Modernism’s Rejection: Three Sculptors in America

by Jonathan Goodman

Modernist formalism–How can it be described, what does it mean? We are, at long last, moving into a period in which modernism has been left behind, in favor of what can be called an anti-esthetic: the display of awkwardness in art or the transgression of the boundaries of good taste. Indeed, the elegant beauty of much modernist work is now entirely relegated to a historical perspective. In its place, we find a populist vernacular, in which the impromptu, difficult beauty of the street takes place in opposition to past achievements. Perhaps the first major movement to recognize the power of the demotic was Arte Povera, whose beginnings date to the mid-1960s. But the Italian artists belonging to the movement used poor materials to construct marvelously attractive sculptures–in particular, the plate-glass igloos of Mario Merz, held together by industrial clamps, stand out as visionary treatments of the ordinary.

In contrast, the artists discussed in this article–Yasue Maetake (based in New York City) Linda Sormin (based in New York City), and Daniel Giordano (based in Newburgh, a small city two hours north of New York)–are not only committed to rough materials, they are also interested in an esthetic devoted to the demotic. This means that their point of view, while not necessarily a leveling of high, middle, and low culture, does attempt a radical reorganization of form, along with the decision to elevate the ordinary.

It may be that it is time for this to happen. Contemporary art is now functioning within a highly structured and politicized academic milieu, at least in the United States. We are teaching our art students how to talk about their work, being heavily influenced by a fuzzy marxism and, just as importantly, a dedication to popular culture. The teaching of technical skill takes a distant second place to social practice, which is the decision to invest fine art with a radical position, one devoted to a populist esthetic. Interestingly, the artists to be discussed embrace the rough style of an art beholden to everyday life, as opposed to the aristocratic display of work meant for a small audience. No doubt the motive behind the current change is well intended, but we lose something as well, namely, the chance to create work without the pressure of trying to reach as many people as possible.

Modernist art was not well understood when it first arrived–this goes back as far as Cezanne, a major originator of modernism, whose work was not taken seriously until late in his life. Then we have had the period, a bit longer than a century in duration, of modernist ascension. Now, it is time to change. Maetake’s accomplished metal sculptures, Sormin’s involuted clay works, and Giordano’s wild epoxy casts all seek a different point of view. They embrace an intuitive organization that at first seems like an anomaly, especially to a well-versed audience trained to love the sculpture of Medardo Rosso, Constantin Brancusi, and Alberto Giacometti. But these newer artists are seeking something else: the repudiation of an elegant style that now has strong ties with big money, in favor of an art whose associations are wildly disparate and deeply non-hierarchical. It could be argued that the principles of such work come close to being vulgar, but that is entirely the point; Maetake, Sormin, and Giordano are seeking their way out of a dead end resulting from excessive exposure to what amounts to an esthetic regime, whose bulwarks include a falsely inflated pricing of work originally intended to challenge rather than assuage the upper classes, and the cult of beauty, again associated with affluence and a high-handed attitude.

This is not to say that the new attitude, evident not only in the artists discussed in this essay but also increasingly evident in much American three-dimensional work, does not have its own problems. If there is no structure or depth behind beauty, it becomes decorative. If we cannot create sculpture that challenges old hierarchies on its own terms, we lose coherency and specificity of purpose. Usually, we expect art to transcend the terms of its making, but what if current artists want to stay closer to the everyday? The use of found materials and a deliberate disregard of elegance offer a sharper realization of the insight that our physical culture is an expression, now, of refuse, of abject materials. There is nothing inherently mistaken about changing the substances and motivations of art, but we can comment that in current circumstances, when we are turning to the demotic, the danger is that the demotic will become tasteless. Yet taste changes over time, and culture’s audience is powerless to stop the onslaught of a different art bias–indeed, the audience may be responsible for the change.

Perhaps it is best to acknowledge that a democratized imagery would inevitably be seen in today’s art, reflecting the spirit of the time. Yet the results are mixed: I have seen work so loosely organized as to defy any notion of coherence. Still, there is always a precedent for current thinking; interestingly, the sculpture of the late American artist Nancy Graves, with its intricate, close placements of very different elements side by side, looks like a starting point for the artists in this essay. Can we say her work is a contemporary view of the baroque? Would the perception work for Maetake, Sormin, and Giordano? Issues of taste and visual organization move to the forefront of our concerns; it may not be necessary to categorize their work, yet an insightful appraisal helps us to understand an art whose imagery conflicts with much of what we learned was outstanding about sculpture. In fact, it is too soon to tell if the new work can live beyond the immediacies of its making; one has the sense that fine art needs to be looked at with the help of time’s distance–demanding a period of time of neutral interpretation as long as two generations before we can start to determine whether a movement or person will have a permanent reputation.

