Implements augments both process and effect
By: Zane Fischer 08/13/2008
Lately, I have been thinking about tractors. A lot. Inordinate, inappropriate, obscene amounts of thinking. I’ve been considering the origin and development of tractors, the changing styles and the technological advancements. The colors, shapes and forms of various tractors have haunted my dreams. The potential usefulness (or lack thereof) of a tractor as a post-apocalyptic survival tool has been mapped on bar napkin stratagems. The necessity of a tractor in fulfilling my poser-farmer fantasy has been diagrammed in a matrix involving the price of a tractor, the size of my salary and my adequacy as an actual farmer. The data was thrown out after it proved disappointing. In lieu of a long-term relationship with a tractor, I’ve considered renting. It would be like prostitution with heavy equipment.
Given this, it will surprise no one, least of all myself, that Jeremy Thomas’ new exhibition at Charlotte Jackson Fine Arts, Implements, gets me all hot and bothered. It is not simply that Thomas powder-coats his steel sculptures in the lush reds, oranges, greens, yellows, etc., of industrial tractor manufacturers and implement companies—nor is it the fact that many of the new works actually possess the attachments necessary for being hooked to an actual tractor—but Thomas’ sublime sense of poetic form, playfulness and juxtaposition of Americana and high art.
Simultaneously on view at Jackson’s downtown, Marcy Street gallery and at her project space off of Airport Road, Implements has two very different manifestations, suited to the distinct spaces.
Downtown, the smaller of the two spaces is restrained by carpet and low ceilings. The space is full of plays on actual farming implements—the tools and accessories that tractors tow, push and power in order to perform numerous kinds of work. Around the room are variations of plows, subsoilers, disk harrows, middlebusters, cultivators, tillers, all with the links to be attached to a three-point-hitch or a drawbar, maybe even a power takeoff. It’s not necessary to know this, however, to intuit the industrial inspiration in the forms or to appreciate the sculptural elegance that distinguishes Thomas and at which he continues to excel.
The artist uses sheets of steel, which he cuts (usually into ellipses), joins at the seams and then forge-heats to the point of elasticity before he inflates them with compressed air, which balloons the forms into pillowy, rippled shapes, bloated disks and cartoony explosions. While he is in control of the basic form that results, much of the nuance is an accident of process, a situation Thomas sets up for himself and keeps his work close to the nature of the elemental forces that are his primary art-making tools.
The sumptuous, Rubenesque quality imparted on the sculpture through Thomas’ process—in tandem with the volatile, hard-candyish color finishes—have the effect of feminizing and sexualizing these iterations of male, agrarian devices. It subverts, provokes and delights. Thomas essentially presents an alternate past/present in which poetry trumps Puritanism and an object which works the land must be as strange, bountiful and beautiful as the land itself. The tone of the work is reminiscent of the photographs of Robert Parke Harrison in its conjuring of agriculture as metaphor for lens into humanity, desire and mythology.
The portion of the exhibition at Jackson’s voluminous, industrial project space is comprised of a perfectly sparse selection of large, freestanding sculptures, finished from the same palette of remarkable industrial colors, which include hot pink and a particularly dazzling gold. One of Thomas’ signatures has always been to form a kind of enveloping clamshell, hooded with larger seams than the other joints on his bulbous forms, and to patina this portion by oxidizing the steel. The effect is a rusty counterpoint to the flashy powder-coating that accentuates the form and gives it narrative.
In this latest body of work, Thomas eschews the inverted fold and, instead, oxidizes portions of outward-jutting fins and sagging dog ears. It sounds like a simple shift, but it is in fact evolutionary. The versatility of presence and implication that surrounds these new works is primeval and mysterious. On the one hand, they are pop eruptions, on the other hand, totemic artifacts of some unknowable and mysterious culture. Like a Joseph Beuys sculpture or a visit to some standing stones, the motivations and purpose may be unclear, but the emanating forcefulness of the object is impossible to ignore. Where seams have ruptured and left a fracture point in the impeccable craftsmanship, the effect is only heightened.
It must be noted that a spare room, with Thomas’ sculpture spaced just so within it, reminds one of a visit to the John Chamberlain building in Marfa, Texas—one of the highlights of a visit to the Chinati Foundation. Thomas’ work is quite distinct from Chamberlain’s—and from Donald Judd’s for that matter—but there are resonances. As it happens, there are also residencies for artists at Chinati, something that Thomas should consider. If such a thing proves problematic for whatever reasons, the Lannan Foundation, which maintains its own Marfa residency, would do well to consider Thomas a prime candidate.