New York

H. C. Westermann

Allan Frumkin Gallery

Always outside of the seasonal flux of trends and “isms,” H. C. Westermann maintains his unique position as the magical creator of subtly satirical effects in varied forms. His constructions, block prints, and watercolors on view at the Frumkin Gallery were a thorough delight. Like the best science fiction films, or the comic books you doted on as a kid, they combine a marvelous, obsessive craftsmanship and a personalized technology with a novel sense of the fantastic—all finally, and finely, wrought in to a special blend of deadpan reality and irrational dreamstuff that emerges as more than either one. Although the watercolors were hung merely as a complement to the three-dimensional work which was the main body of the show, they provided valuable clues to Westermann’s specific and self-referential iconography. The charming, cursive style of the pen and ink drawing displays the lighter side of the artist’s sense of humor, while the narrative, autobiographical themes—the Human Fly, The Daredevil, Mad Woman, and The Black Ship—convey his objectified awareness of the outlandish risks or impending danger at the root of all human acts or artistic productions in contemporary life. Absurdity presides while the agile “human fly” (who has a giant Superman-type “W” emblazoned on his T-shirt ) scales the ledges of tall buildings and mist-ringed mountains. Likewise, the “daredevil,” a trapeze artist, flips precariously off of a perch that is suspended from cloudy heights, over a gay patchwork of fields. The fresh rainbow washes, and the overall comic character of the draftsman ship tends to disguise the more sinister overtones of such scenes (one forgets that the ship, which careens in a delicious storm of purple and green curling waves streaked with fantastic lightning zaps, might risk scuttling). At times this suggestion of an ominous background surfaces mo re obviously, as in The Black Ship, where a sneaky-looking hook-armed character wrapped in a trench coat leers and lurks around a docked ship, while rats crawl along its moorings.

The constructions, always more idiosyncratic and lovingly compulsive in their workmanship than the drawings, were mounted effectively on their shipping crates—themselves a wonder of carpentry, covered with careful instructions for the unpacking and mounting of the pieces. Some were in line with Westermann’s earlier casket/box and houses series. One group concentrated on the ambiguous mechanics and materials of the artist’s sculptural means; a few others were closer in their narrative or symbolic content to the drawings and watercolors. Recalling some earlier boxes like Walnut Box (which contained just that—nuts) or Plywood Box (a solid, rather than the expected hollow, type), An Old Indian Implement is a lavishly crafted wooden reliquary, lined in soft gray pigskin, containing one round gray rock. It is difficult to describe the unsettling impact of such a container, but its outright simplicity unleashed all sorts of questions about the possible purpose or meaning of its contents and this, in turn, invested the stone with mysterious implications. Was it a deadly weapon or a harmless tool? Was it the residence of a spirit or a relic of some dead ritual? Beam with Scarf Joint and Yellow Construction left similar unanswered questions in the viewer’s mind. The latter is a smoothed, wishbone shaped sapling with a five-pound weight suspended from its center, set on a difu wood platform bearing the label “Difu wood is rather odd as nobody knows where it comes from!” Several years back (Artforum, Sept. ’67), Dennis Adrian commented on Westermann’s uncanny ability to single out the paradoxical relationship between materials and forms which were at odds with one another. Imagine a jack-o’-lantern with its familiar, genial features (triangular eyes and nose, one-toothed mouth) notched—not into the usual pungent orange vegetable—but into a smooth and weighty oval Connecticut granite fieldstone! It’s like biting into chocolate and finding you’ve been tricked with a toy rubber substitute instead: Westermann is always tripping you at the threshold of your ordinary expectations.

The pieces which came closest to more particular Surrealist attitudes or connotations were Electric Flower, a lead robot-man and an abstract flower enclosed in an hermetic glass case; Battle to the Death in the Ice House, an elaborate “dollhouse” whose windows revealed a tableau of the lead man killing a band of rats on the upper floor; and Phantom in a Wooden Garden, most reminiscent of works like Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M. in imagery. Here a stick-figure man was frozen in his flight through a garden composed of a stylized cactus, laminated branches, and an inlaid hedge or bush, all neatly laid out on a parquet base like the ghostly, formalized terraces in the film Last Year at Marienbad—evoking a world potentially as threatening, and yet distantly present, as the irrational dreamlike sequences in Robbe-Grillet’s film. Westermann focuses and magnifies the absurd through his ingenious manipulation of materials, while his particular choice of subjects and images points to deeper, more primitive dimensions of the human psyche, beneath a veneer of technical wizardry and comic book humor. Although a maverick in terms of the general art scene, since he functions completely outside of it, Westermann’s special brand of technical and subjective devotion (like Joseph Cornell’s) has already had a quiet but noticeable effect on artists from California to Europe.

Emily Wasserman