Even so, it is the art writer’s job to evaluate as cogently as possible the work of the artists being addressed. It is my feeling that Maetake, Sormin, and Giordano are unusually accomplished practitioners of an outlook that is in keeping not only with visual innovation but also with the social structure from which the exploration issues. We can hardly prophecy the future of American art, but we can work to determine how and why contemporary work exists in the way that it does, as well as attempting to read the extent to which the sculpture is accomplished–not in measure and restraint but in the free-for-all intensities of work intended to be unreasonable from the start. Of the three artists, Maetake most closely resembles modernist precedents: her work is an idiosyncratic blend of baroque extravagance and the understated nuances of Japanese animism. The artist studied glass making in the Czech Republic and then moved to New York to receive her MFA from Columbia University. She is currently establishing her new studio in Ridgewood, on the border of Queens and Brooklyn. Her installations and individual works often use metal and mixed media to establish an ambience of rough integrity, close to everyday life.

In her installation Reverse Subterrestrial (2017) at The Chimney gallery, Maetake takes a rough environment and embellishes it with uncouth features of her own. Work made of steel, wood, rush, and assorted natural pulp is draped over a two-storey mezzanine. Hanging from the ceiling and reaching up from the floor is the notable series called “Sparks of Green Rust Before the Wind” (2017). Skeletal metal and cane armatures are enshrouded by handmade papers that have been exposed to copper green corrosion. The result is a work of unusual, if also non-formal, beauty. Maetake uses an amalgam of industrial and organic materials, within a former factory setting, effectively blurring the boundaries between art and its exhibition space. Though Maetake makes use of her creations’ surroundings in a brilliant fashion, coherence is not the key to the work. Instead, it has a baroque sense–an influence acknowledged by Maekake–that embraces the 21st century and its uncontrolled and irrational art production.

Another group of sculptures intensify the feeling of baroque eccentricity; as a new series, they are called “Lineal Fetishism.” The works are made from a broad array of materials: animal bones, steel, brass, copper, paper pulp, polyester, seashells. The works defy any easy description beyond that of an impromptu organicism that relies on the inherent form of the materials used rather than a deliberate hierarchical shaping of the overall composition. As a result, these works exist in a place somewhere between human creativity and impartial nature. Their materials lead us to believe that we are witnessing the internal structure of some dead creature who lived epoch before now. Lineal Fetishism II (2020), a large tabletop sculpture supported by steel pins on one end, and a bone, widening toward the bottom, on the other, looks like a skeleton encrusted with debris from the sea. The middle part of the piece is a formless accumulation of the pale, washed white color we associate with bones, while a found stone, dark lavender in hue, presents the only bit of color in the work. In Lineal Fetishism IV (2020), a piece of bright copper tubing, looking like a deconstructed saxophone, supports a ringlet of bone, stone, and resin. What the two works mean is beyond the capability of the audience to know precisely. We are in a state of mystery regarding the art. It is the result of Maetake’s refusal to designate intention as part of her esthetic. They are what they are: no less, no more. It is more than difficult to assign the works a figurative or abstract existence. It looks like they exist somewhere in between, with a point of view leading into the unknown.

Sormin, the next artist to be discussed, is both aligned with and distant from Maetake’s evolutionary bone art; while Sormin’s efforts are very different from Maetake’s, we find that the former shares with Maetake a distaste for formal regularity in her clay works, which often involve intricate accumulations of narrow tubal forms, resulting in a dense forest of shapes, not deliberate allusions to nature. Also like Maetake’s work, in Sormin’s art we find a knowledgeable report of the relations between the innate substances brought into play by disparate materials and the balance between form and motive in art. Sormin, who studied and taught at Alfred University in upstate New York, is now a professor at New York University. But her academic experience has not made its way visibly into her art, which is consciously unreasonable, being determined by chance as much as deliberate intention. This means that her work defies the imposition of conscious constraint in favor of an intuitive, often reiterated, art vernacular.

In Fierce Passengers (2018), we see Sormin working out a typical installation involving heaps of things and inviting viewer participation with the use of wooden boardwalks–a practical decision that lifts her audience off the floor and involves them physically with the vertical dimensions of the art. In this case, Sormin’s exhibition, shown at CAUG, at Carleton University in Ottawa, Canada, incorporates things donated by persons who associated their objects with personal experiences of change and upheaval of immigration. There are, in the accumulations of things on view (expired food containers, glazed ceramic numbers, cracked pottery, a discarded hospital gown, a miniature Indonesian longhouse, an inflatable Canada goose decoy, raw clay, and  electron microscopic images of local Leda clay magnified 20,000 times their original size), too many items to describe. The overall effect can be likened to that of an explosive mass of individual objects, to be negotiated in real time, on the boardwalk, by people who came to see the show. Sormin is merging a social experience with art, in a way that literalizes the experience but does not explain it to the audience–we need to know ahead of time its context, namely, why the objects associated with displacement are part of the work. But the jumble of densely packed imagery is particular to Sormin, whose way of working celebrates the visual tonalities of a composition field halfway between construction and decay. This works not only on a formal basis; its force derives from the truth that experience tends to take the middle ground, somewhere between optimism and disappointment.

