Forty years ago, a sculptor could stop almost any American museum crowd in its tracks by erecting an abstract tower of metal. But as times have changed, sculptural works in fabricated steel have steadily lost that allure.
They haven't suffered the infamy of collapsing on and killing college students for the sake of football. But they have fallen victim to their own proliferation as entrance icons for suburban malls and business parks.
Once seen as the last great innovative expressions of "The Age of Iron and Industry," they have become the fabled cultural poop in too many corporate and government plazas -- showing up as dull, rusting or lollipop-colored spans and chunks that have none of the bravado or keen artistic edge that Julio Gonz#aacute;lez, Picasso, David Smith, Alexander Calder and a few notable others managed to hammer and shape out of steel earlier in this century. Or that Ellsworth Kelly and Richard Serra can occasionally claim today.
That slippage doesn't seem to bother Rico Eastman, a sculptor from Santa Fe. For the past several months, he has been pursuing this old-fashioned brand of sculptural modernism at a cavernous aging tin building and fenced lot at Ninth Avenue and Jackson.
As artists go, he is a willing throwback, working in a part of town that has its own rugged aura of fatigue. The vacant lots around Eastman's workyard, adjacent to the old Hyster building, are strewn with rubble and rubbish. And most of the people who walk the broken streets and sidewalks of this area -- defined by crisscrossing railroad tracks and chain-link fences topped by razor wire -- are the poor, the drifting or drug addicted who rely on the nearby food kitchens, shelters and clinics for the homeless.
Eastman's digs, which he's subletting from sculptor Michael Anderson, are barely a step above the surroundings. The tin building is an oven in the summer, a cooler in the winter. Temperatures in the unshaded yard, with all its scrap metal, typically rise in the heat to well above 120 degrees. The building has no formal bathroom, no running water. But along with the yard, it provides plenty of space to do what Eastman can't do in Santa Fe: work large at a relatively low cost. That's a chief reason why artists have been more outspoken than others about the loss of these downtown properties -- historic or not -- to government buildings, sports venues and brew pubs.
"We just don't have these kinds of industrial spaces in Santa Fe, and I suppose they're dwindling here," says Eastman, who studied at ASU in the mid-1980s and now exhibits at the Riva Yares galleries in Scottsdale and Santa Fe.
Anderson, who has been at the location about four years, says the pressure to develop the area probably means the low-rent days are numbered. In the meantime, the razor wire -- which ornaments all the businesses in the area -- reveals the area's disadvantages. Thieves who mingle with the homeless are constantly breaking in and trying to walk off with whatever isn't bolted down.
Eastman has produced two works since coming here in August. He recently installed the first one for a client in Reno. The second, which he and an assistant are finishing up in the next few weeks, is slated to be installed later this month at Yares' sculpture garden in north Scottsdale.
Art has a way of summarizing its maker's experience. And Eastman's recent works are no exception. Made with numerous interlocking, curved sheets of steel with rounded and slotted edges, they have the look of three-dimensional jigsaw puzzles that are held together by tension rather than by welds, nuts and bolts. They combine the orderly constructivism that guided his past work as a blacksmith with the expertise in tension joints he gained as prototype designer for the tent designer Bill Moss.
Moss created some extraordinary structures -- now part of every hiker and camper's backpack -- with curved poles and tensioned fabric that could be popped open and inhabited in a matter of minutes.
"We used the term 'relocatable architecture' to describe what we were doing," says Eastman. Among the ideas they toyed with, he says, was one "for disaster structures that could be deployed from planes with parachutes, popped open before they landed and hit the ground as whole structures."
Eastman's multi-ton sculptures obviously don't have that abracadabra ease. But, like tents and functional metalwork, they embody the formalist grace of physical forms and fits that also serve larger visual and spatial functions.
As mentioned earlier, Eastman's are fairly traditional works. They don't sprawl across the landscape or attempt to act as installations of disparate things. They are about the poetic link between structure and form.
That's been true of his work for a number of years. He used to create hollow-form compositions of curving and twisting slabs out of sheet steel. Their false sense of mass was fairly typical of sculptures made for public places in the 1970s and 1980s.
Yet the works he exhibited at the Yares gallery in 1997 marked a significant change. Their forms were far more direct. They beautifully linked structure and space by weaving and stacking strips of steel into basketlike or architectural forms. The structures were the forms. In his current works, Eastman seems to be making less of a show of structure. The components are obviously puzzle pieces, but the broader exploration of the poetic struggle between contradictory aspects of his works.
For instance, 16 of the pieces are identically shaped and sized. Another 15 vary. Some are slightly larger, some smaller, and these contain hard edges and unusual curves that create a bit of dissonance among the soft-edged unity of the overall form.
It's a little unclear whether, in the end, that dissonance will seem to be too much of a contrivance.
What is evident, though, is that the process Eastman has been using to arrive at the result has been the usual empirical one of two steps forward, and one and a half back -- trying this, trying that and comparing it to the emerging work with the maquette he built to get his thoughts about the work going.
Until fairly recently, he didn't create any models of his works. He would simply get out the blowtorch, welder and grinder, and plunge into the world of noise and sparks. But the growing scale of his sculptures has made maquettes necessary.
"The maquette's really just a focal point -- a starting point -- for the imagination," he says.
To get the proper view of the current one, he brings the maquette up to eye level, like Gulliver peering at a monument filched from Lilliput, and rotates the model as though he were walking around it.
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"It's a lot like using a doll house to create or re-create events. The problem we're facing now, I guess maybe it's more of a question, is whether to stay true to the model or to change some things."
For the next few weeks, the answer will be in the lot at the corner of Ninth Avenue and Jackson Street.
For information about Riva Yares' sculpture garden, contact the Riva Yares Gallery, 3625 Bishop Lane, Scottsdale, 480-947-3251.
Contact Edward Lebow at his online address: firstname.lastname@example.org