Hidden fortresses

What’s not there is often as important as what is. (This is often called the art and is, of course, only half the story.) The new sculptures of Wendy MacGaw and the works on paper of Howard Ben Tré at Lemberg Gallery (through April 20) are wonderful examples from artists who know where the world ends and the art begins.

For two decades, MacGaw has constructed steel-and-glass sculptures that prompt viewers to call up architectural references as almost homages to the spirit of industrial modernist design. Their inscrutable craftsmanship certainly has always done that, yet there’s always been a degree of uncertainty with that reading, as if their identities were trapped by the forms of the pieces themselves, as if there were an emancipated reading waiting to be discovered.

MacGaw’s six new sculptures are still composed of fabricated steel, found or recycled glass and remnant sheets of laser-cut steel parts. And these new pieces still resemble architecture. However, their overall presence now provides an existential enigma for us. There’s a pervasive sense of mystery surrounding each of the works. Each has its own personality and set of references that draw readings, yet they remain enigmatically impenetrable.

There is a series of immediate connections that range from industrial artifacts, mission-designed architecture, as well as Japanese temples (Loupe 1, 2002, pictured). But slowly they become masklike — both containing or imprisoning an interior and resembling exterior fortifications — deflecting our attempts to decipher them. Moving around them activates their essential mystery and each becomes a small theater with its own drama. The fluted or etched “windows” into them betray nothing, only adding to the mystery by reflecting and refracting light. Subtle variations of green, yellow or clear glass over the intricate and varying grid patterns of their interiors add to their drama and offer still more possibilities in reading them. The fundamental question of what they are becomes paramount as they defy any functional description.

Howard Ben Tré’s mixed-media works on paper also escape an easy classification, shifting from figurative paintings of objects that have a historical presence (referencing ancient Egyptian or Roman artifacts) to suggestions of contemporary jewelry forms. But they also become abstracted ritual objects, actually achieving a physical presence with their built-up surfaces of gesso, modeling paste, gel medium, metallic powders and pigmented wax. Ben Tré is a renowned sculptor, whose work ranges from large castings of glass objects to functional public pieces such as fountains and seating, including actual city planning of public plazas and urban malls.

That the paintings are representations of realized sculptural works doesn’t change their status as ritual forms that stir a slow meditation on the nature of their identity. That the complex patinas on the surface of the paintings actually reference the glass of Ben Tré’s sculptures only adds another dimension to their mysterious quality. Sometimes the compact forms remind us of functional objects — such as a plumb bob. At other times, a more volumetric shape becomes a mummy or ritual object imbued with signifying presence (as in Basin, 2001, pictured).

The indefinable nature of both MacGaw’s and Ben Tré’s works — our inability to ascribe meaning and hence value to them — and the overall mystery that shrouds both, have the salutary effect of inspiring awe and reverence, for their output as well as for the creative act and life itself. The beautiful installation at Lemberg Gallery (23241 Woodward Ave., Ferndale – call 248-591-6623) is an added wonder.

Glen Mannisto writes about visual art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]
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