essay by Jeff Rian
Justin Adian's taken up bronze casting. He got the idea from vacation homes around lakes in Texas, wheres he from, which often have a decorator motif outside, say on the patio or the boat dock - outdoor décor. His are thin-skinned and painted with high-gloss, marine quality Dutch, Hollandlac boat paint. Some he sprays again with Krylon glitter, to give them the shark-y sheen of a speedboat. Some have the look of a hot-leg or a hip-cocked flirt. That may be because one side looks more female than the other. Next to stone, wood, and fabric, bronze is one of the most iconic materials in all of human fabrication. Its soft as metals go, but with a hard body and an adaptive skin, a patina, which colors the way humans tan (bronzage is French for suntan). Roman armies carried small bronze plates with them, which they would carefully lay out to define their bivouac; one would be placed roughly at the navel of a human body, which located the command center, around which the movable town would be constructed. Bronze came from earth, and was used for weaponry and for art. Its one of the standard outdoor materials, next to stone, for showing heroisms emblematic rise skyward out of earth.
Better known are Adian's wall works, which he makes by fixing foam onto wood or stretcher bars or whatever, then wraps it in canvas, shapes it smoothly, and sprays with boat paint. The forms come from his drawings, which are abstracted from varieties of shapes. The bronzes, suggest limbs. Like his other works, they conform to the definition of abstraction: one thing is derived, taken, or abstracted from another. The forms themselves aren't as specific as, say, Donald's sculptures, which have specifically formal characteristics. Adian's are different but related, like in family relations.
Formalism is a subject artists talk about it, though its status as a defining category now sags as if the entire project has reached its endgame. It has, in fact, and in Adians case billows slightly. At the French art school where I teach, the word form makes me cringe. I start thinking about Sponge Bobs water world, where colors and things mutate and reappear like undiscovered fish. I mean, there are no squares in nature: we make them up for reasons of security. Architecture rose out of huts, teepees, and igloos. Mutant forms like Sponge Bob Square Pants derive from all that, too. Formalism as it was once taught to artists has been disrupted by television, scientific discovery, and commercial manufacture.
Artists have their way of making sense of things, especially of novelty and change. Adian's pieces look like adaptive forms, the way speedboats are, some of which are better suited to evade tipping over than others (which is what seamen look for in smaller vessels). Most forms are devised to fit particular schemes - boats, chairs, wheels, windows, houses, etc. Adian dresses walls with objects that relate to both painting and sculpture, as did Frank Stella. One might guess that instinct guided his choice of foam - a slave product of modern packaging, a toss-off he packed under canvas, carefully shaped and sprayed. Its is a fairly simple operation, with seemingly endless possibilities, whose limits, I'd suggest, conform to the innate human instinct for symmetry, balance, proportion, and scale. These instincts derive from the body's tactile and proprioceptive relationship to space, form, experience, architecture, and technology. If, for example, conscious creatures had the bodies of centipedes, or were equipped with two elbows and knees per side, or were sulfur- instead of carbon-based, their art would be very different from ours.
I first saw Adians wall objects in a Paris gallery. They were soft in every way: in shape, form, and color, and were much less assertive than Frank Stella's big baroque wall emblems. Adians were more intimate and self-conscious, hugging the wall a bit loosely, because the backs were painted fluorescent pink, which reflected on the wall as if to remind you that they were not defining the wall but occupying it. Each one looked like it had been abstracted from something familiar, like you could play a match game with varieties of objects to categorize them. They were a combination of rounded edges, soft colors like, say, de Kooning, and Richard Tuttle's hand-cut letters or his warm, poetic, but sometimes goofy objects. An obvious reference, I can imagine, a churlish reaction from Tuttle, or even Adian. Tuttle abstracted ideas about sculpture and painting with barely a reference to any kind of related shape. Adians look like a genre of abstract art that avoids landscape affiliations in favor of objective connections; they look more like packaging than the contents of packages. Now hes making bronzes, which led me to think about the rituals of art, and its continuity, and the way that rituals are meant to heal and to bring people together via memories of something, even when that something isnt very clear.
