said, of “the monster and the child;” confronted by these sculptures, whether “life-size,” knee-high, or scaled to the hand, we began to wonder whether we had stumbled into Hieronymus Bosch’s world of sinister hybrid creatures or a particularly sophisticated aisle in F.A.O. Schwartz. Porcaro’s emphasis on stone in his recent work has expanded his vocabulary of allusions, to some extent because of the character of his chosen materials. The exuberant polychromy of his earlier sculpture not only helped bring his inventions to life, but it unified disparate materials and the variety of textures allowed us to read his complex composites as singular, albeit multi-colored, vivacious objects. Yet we also remained aware of color as an addition. Porcaro began to concentrate on the chromatic and textural possibilities of a palette of stone in 2011 when he was working on a project in Slovenia investigating the range of hues available in Croatian marble. He liked the way the variations of delicately colored stone allowed him to seamlessly integrate chroma, texture, and mass. At the same time he created substantial vertical forms by stacking slices of limestone and marble that permitted him to create volume with an additive, improvisatory approach similar to that of his earlier mixed-media constructions.

Don Porcaro, Sentinel 8, 2011. Concrete, metal & paint, 44 x 14 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Artist
Don Porcaro, Sentinel 8, 2011. Concrete, metal & paint, 44 x 14 x 14 inches. Courtesy of the Artist

While no less animated than his “Boschian” mixed-media creatures, Porcaro’s recent stone sculptures seem, at least initially, to be slightly more solemn in their associations, while retaining the sense of multiple readings that has traditionally been characteristic of his work. We are struck first by the singularity of the forms, by the way these unignorable objects loom up before us, occupying our space and demanding our attention. Yet we are also soon aware of the multivalent character of those singular forms. We note the many layers of stone, each slightly different in hue and surface, that make up the unified masses. We begin to think both about the process of accumulation and about natural stratified rock formations, while, in part because of the generous scale and verticality of these sculptures, we think, as well, about classical architecture. The swelling, upward thrust of Porcaro’s recent works suggests the way the columns on Doric temples are modulated to correct for optical distortion. Yet, at the same time, Porcaro being Porcaro, the undulating profiles of his upright sculptures, tapering to narrow tops, recall nothing so much as personable robots; or for those of us who spent childhood rainy days in the antique libraries of summer houses, we recall the tightly corseted society ladies of a certain age or caricatured butlers in satirical New Yorker magazine cartoons of the 1920s. The contrasting sinuous shapes and textures of the sculptures’ tops, assembled from many different sources, intensify the sense of personality and individuality. Porcaro refers to them as “caps,” “heads,” or even “a hookah.” He courts these varied connections, deliberately intending both to ground and to enliven his works by means of what he calls “a kind of reference.” The combination of tapering forms and the narrow edges of the sliced stone provokes still other associations—the elongated necks of the African tribal women whose traditional dress includes stacks of necklaces, for example. Porcaro says, too, that he wants the sense of compression that image elicits; it’s yet another component in the notable animation of his constructions.

Even when Porcaro ventures into more conceptual territory, as in the engaging Cabinet of Nomads, 2015, an installation of a multiplicity of small, colored forms elevated on legs and arranged on shelves, each individual part is as charged as any of his larger works. This sculpture is a new iteration of an earlier concept that had its origins in Porcaro’s concern with the steadily growing population of the world. Now, the work has been reconfigured both to represent both the troubling rise of displaced people world wide and to celebrate the United Nations. The many components that carry the symbolic weight of the sculpture are intimate in size, suggesting that, like toys, they could be picked up and handled. Yet for all their playful overtones, they are also, like all of Porcaro’s works, thoughtful, self-contained, and self-referential. Cabinet of Nomads is confrontational. We feel held accountable for something, even if we’re not quite sure what it is. This kind of multivalence is why Porcaro’s sculpture not only draws our attention but also holds it. At a moment when art is often over-explained or loaded with irony, his work asserts that serious ideas, both aesthetic and otherwise, can be presented by purely visual means, with wit and humor, without compromising either seriousness or wit. That’s both valuable and important.

Karen Wilkin is a New York based independent curator and critic.

at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey's Sculpture Garden, 2015. Stone and brass, 2012-2015. Courtesy of the Artist
Installation of Don Porcaro’s Talisman series
at Visual Arts Center of New Jersey’s Sculpture Garden, 2015. Stone and brass, 2012-2015. Courtesy of the Artist