In Dead Ringers, director David Cronenberg’s twisted but true tale about two gynecologists (twin brothers played by Jeremy Irons), there’s an uncertainty about the function of a series of horrific gynecological tools invented by one of the brothers. They end up in an art gallery as sculpture and then get used in a nightmarish surgery. In Tangent Gallery’s current exhibition of Detroit artist Brian Nelson’s latest work, “So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” a similar blurring of function is used by Nelson to create a landscape of stainless steel sculpture in a meditation on the nature of science and medicine.
In the main gallery, a collection of stainless steel tables, objects and framed light boxes gives the feeling of a research facility or operating room with X-ray screens and odd medical tools. There’s a stark mortality about the space — implicating all of our lives and deaths as subjects for weird research — giving it the feeling of a theater of science and medical technology. Relying on the machine-crafted appearance of stainless steel (with its precise measurement and engineered construction), each piece, surrounded by a halo of light, offers its own metaphoric experience. And the title of each urges us to consider its strange quality.
In The capacity of one breath, a stainless steel table that contains five small reservoirs holding test tubes has an “altered oxygen tank” sitting next to it. The oxygen tank has been altered by putting a valve at each end with a plastic tube running between them, thus making it dysfunctional and self-contained, as if living off itself. The small dimpled reservoirs fitted for the test tubes are super-realistic details that go beyond the normal scientific apparatus and, along with the “altered oxygen tank,” make us consider the self-perpetuating mythological power of the materials of medicine and science. It would be easy to call Nelson’s work “surreal,” but it would be an oversimplification that might subvert its complexity and obscure its subtleties.
There’s a lyrical, personal quality to Nelson’s sculpture that balances its cold sense of engineered craftsmanship. In Her breath the wind (for Lauri), an exaggeratedly elongated, vertical oxygen tank with oxygen mask sits at the head of another classically plain stainless steel table. There’s a peculiar convex dimple rising out of the table — as if something is hiding beneath the impenetrable stainless steel — and a DVD projection on its surface from above. The video is of waving trees and a blue sky with clouds. A barely audible sound of wind and perhaps voices can be heard. With the piece’s bizarre, elongated tank and mask, and its lyrical imagery and sound, it’s easy to be seduced by what feels like the presence of a person, so that it becomes a memorial portrait of sorts (strangely reminiscent of El Greco).
While Nelson’s master craftsmanship of the “table pieces” allows them to be seen as if they’re the real stuff of scientific research or medicine — thus making us think about the weird invasiveness of those practices — his smaller, more enigmatic works are perhaps more poetically accessible. Dibble (for genetic reconstruction), for example (pictured), is a fierce little construction that’s a roughly sexual as well as painful social commentary. A penile-shaped device attached by chain to a test tube filled with Prozac capsules becomes a gothic model of how science violently works to help us adjust our lives to the world.
Nelson’s exhibition is rare in a town like Detroit, where (too often it seems) recycled industrial artifacts and their burden of nostalgic history are called upon to carry the load of expressionistic meaning. In Nelson’s work, there’s a conceptual framework that isn’t afraid of ideas or of engaging the world on a level beyond the presence of the material itself. It’s an art that questions art and questions science’s misguided power. While his handling of stainless steel and the signifying power of scientific or medical icons is bound to the tradition of fine craftsmanship, there’s an intellectual, highly personal, perhaps even confessional quality about it that’s amazingly refreshing.
“So Far I Have Not Found the Science,” a midcareer exhibition of sculpture by Brian Nelson, is at Tangent Gallery (715 E. Milwaukee, Detroit) through Feb. 22. Call 313-873-2955.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at firstname.lastname@example.org
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