What from a distance struck me at first as an arrangement of piled found objects gradually revealed itself to be much more. I was drawn into the sculpture’s quiet intrigue. For this was no casual arrangement where, at its best, the viewer is expected to ‘get’ to some larger external issue through recognition of the identity of parts and how they might be manipulated (or not).

Doris Salcedo Review

Doris Salcedo Review
Alexander and Bonin Gallery, NY
November 22, 2008–January 3, 2009

When I first laid eyes upon Doris Salcedo’s two wooden sculptures, placed side by side in the Alexander and Bonin Gallery, I believe that the fact they were constructed of furniture parts, in the main whole and intact furniture parts, distracted me. Two wardrobe cabinets, the kind with either legs or closed bases and one or two doors, lay on their backs in each sculpture, one atop the other. A long, library-style table seemed to be placed over the top of them, and extended out one end as a kind of appendage. Two of its legs (the only two, one discovers on closer inspection) stood firmly, traditionally, as tables do—on the floor.

What from a distance struck me at first as an arrangement of piled found objects gradually revealed itself to be much more. I was drawn into the sculpture’s quiet intrigue. For this was no casual arrangement where, at its best, the viewer is expected to ‘get’ to some larger external issue through recognition of the identity of parts and how they might be manipulated (or not).

Here, the fact these sculptures are made of wooden furniture is immediately accepted as fact (such as one accepts the fact of paint in a picture). It’s when you recognize how the artist has craftily fitted these furniture entities into a new cohesive whole that things get interesting. I must confess at this point to knowing little about Salcedo’s art. Written material on hand linked her to the fissure created in the floor of the Turbine Room at Tate Modern in London, UK. I missed seeing this work firsthand, but was provoked by the concept and its potential to do something with this challenging space where, to my mind, all others have failed.

But back to the works at hand. You notice, for instance, that the top cupboard fits down over the bottom cupboard, side panels overlapping and adhering tightly to its mate below. Or, is it the bottom cupboard pushing up into its counterpart above? Then you notice that the table is likewise fitted into the upper cupboard, both on one side and its top surface, so that all surfaces adhere seamlessly into the whole.

Then yet another subtle twist is revealed: Salcedo has injected concrete into the upper panels of the cupboards in strategic but totally ambiguous locations, which further heightens the mystery of these provocative sculptures. How dense is the concrete? Does it fill only the shallow depth of the panels or, heaven forbid, has she filled their entire cavities and we witness only the finishing off of their tops?

As this conversation slowly clarifies itself, both within the formal container of each sculpture and also from sculpture to sculpture, a deeper mystery becomes apparent. A holistic tension—each element seamlessly adhering to the next, the energized space caught beneath the projecting table, the sculptures’ scale, proportion, coloration—leads us towards the experience that great art evokes: we become more fully aware of ourselves; not just the physical act of standing or lying, but here of embracing another, of becoming one; and from this gesture, we confront fear with security, loss with discovery, longing with hope, and dreams with reality.

Salcedo’s strength is more fully realized by a modestly scaled piece in an upper gallery, where a simple wooden chair offers an intimate support for a rectangular column of concrete. The column element again adheres tightly to the profile of the chair (and takes its shape and proportion from the chair’s confines, as if the aura of a sitter, or accumulation of sitters over time, has given the piece its weight) but in this case the column becomes a completely independent entity relying on the chair as a surrogate in establishing its architecture—the width and height of this ghost-sitter. The sculpture satisfies in a way in which, to my mind, Rachel Whiteread’s consistently fall short, I think because the latter becomes too obvious on repeat viewings. I would covet this sculpture forever: it is quite simply that expansive. A prologue to this encounter is discovering within the sculpture an area where she has sanded a section of the concrete column into a flawless merging with the chair’s back. It is among the most tender of passages executed in sculpture. This one small gesture gives the sculpture an intimacy of breathtaking proportion.

This sculptor’s thoughtful orchestration of material and technique presents us with the most generous of offerings. If the value of a work of art can be said to be the depth of emotion and introspection seamlessly enmeshed with the fullest understanding of the medium, then Doris Salcedo’s new sculptures are indeed valuable.

Douglas Bentham
© Bentham Artworks Inc.

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