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Sculpting with Ruins or Imposing Force on Matte

By Stephen Truax

March 10, 2011

For her second solo exhibition at Klaus von Nichtssagend, Empty is Run About Freely, Bushwick-based sculptor Joy Curtis has created several large sculptures comprised of casts she made of interior moldings and architectural details of 77 Water Street, an unused downtown Manhattan bank building, which the Lower Manhattan Cultural Council employed as studio space during Curtis’ residency in 2009. She has been working with the material collected during this residency almost exclusively for the past year.
By attaching, combining and hanging the casts together in quasi-architectural formations, Curtis’ sculptures recall the remains of ancient ruins, like those we find in the Classical wing of the Metropolitan Museum. Curtis is particularly interested in the inherent chemical and mineral components of the material she works with, calling attention to her lava and boron-based Fiberglass, gypsum (plaster) and Portland cement, also known as Hydrocal.
Speaking to the work on display, Curtis told me, “[As artists] we mine the world for materials, and then we impose a force on that matter. I am interested in showing the evidence of imposing force on matter, and showing the evidence of the passage of time.”
A further dimension of theatricality is added when Curtis covers the assembled sculptures with various surface treatments, faux-elemental materials like heavy metals (made with pigmented watercolor), oil and carbon (sumi-e ink), and salt. The result is that these geological formations grow on her sculptures like bacteria. Curtis’ “ruins” appear to have been charred by fire, recovered from underwater, or found– like stalactites and stalagmites– in a cave. Says Curtis of the process, “I impose force on matter in order to emulate a geological passage of time.”
Sacred spaces turned tourist destinations, artificially-lit natural monuments and simulacra, all uniquely American aesthetic concepts, are addressed full-on in Curtis’ sculptural language. The sculptures are not casts from ancient Roman cornice fragments, but rather from cheap Home Depot versions of the same. Semi-humorous yet genuinely amazed accounts of America’s grandiose fakes, such as the The Venecian Hotel in Las Vegas, by European philosophers come immediately to mind. Examples like Jean Baudrillard’s America (1989) and Umberto Eco’s “Faith in Fakes” (1986) spring immediately to mind when looking at Curtis’ work.
Curtis began responding to architecture in her studio as early as her MFA program at Ohio State University, where her studio was located in an abandoned mental asylum. Curtis uses a phenomenological approach to making work, attempting to understand “how it feels for her to be in a given space — objects in space — energy of a space,” she describes. Phenomenology clearly plays a major role in Curtis’ practice, particularly the strain of philosophy presented in Gaston Bachelard’s The Poetics of Space (1994).
Curtis’ work occupies a peculiar space between the Romantic, haunting imagery of a Francesca Woodman photograph and Rachel Whiteread‘s cold, clinical documentation of left-behind spaces. Both Woodman and Whiteread employ abandoned property as a subject, and both photography and cast sculpture function as documentation of those selected, derelict spaces. Similarly, Curtis transforms ordinary, quotidian details of such locations into new opportunities for sustained investigation.
There is an unmistakable element of magic in Curtis’ work. Her larger sculptures glow like ruins under spotlights in Klaus von Nichtssagend’s new Lower East Side space. The columnar and leaning works dictate the viewer’s movement through the narrow gallery more like architecture than sculpture. Curtis’ works recall the Classical gallery at a major museum: despite being located in New York instead of on-site in Rome or Athens, the objects on display in such museums are beautiful in their own right, re-contextualized. Similarly, Curtis’ sculptures simultaneously acknowledge their own inauthenticity as ancient relics and the fact that they are fabricated rather than naturally created, while remaining intensely beautiful.