New York

Bruce Robbins

Truman Gallery

A matrix is a system of coordinates which determines a form. In mathematics a matrix is activated by some “function,” a quantity whose value is dependent upon the values of other quantities. Bruce Robbins calls his “leaning structures”—ladders, inclined planks and runged planks—“matrixes” although they are not born out of a bilateral grid arrangement. Unlike a conventional ladder or plank which is grasped in relation to its function, to its operational duty of forming a sturdy means of ascent or descent, Bruce Robbins’ leaning structures are incapable of functioning serviceably.

His planks and ladders are laminations of wood, metal and plastic. The construction of a ladder, in which the side pieces are primarily metal sandwiching wood, as they are here, should logically exploit wood’s tensility in supporting the cross-pieces. But here the ladder rungs and the plank planes are made from wire mesh covered with Hydrocal, putty, or wrapped in leather and painted: they are unable to support or (literally) uplift. There is structural irony in using metal to support such almost flaccid members.

Bruce Robbins rightfully calls these works “matrixes” even if they are nonfunctional. Their form, not administered by structurally practical considerations, is still the result of utilizing moldlike or armaturelike determinants. By avoiding structural responsibilities, Robbins’ leaning structures are consecrated to higher purposes.

Physical realities are inconsequential in dreams. The power of the ladder, a motif which runs through the mythologies of ancient and modern peoples, is rooted in the very obliteration of the laws of physics. Osiris, the Egyptian sun god, thrown into the depths of darkness by Typhon, was lifted from his grave by the amulet of the Two Fingers making the sign of the “V” and by the amulet of the Ladder which led him back up into heaven. The ladder, which provides practical elevation in our waking life, is a symbol of the mediation between the forces of good and of evil, or the realm of the gods and the realm of natural gravitational phenomena, in civilization’s inner life. In the biblical story of Jacob’s dream angels are described as “ascending and descending” the ladder, linking the third Hebrew forefather with the G-d of Abraham. Jacob, on awakening, promises to offer G-d a portion of his material blessings—tithing also being a form of mediating between heaven and earth.

In Christian iconography we find the ladder as one of the Instruments of Passion which aided in Jesus’ deposition from the Cross. Another aspect of the ladder operates in this case, namely the space under a ladder. In early Christian art this space was depicted as Satanic territory. Walking under a ladder was believed to bring one into the shadow of death, and the only way to redeem oneself from its power was to call upon the symbol of him who overcame death. To this day it is considered unlucky to walk through the angle formed by a ladder; leaning against an upright structure, and the traditional method of counteracting this taboo is to “cross” one’s fingers (in allusion to the Cross).

Now, as closed, perfect, geometric form built from the fewest possible components, the triangle has always been a symbol of life. Walking through a triangular configuration such as that set up by a ladder and a wall might easily involve mortal danger because the apex of the triangle points downward, toward the grave. The back of an object which is supposed to elevate us physically, like a ladder, is referred to as “dead space.” I realize that this term has a perfectly straightforward, simple meaning, namely that the space does not serve an actual purpose, but we no doubt also fear darkness and power in this inner triangle.

Taking sculpture out of the niche was a major development in the history of art, a brazen act which exposed sculpture to multiple views. More than that, this was perhaps an act of overcoming the fear of creating in the round, or of being exposed to the back of the diety. In its attempt to shed constraints of primitive belief, much of the hieratic impact of the frontal gaze was dissipated. Bruce Robbins restores that stern frontality, with ladders that, like faces of totemic figures, either expose or hide (at random) what the structures are made out of. The ladders and planks are 8 feet high and 14 inches wide, imitating the stature of the elegant Ionic columns which were constructed according to a ratio of 8 to 1 to correspond to the godliest and most ideal body specimen.

There are two aspects of sculpture exercised here—an additive process of construction and a subtractive process of grinding away. Other paired tendencies also pull at each other, namely the purely iconic and the modern urge to see all sides. The fact of the matter is that though Bruce Robbins is involved with frontality, these works do have backs, which, hidden from first view, can nevertheless be seen. Robbins considers the backs to be “insides” which do not necessarily bear any relationship to the “front” part. He works on them with perhaps more abandon than he would the face of the plank, using gold leaf (both real and fake), which recalls the rich “inner light” of Byzantine art. There are other Eastern allusions in the piece with maroon-colored rungs reminiscent of Moorish architectural banding. Bruce Robbins insists that after viewing the back, the structures must be returned to their original poses.

Bruce Robbins’ works are matrices because they are studies in human origins, in regions of civilization’s psyche which don’t often allow examination in the light of day. With the ladders and planks in frontal repose leaning against the gallery wall I see other rectangular monoliths, the piers of Stonehenge, the great slab in 2001; a Space Odyssey which command the same authority, and which cause the same feelings of submission to a mediator between the above and the below. They are constructions of wonder borrowed from, and here returned to, our dreams and our nightmares.

Judith Lopes Cardozo