In her smaller works, Sormin uses ceramics to create densely tangled objects with colorful glazes. In Flight Risk (2017), the serpentine  maze of fired clay is too closely intertwined for the spectator to see through; the numerous glazes are intensified in hue by the seemingly fragmented nature of the discordant fibrils. The sculpture is a jumbled heap–somehow a joyous presentation of form, even as the work evades all traditional notions of composition. It shows what can happen when a talented artist throws caution to the wind. Form is never an absolute structure; it changes as our taste changes, and as I have noted in the beginning of this essay, we need an exit to escape from the weight of the past. All three artists described here reject linear elegance in favor of the inspired heap–work whose informal, non-formal structures argue for a more popular vision of art. Another work by Sormin, Strange Feeling (2017), again makes use of a dense mass of thin, spaghetti-like strands, pulled and stretched in a rectangular format, with one side brighter in color than the other. It is a work indicative of a new way of seeing: the texture of the sculpture means as much as the mass; moreover, there is the pleasant surprise of clay, the oldest art material, being used in a highly contemporary manner. Sormin’s art transforms its humble substance into a medium for a new vision, in which the clay becomes a vehicle for a kind of dark matter made new.

Giordano, the last artist of this essay, was a semi-professional tennis player and an accounting student before studying for his MFA at the University of Delaware. He deliberately creates work that moves beyond traditional limits of taste; in fact, this is what all three artists do. But Giordano especially likes undermining notions of what is acceptable in art. He has included an entire cheesecake, made by his aunt, blended with epoxy in a recent sculpture. His experimentation is extreme–parts of his largest piece to date, My Scorpio I (2016-19) consists of two 1970s motocross bikes in a trashed condition, immersed in batter and deep-fried! The missing front wheel, on one of the two frames that have been welded together, adds to the dilapidated feeling of the overall object, now as much an edible item as it is a vehicle for transport. Giordano is a young artist whose sense of play might be seen as antagonistic to the art powers that run New York’s culture. Yet that is his right, being a near necessity in the face of the city’s overreliance on the past, in particular the now heavy precedent of abstract expressionism. Something new must happen, and Giordano’s cheerful repudiation of almost any established cultural production will likely read as a brilliant insight into the future, even should he offend known boundaries of the acceptable.

Part of Giordano’s rebellion has to do with materials. They are eclectic in the extreme, including such unusual substances as urinal cakes, tennis balls, and lipstick. Most of these materials are so well integrated that the separate elements are indistinguishable from the whole. But knowing that the work consists of such components subtly changes our understanding of the art, which is usually a riot of different components–as many as twenty at a time. Giordano has been working on a series of outsize cowboy hats; Talent I (Titanic) (2016-19) consists of brick, clay, and cattail fiber, blended with epoxy, making up the overall form, with a cast of the artist’s buttocks to serve as the crease on the top of the hat. Supporting the work underneath is a stacked group of canned tomatoes, a recognition of his grandmother’s cooking style (Giordano’s family is Italian-American). What icon could be more American than the cowboy, found always in movies about the West and still worn today to memorialize a way of life? Food plays a large role in Giordano’s irreverent version of a suburban American Italy. It is central to his family and to Italian-American culture in general. In much of the work made by Giordano, food–ordinary and extraordinary–occupies a central place.

Indeed, Study for Brother with pouty protuberance (2015-20), an amorphous figure with two cast aluminum legs encircled at regular levels by raku fired ceramic, has as the crown of its head a fully blended epoxy cast of a cheesecake made by Giordano’s aunt. According to the artist, the work exists as praise for his brother’s erotic inclinations; family more than lightly influences the themes of this sculptor’s art. The point is that Giordano, like Maetake and Sormin, evades traditionally formal issues in favor of a near anarchic reliance on eccentric form. It is an inspired primitivism the artists adhere to, taken as they are with an uninhibited esthetic that disregards traditional form and embraces the commonplace. The consequences are primal rather than understated, leading to a place of mythic disorganization that resolves with longer looking. In the end, these artists are distinguished by their refusal to look back at the past, taking into hand a willingness to sacrifice elegance in favor of a bold nonconformism. One can hardly blame them if we acknowledge the fact that Picasso’s great painting announcing cubism, Les demoiselles d’Avignon, is more than a century old. Instead of being tied to art history, Maetake, Sormin, and Giordano are attempting to build what is meant to come next. Their future is increasingly our present, no matter how nostalgic we may be for modernism’s past.