Artists find themselves today in an increasingly intricate dialogue within broader political and social contexts. Visual artists often face harsh and even arbitrary categorization as either progressively aware or reactively aesthetic. Artworks, in turn, are often judged by whether or not references to politics, culture, identity, and other intellectual themes are included at all.
Consider the vantage point of Times Square in the context of the subjects that are made accessible for art making. At this hub, many identities cross paths on the street, commercial culture meets hard news in the signs overhead, and drama, personal expression, and performance are on the surrounding blocks. Using this metaphor, we can understand that certain artworks function like the sidewalks that we are standing on while we the world continues around us.
This paradigm suggests itself when viewing the recent work of John Duff. In his current exhibition of sculpture and related drawings, “Designed with You in Mind: Various Sculptures, Variously Entailed,” we are not confronted with dismissal of the larger world so much as an attempt to place oneself in a core experience in relation to it. Most of the sculptures are made from plaster and steel rods. Rivulets of rust imbed the textured plaster. One thinks “that sculpture is as big as a bucket, or it is like a tire” but all these sculptures thwart a clear reading of scale and object identity. They are deceptively complex. One work fuses curved walls with inset planar angles. Another semicircular sculpture’s discontinuous walls magnify the proportional relationships between the remaining scalloped halves of the work.
Another work, a sculptural group entitled “Five Materials in Combination” is exactly that. The work seems to interrogate the idea of an object but denies it a noun-ness by emphasizing the preeminent importance of its material makeup. The sculptures are set on the floor; none are much above knee height, so that there is no direct correspondence to the body. In this significant way, the sculptures present a situation where the viewer is not directly addressed.
Duff may have titled his exhibition with a measure of irony, but he keeps the viewer in mind in the way he has produced such an exceptionally seductive and intelligent group of work.