New York

Beverly Pepper

André Emmerich Gallery

Another dig due south of Bryan Hunt’s artificts: Beverly Pepper’s new work. This is an exhibition that could appropriately be called “Totem and Taboo.” Tabletop sculptures carefully arranged like cemetery gravestones. Nonrepresentational arrangements of welded steel, this makes our investigation team wonder, does this society have a ban against representation?

Beverly Pepper’s small-scale work deserves some award for sincerity in installation: the rusted-down sculptures are on tabletops of some roughhewn wood—probably shiplap. Thank God I’m not an anthropologist and I operate under art appreciation’s look-but-don’t-touch rule: I would certainly run the risk of tetanus and splinters.

A lot’s going on here, all of it so carefully premeditated that I think I’m going to get offended. But instead I’m intrigued. At first I consider the possibility that Pepper is allowing some random effects in her work. The shapes that create her tiny totems are freighted with possible referents. Are they found objects? Proof of the fact that a good eye can separate the gold from the dross in a pile of dross?

No, they’re handcrafted—forged and cast-steel shapes of Pepper’s actual manufacture. The source of the shapes making up these totemic constructs is not the junkheap but Pepper herself. On one level, if these are supposed to be a sculptural translation of the ideograph theory of AbEx painting—personal imagery malarkey—I want to reject it. On another level, Pepper is doing something I want to understand better. She’s involved in making artificts, and if I can cipher the impulse, I’ll get a handle on her work and perhaps begin to understand why so many artists are making them.

Okay. To begin with: this is work that overvalues its rawness. The operative assumption is that unfinished work—I mean it in the dual sense of tentative and of lacking unified surface—has a more immediate presence, is harder to ignore, is more allusive of time and endurance than highly finished work. The pieces are rusty. They didn’t get rusty with age, but are intentionally rusted, just as the makers of contemporary “antique” furniture “stress” wood with chains, ink and chemicals. A little muriatic acid goes a long way: these handmade, “new” pieces are born old.

What do these qualities add up to? The totemic assemblages? The installation? Hand-crafting steel shapes resembling found scrap? Transformation of steel surface to encourage rust? Pepper’s work is the anatomy of an aura: the systematic analysis of the constituent elements that give an object its ineffable significance. All the ingredients are there to be deployed. But do I want lab-tested auras ? Like test-tube babies and cultured pearls, lab-tested auras guarantee results formerly deriving their excitement from being unpredictable. In a world of insta-products, Pepper gives us insta-artificts. Fine.

Carrie Rickey