PRINT September 1996


JENNIFER PASTOR’S SCULPTURE inspires a giddy silence, the same gravid hush that occurs when we first catch sight of something truly strange. In nature and in life, such spectacles come ready-made: solar eclipses, concept cars, pedestrians struck by speeding cabs. In art, the strange and the new and our need for them have long been examined and formulaically deployed. But Pastor sidesteps the institutionalized strangeness of art for the strange institution of artifice: her work takes as its subject the realm of the reverently unreal, where nature’s serendipity is frozen and a novelty is achieved that is fundamentally different from the usual art-world kind.

To date, Pastor has produced only a few major works. But each is an over-the-top paste gem, none more barmy than her Untitled (Christmas Flood), 1994: a quite literal flood of fake Christmas trees, dangerously decorative ornaments, and hard plastic water. (When I first encountered Pastor’s trees, they were wedged into an impossibly narrow gallery space; viewers had to squeeze by and duck, lest they receive a nasty flesh wound, full of tinsel.) Preliminary drawings for this piece imply an apocalyptic narrative—a great logjam of artificial lumber, tumbling in a frothy torrent, seemingly bent on wreaking havoc downstream. But as realized, Pastor’s unnatural natural disaster is both less portentous and less pat, exploding optimistically upward and outward in a sparkly gewgaw rush. Shooting from a central splash of brittle transparent resin are five trees in varying degrees of WalMart verisimilitude, all crowned with quasi-moderne finials that aspire to ballistic lives of their own. One of these outsized tops looks like a cross between a Star Wars rebel fighter and the mothership from TV’s Space 1999; another conflates the Star of Bethlehem with a medieval mace.

While Pastor’s sculptures may exude influences left and right (Bernini, Gaudi, Koons, Spielberg), they don’t settle comfortably on any one artist or era, or on any easily digested political viewpoint. In reproduction and at first glance, her Bridal Cave, 1993, appears to be a standard feminist whack at Minimalism: a big, tortured wedding cake, vaguely phallic, dripping with some bodily secretion or another. But on closer examination, Pastor’s towering extravaganza is revealed as something more complex. Here, the artist has dug into the history of those dank, stalactite-encrusted caves that dot this country from New Hampshire to Missouri, utilized primarily as tourist attractions but also as subterranean shrines for couples seeking a unique matrimonial experience. (Some even have pipe organs built into their sweaty, limestone walls.) Pastor’s piece is surprisingly airy, a 12-foot-tall stalagmite-cum-chapel of carefully sculpted bubbly plastic, wrapped around a sinewy armature of copper wire and vinyl tubing. The entire confection balances precariously on a stout powder-pink leg, visually somewhere between a baluster and a baseball bat.

Those itchy because they can’t place Pastor’s politics may be further exercised by the fact that, while her works may be classically Baroque in their architectural energy, in the end they are refreshingly, generically American—due both to their implied threat of random violence and their loving attention to making nature more fabulous. Her art appears sprung fully formed from that mythic vat of stuff whence both giant Sequoias and really cool-looking automobiles come. Of course, such easy, muscular grace requires a lot of effort: but just when Pastor’s art feels comfortably high-art artificial—smacking of Koonsian slave labor, commodity critique, and museum-quality kitsch—it turns round again, and bites you with a work ethic and modest simplicity that some jaded observers can’t quite fathom.

Pastor’s art has more staying power than kitsch; it’s too handsome to be schlock; and it definitely isn’t camp because it’s not mocking anyone, good-naturedly or otherwise. All of the works’ seemingly appropriated elements—every faux pine needle and rippling plastic wave—are both handmade and painstakingly researched. Pastor regularly attends holiday-decoration trade shows and wooden-bird-carving competitions—not with the intent of appropriating low-class artifice for her high-class art, but so that she may understand it all better. Because it’s within these crafty guilds that an overlooked American urge to abstract creativity lies, amidst therapeutic elbow grease and idiosyncratic adherence to traditional esthetic codes.

The real grandpappy of Pastor’s art may be Claes Oldenburg. Both in physical terms and in the tug between a desire for formal elegance and a need for sly, often unfashionable metaphor, many of Oldenburg’s works, like Pastor’s, rely on being two things at once. Pastor has mentioned Oldenburg’s Giant Soft Drum Set, 1967, as a historical soul mate: a set of squishy skins not simply abstracted, but hilariously pooped from a rebellious generation’s dead-serious investment in their liberating powers. Pastor’s own artworks don’t melt down but puff up, their biotic artifice similarly born of tradition, yet unorthodox in its optimistic desire to reenchant an audience that thinks it’s seen everything.

David A. Greene is a writer and critic living in New York City. He is editor-at-large of Art Issues. magazine.