Thursday, January 13, 2011

R. Justin Stewart

R. Justin Stewart, 2am to 2pm, 2008, copper, wood, thread, steel, dimensions variable.
There is a very strong link between abstraction in the visual arts and the art of map-making. When reading or drawing a map, one operates, as with painting or sculpture, according to a code of lines, colors, and shapes for information. Moreover, just as one translates the lines and shapes on a map  according to their relation to other lines or shapes, abstract painting and sculpture tend to ask the viewer to pay attention to mostly relative visual facts. It brings to mind an interview between the painters Robert Motherwell and Hans Hoffmann from 1952:

Motherwell: Would you say that a fair statement of your position is that the "meaning" of a work of art consists of the relations among the elements, and not the elements themselves?
Hofmann: Yes, that I would definitely say. You make a thin line and a thick line. It is the same with geometrical shapes. It is all relationship. Without all these relationships it is not possible to express higher art.

(From an interview in Modern Artists in America, First Series (1952), edited by R. Motherwell, Ad Reinhardt, and B. Karpel, p. 19, 39).

What one gets from looking at the sculptures of R. Justin Stewart, an artist who I was able to meet while visiting his studio in Long Island City last week, is an intuitive working-out of this "relational" phenomenon in visual art.

It's worth mentioning that some of Stewart's works really do describe or "map out" physical spaces. This is certainly apparent in his impressive (like, really impressive) work 2am to 2pm (2008), a sculpture built to represent the relative positions of buses and metro trains on the Minneapolis public transit system over a twenty-four hour period. With each stop on a given transit line represented by a wooden ball, a bus or train's movement through space is represented horizontally. Time is represented vertically, with each new bus or train route represented by a parallel chain of balls and sticks sitting beneath it. With an array of threads running through the resulting web of balls and sticks, the entire structure floats gracefully above the gallery floor, suspended by a pair of weights on each end, which themselves hang in the air like long-stringed bells. Each element of the piece relies heavily on the others to stay in place, forming a complex and utterly balanced structure.

I'm not so confident in my ability to describe Stewart's work as to omit a link to his website, The fact that his works are so difficult to describe is indeed part of the thrill. Several times in conversation with Risa Shoup, the curator I work with who hopes to include his work in her show at the Invisible Dog in Brooklyn, Stewart described his works matter-of-factly as an expression of what was "in his head." In his Systems of Knowing series (the drawings for which look more like maps than 2am to 2pm but aren't), circles and lines could be read for actual spatial or physical data--as a blueprint, perhaps, for the sculptural versions of the two-dimensional drawings in which they appear--but they could also carry meaning simply and exclusively for one another.  Stewart's admission that the drawings could have taken many different sculptural permutations than the one he chose to fabricate gave the pieces a somewhat open-ended character, but the works are altogether inert and self-contained. One gathers from looking at Stewart's work a rather transcendental attitude. Very little sleep is lost over whether the ideas he's working with might defy verbal description.

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