Wednesday, June 25, 2008

A fierce and reckless passion: Vosseller at BlackRock

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Photo by Page Carr
Vosseller’s ‘‘Captain Ahab” fully occupies the 52-foot length of the gallery and is 16 feet high. One end springs elegantly from a metal base, the other is like a wave crashing.
It was almost inevitable that Richard Vosseller would turn to three dimensions.

An abstract painter for some years, his work was nearly sculptural in character, the paint laid on in great heavy swaths projecting off the surface. Upon learning late last summer that he would have a solo exhibit at BlackRock Center in Germantown, he began working on an abstract structure that would, when realized, fully occupy the gallery’s huge white space. At the same time, the work would imply a narrative about what Vosseller called the ‘‘fierce and reckless passion” that drives an artist toward domination of his medium — much the way that Captain Ahab pursued Moby Dick to the bitter and failed end. And, as in Melville’s novel, where pursuing the white whale occupies nearly all its hundreds of pages, Vosseller’s exhibit ‘‘Failure is an Option” is as much about the process of creating ‘‘Captain Ahab,” the great wood and metal structure that arches diagonally across the gallery’s center, as it is about the outcome.

The work looks like something still in process, with a raw feeling that comes from its component industrial materials. The two-by-fours that make up its structure still bear their mill imprints and are unsanded, unpainted and unvarnished. The metal clamps that connect them, custom made for this purpose, seem rough, with large metal screws holding them on. These screws are seen in the center of a photo — contrived to look like a painting — of the artist’s desk that is printed on the invitation to the exhibit. This desk is strewn with almost everything else in it save the sculpture itself: open sketchbooks, notebooks, a carpenter’s rule, a small pile of wooden blocks, a 1⁄16 scale model of ‘‘Captain Ahab” and a laptop showing a partial CAD drawing.

The latter, which appears in the exhibit as ‘‘CAD Drawing for Captain Ahab (The Impossibility of Asking Perfection from an Imperfect Material),” brings up the themes of irony and opposition. In ‘‘Moby Dick,” Captain Ahab deems the whale the embodiment of evil, but his obsession clouds the issue of good vs. evil, of positive and negative. The CAD drawing is perfect, its trusses arching in perfect mathematical precision. Wood and metal are not perfect; they expand, contract and bend.

The small drawing ‘‘Captain Ahab Truss Study” shows Vosseller’s attempt to calculate the angles of the structure by hand to take these imperfections into account. It stands in the gap between the CAD drawing and the finished structure, a source of tension that informs the whole installation.

The work indicates dualities such as building and destruction, structure and non-structure, function and non-function. It also refers to the question of sole authorship. Vosseller made the CAD design alone. Yet, as in architecture, the sculpture required the collaboration of 10 people to build, and, as Vosseller says, the ‘‘contributions of people in the trades for access to specialized tools — like a 60-ton press.” Built in the gallery, it will require collaboration to dismantle it for removal.

‘‘Captain Ahab” resembles a wave or a bridge between the metal base from which it springs and its chaotic other end. In doing this, Vosseller was thinking about sequence, the movement from beginning to end, once again suggesting a literary parallel. Yet the experience of it in physical space rather than in the illusory space of painting, or literature, is important here. To make the point, Vosseller includes ‘‘An Illusion — for Old Time’s Sake,” a 4- by 8-foot perspective drawing in the nearly translucent medium of litho crayons and turpentine, its scale reminiscent of old master paintings.

The exhibit also includes ‘‘Monument,” a tall steel work, as well as related two- and three-dimensional studies for it. To achieve its somewhat crushed but resisting shape, Vosseller backed his car into an old metal locker so he could see how the metal behaved on impact. Its flaccid counterpart ‘‘Anti-Monument” is not in the show, but appears on one of two sheets of superimposed studies drawn on translucent vellum paper that hang nearby.

Three large charcoal drawings comprising ‘‘Destruction Construction” might have been the starting point for these explorations. Dating from about a year ago, they show large construction beam-like forms piled, or falling, on each other, focusing on the problems of illusionism in two dimensions. The concept of ‘‘building the picture” that emerged from these was the point at which Vosseller moved into sculptural form. ‘‘Steel Pile #2” and ‘‘Steel Pile #3,” one rusted, one smooth, are directly related to this moment. Comprised of small steel I-beams, they look like scatter pieces, but the surprise is that they are welded into one formal mass. In studies, the scale began to increase and the pieces move into space as though on a ‘‘big lift,” from which the seminal ideas for the ‘‘Captain Ahab” project were conceived. Yet, there is more to tickle the intellect here.

‘‘#1 Koan Sculpture Study” is a small drawing of an unbuilt sculpture. The reference its title makes to the famous Zen Koan — the question about the sound of one hand clapping — seemed puzzling here. Asked about this, Vosseller explained that while he didn’t intend the work to embody the Zen concept, he felt it stood as a kind of antidote to the dualities implied by the other works in the show.

‘‘There is,” he wrote, ‘‘philosophically speaking, no creation⁄destruction, form⁄non-form, etc. Or maybe there is, and I busy myself thinking about its possibility or impossibility by building objects that take that idea into physical consideration.”