Tombs and temples were once the dedicated sites for religious ritual, enhanced with symbolic objects. Those ritualized spaces have been transformed by scientific rationalism. Art galleries have taken on the mantel of ancient processes; they house what Clive Bell called 'significant forms,' forms that derive from people, animals, architecture, and the objects we invent. Art gallery art is seen and studied as much as sensed or felt. Its about art history; it's the stuff of creative thought not associative representation, like powerful lions in front of libraries, or metaphysical mystery, like the crucified Redeemer. Yet, metaphysical mystery remains a primary agent. We call it creativity. We expect that from artists. We also think of atoms and molecules as the stuff of life, and not symbolic objects made for edifices that reach skyward toward a metaphysical Empyrean.
For eons art was guided by skyward transcendence. The iconic connections of bodily proportion and heavenward ascent determined the architecture and the architectural embellishments of the Athenian Acropolis, the Roman Forum, and the Cathedral of Notre Dame in Paris - Our Lady, big and safe in the heart of Paris. Stone structures and bronze statues externalized metaphysical iconography. Scientific enlightenment bred inwardness as never before imagined. Rembrandts version appeared in the manner he painted the eyes of his sitters. Robert Rauschenbergs was the result of a recycled quilt or stuffed Angora goat, which he treated with the care of a flower arranger. The feelings expressed related to the psychology of self-conscious awareness. Inwardness replaced metaphysics; satellites have replaced sky gods. (Rauschenberg turned a fruit stand into a bronze ziggurat [The Ancient Incident (Kabal American Zephyr)].
Science brought ritual from temples, pyramids, and domes all the way down and into the fluid iconicity of atoms and molecules, which molt in and out of existence via cosmic energy, gravity, light, and matter, and can be clinically rearranged in smartphones. Gravity holds us and makes us think about stability, about centers of force. Science promises to conquer human suffering, but in the process has made a confusion of many of the time-worn rituals people used to live by, get together for, and share. But life is still held together by the rituals of time, experience, memory, and symbolism. The Wellness industry tries to redefine a corporate metaphysics via therapeutic exercise (a new type of ritualized body politics).
Thinking about all that, we still put things on walls as if walls demanded giveback, like that Elvis Costello line, 'I've been talking to the walls and they've been answering me...' Mirrors and windows frame the inward and outward gaze, the self-consciousness of being and becoming. Pictures, paintings, and photographs suggest hypothetical discussion. Objects on walls recall relationships of another sort, perhaps related to personal or social ritual, or simply as reminders of the good side of human creativity.
The stuff of rituals has time-honored status, forged from myth, driven by language, framed by inventive reasoning and social connections; objects inscribe the bonds of human validation, from sculpted heroes and heroines to animal heads to crosses to mirrors to clocks to advertisements to contemporary art. Honor resides in shared beliefs, celebrations, and rituals agreements, which are conveyed through calendars, festivals, and holidays, and the obligations and pleasures of art.
Adians objects look as if they were once something but are trying to be something else, as if he is the agent, coaxing one thing to become another - which engages the personal ritual of making art. I thought they could be looked at from different perceptions, say, like a weightless astronaut in a spacecraft turning this way and that. On the wall they all but resist gravity; in their soft colors and mutant forms, they shy away from the physical gravitas of a Brancusi or a Carl Andre sculpture, and seem fey by comparison. A kind of metaphysical shyness seems to inhere to the works themselves, despite the nice colors and cushy shapes. They suggest, in their soft physicality, how modern formalism gave way to screen space, which has a limited depth of field. The pink fluorescent pigment on the back suggests they weren't meant for gravity to hold them so tightly. Differences occur in unexpected ways. (Water drains backward in the southern hemisphere.) Imagine his works in spaces not limited to up versus down or in a starship.
Which brings me back to the bronzes, and how they can be hung indoors or outside. They exhibit archness - not simply in the curved or supportive sense, but also in a playful or saucy sense. Archness brings them forward physically, while taking them back into the game of form, content, and the tradition and story of art, whose rituals are so necessary for life.