Besides discovering that they’d studied anthropology together at the University of North Carolina in their youth, Hamtramck sculptor, former Cranbrook artist-in-residence and art collector Michael Hall and New York sculptor Richard Nonas have something quite profound in common. In Nonas’ enigmatic arrangement of cold bars of steel, gouged wooden timbers and bored and split stone, and Hall’s folded, fastened and painted sheet metal, there’s something that frees the artists from the rituals of contemporary art, from the chicanery of the marketplace and the kind of language production that surrounds the art world. While both are deeply immersed in the activity of building bridges between life and art, their work takes us back to the canon of modern sculpture. It has a nomadic scholar’s quality, which, among other features, includes a search for spiritual roots and communication with other cultures, as well as a poetics of the materials of art.
These revelations are there to be discovered in the current exhibition at Hill Gallery. Hall has four new pieces and one “breakthrough” piece from the late 1980s in the small backroom gallery. Nonas’ sculptures occupy the front room and serve as a mini-retrospective of his work.
Attached to the wall above Hall’s pieces are one Zuni Indian and two Hopi kachina dolls. The Hopi and Zuni create and empower kachinas with spiritual (supernatural) identities that are called upon for such ritual tasks as personal protection, the blessing of the harvest or perhaps a safe rite of passage. Made solely of cottonwood root, these Native American “action figures” are ritually given to children during planting and harvest festivals, and serve multiple roles (much like pop culture’s Beanie Babies) in the tribal cosmology.
Hall found an “unexpected figurative presence,” a kachina-like look, in an abstract sheet metal sculpture he was making in the ’80s that reminded him of the kachina dolls in his collection. His interest in American naive art and in popular culture, coupled with a modern sculptor’s concern with process, translated into the new group of sculptures being shown at Hill.
Waltz Kachina, the discovery piece of 1986 (pictured), is a remarkably chameleon-like sculpture. At once architectural in its referencing of such vernacular farm buildings as hoppers and silos, as well as the design of chess pieces, it also has the formal appearance of a suited, even tuxedoed, figure that echoes European as well as Native American attire. Kachina dolls, vernacular architecture and naive art belong to the “can-do” tradition of the hand-made, and Hall’s “Kachina Series” owes its presence to his interest in the great traditions of those arts. Each of these new works features specific (not gratuitous) decorative elements that grow out of the process of bending, fastening and tabbing the sheet metal he works with — while addressing, at the same time, the very issues of the ritual power of modernism.
Because of their simplicity, one wants to say that Richard Nonas’ sculptures have a relationship with nature that’s somehow pure, that the materials he works with — steel and wood in the case of sculpture, and oil stick in the case of drawing — are natural. In fact, all of his materials are removed from their original state and mediated by elementary industrial processes.
The rough-hewn blocks of an early piece like Dog Trick (1970) were once trees that were brought to their present state by the intervention of large sawmill blades. Their simple arrangement — two short timbers stacked on two short timbers — is an assemblage that has no references beyond the elementary relationship of the components. It’s a closed system.
The three cut-steel bars assembled to create Slot (1985) were derived from iron ore conditioned by industrial processes that lurk as patterns or models in our consciousness. The bars’ simple passage into this arrangement is the unseen source of their power. And it’s an unequivocal, closed system that gives Nonas’ simple sculptures an enigmatic and philosophical presence that hangs in the air, as much a cultural question mark as an artistic statement.
This gestural simplicity is neither expressionistic nor minimal, but rather is tied to the traits of any material he’s working with. The expressive angularity of Sawtooth Vertical (1992, pictured), for example, which might look like a wolf’s head, achieves its strength by expressing the hard edge of steel, the cold property that makes steel be what it is, not by any desire to create the image of a wolf.
This mining of the raw lineage of the materials of culture is the poetic process that underlies Hall’s and Nonas’ sculpture. While it engages many features of modern art, its totemic presence conjures a human dialogue that we all share.
Richard Nonas: “Sculpture/ Drawing” and Michael Hall: “Sculpture/Kachina Series” are at Hill Gallery (407 W. Brown St., Birmingham) through April 26. Call 248-540-9288.Glen Mannisto writes about art for Metro Times. E-mail him at [email protected]