New York

Richard Van Buren

Paula Cooper Gallery | 529 West 21st Street

Though it may be unfair to class Richard Van Buren as a provincial artist (he has spent equal amounts of time working in California and New York) his sculpture’s uniqueness rests in the novelty of its materials, in a way that much work from the Mid-, South-, and Far West tends to do. Perhaps provincial fascination with unusual tools results from an absence of that competition with history, that overburdening of culture monumentalized that New York artists are forced to suffer and that makes thoroughbreds of them.

An artist who feels history’s test acutely understands that there is no exit to be found in a catchy device, and that his response to the weight of the past must be conceived on ground that may already be well tilled. This point is relevant in Van Buren’s case, since his work is conspicuous for lacking clear reference to or place in the general sweep of contemporary art. Yet if Van Buren’s work is anomalous and disconnected from most trends (this is not necessarily bad) neither does it oppose or repudiate the art of its milieu. Van Buren’s work does resemble certain artifacts, however; surfboards and the tailfins of ’62 Cadillacs come most immediately to mind.

Van Buren’s sculptures are formed from the same fiberglass resin as a surfboard, and are carved into jagged, eccentric, often triangular blocks. The resin is translucent (though generally murky) so that one can see beyond the surface of a piece to a wild, fantastic, rather intestinal confusion in its interior. These gruesome cores (they look something like half-dissected organs) he achieves by dropping bits of crumpled paper, and occasional nails and wood slivers, into the resin while it is still liquid. One is conscious of the awful density and airlessness of these interior landscapes, sealed as they are beneath an impervious plastic skin.

One concern which is clearly central to Van Buren is the opposition he establishes between glossy, geometrical surface and chaotic core—a relationship which is made almost impossible to grasp by the basic formal structure of his works. His detail is too small and submerged to be seen except when examined minutely, and if we move close enough in for this we lose our sense of the piece’s overall shape. This incongruity is particularly frustrating in what is actually the best work in Van Buren’s current show, a string of variously sized blocks mounted in a diminuendo along the wall. The piece’s strength is in the nuanced irregularity of its downward progress, a movement one can only encompass at some distance. From that remote position, Van Buren may as well not have bothered with his cores. If shape and scale were discrete attractions in Van Buren’s sculpture, it would not matter that we are forced to view each separately. But it is their association that carries his content.

What precisely his content is is not much clearer than the depths of his fiberglass hunks. It has something to do with ugliness lying beneath slick external appearance, and with the inevitable fascination of the ugly when it is encased in the slick. His material would appear suitable for this since fiberglass offers a kind of graceless, mechanical, queasy comfort. Yet Van Buren falls victim to his own material, which, because of its hardness, its seamlessness, its mechanicalness, can only make inflexible statements. The delicate relationship between grotesquerie and sheen is too subtle to survive Van Buren’s methods.

Leo Rubinfien