New York

H. C. Westermann

Allan Frumkin Gallery

H. C. Westermann’s exhibition of new works at the Allan Frumkin Gallery continues the level of truly distinguished accomplishment that has marked his one-man shows since his 1958 debut. Westermann stands for the total commitment to “unedited” expression and superb craft which can give artistic production an integrity coeval with an ethical act. Wedding his technique at every point with the form of his imagery and the nature of his content, it is impossible to conceive of any piece apart from the specifics of the materials Westermann has chosen for it. This union of the image and its material gives Westermann’s work a powerful presence over and above its allusive qualities. Strangely, despite the taste (or rather appetite) for assemblage techniques and “constructed” sculpture, Westermann is seldom included in the big institutional sculpture roundups. Admittedly, he does everything wrong. He doesn’t make the scene. He isn’t campy. He makes all his own work. He doesn’t joke, and his smallest piece will ruin the decor. Worst of all, he doesn’t grasp or follow the etiquette of the outrageous. In this respect his work is sufficiently backward that his outrageous pieces have to do with ferocity and ire rather than polemical titillation. As in the past, his current show has several central themes embodied in clusters of more or less related objects. There is a sizable group of free-standing monuments, a batch of “boites a memoire,” and a series of emblematic carved reliefs. All of these works are paradoxical allegories of the intricate vulgarity of modern life. The paradox lies in the clash of the excruciating particulars of his imagery and the voluptuous expertise of his execution. Materials and forms which, when combined, generate mutually exclusive perceptions and concepts are Westermann’s forte.

Negate is a wooden piece in the form of two wood-working planes that face one another; their fronts are interlocking chain links.  Social Problems is a pine box painted white inside; behind the front glass that has a trompe l’oeil crack emanating from a real (plugged) hole is a length of dusty black rubber tubing attached to one side and the bottom of the box by conical mounds of steel wool. It is difficult to imagine a more disagreeable object. An untitled relief shows a headless nude female whose breasts are early Ionic volutes. On her belly a hinge is installed over a split in the wood, and there is a metal strap screwed over a crack on one thigh. The Suicide Tower is a tall building with exterior stairs winding up and around it which terminate in an extension like a diver’s platform. Peep-portholes disclose postcard views of an infinite boardwalk extending into a featureless sea. Several different pieces have ebony fins protruding from sumptuous pieces of Honduras mahogany. Together with lines incised behind them, the fins give the sinister suggestion of sharks swimming under the surface of the wood. Many such startling inventions can be discovered over, under, and even inside the bases of the pieces. Nouveau Rat Trap is an example of this unlikely imagery that plays off delectable curvilinear forms against the violent outsize trap mechanism. Stating comfy banalities with an obsessive intensity of feeling, Westermann can be profoundly disquieting. Nor do violent images presented with rich materials and hallucinatory perfection of craft do anything to soothe the squirming viewer; Westermann’s paradoxical objects point up the willful folly of our attempts to reconcile what we know with what we like to think.

–– Dennis Adrian