New York

Bryan Hunt

Blum Helman Gallery

“Artificts”: a name for recent artworks intentionally crafted to look like artifacts awaiting ethnographic investigation. They are fictions resembling freshly unearthed objects from bygone civilizations. What distinguishes artificts from art? Certain tentative, hazy qualities: an oxidized look that translates into rust or mist, the twin assurances of timelessness and timeliness, a fraudulent aura of mystery.

Who makes artificts? Nearly everybody. Painters, sculptors, conceptualists. Why are they proliferating? Object worship—out of style during a spate of anti-object art—is coming back with a vengeance. Anthropological palaver attending “the object” is equally à la mode. There’s a peculiar humor in talking about contemporary art anthropologically: it’s like talking about yourself in the third person.

Invented during the Enlightenment, a speculative science meant to trace the origins of man and myth, anthropology is the right social science for the job of validating today’s art. Sociology—exemplified by the writings of Erving Goffman—was the perfect interdiscipline for happenings, performance and photography. Linguistics—de Saussure, of course—was the right prescription for an antidote to formalism; its side effect: structuralism. Anthropological appraisal of an artwork shortcuts the time necessary for its assimilation into the culture. Anthropologizing art guarantees its authority, by virtue of its social-science approval and instant digestion by society. Anthropology describes culture; criticism analyzes products of culture.

Site: Manhattan, a densely populated city of the North American continent. (Floruit:1800—2000 C.E.)

On the east side of the Great Glade, known in 20th-century C.E. as “Central Park,” an exhibition by Bryan Hunt. Artists of this society very careful about attributing authorship of artificts. Hunt has several “airships”on view. This is a culture which names its objects.

Bryan Hunt’s airships are the stuff model planes are made of: wooden armatures sheathed in paper and silk. Instead of balsa, Hunt uses lightweight spruce. No longer resembling blimps—as did his 1974 airships—these new, streamlined models have cutaway anteriors exposing the triangular base that is the lower half of the ship. Hunt paints the airships with gold-leaf, silver-leaf, copper-leaf—sometimes patinaed. These would never be mistaken for models of the Goodyear blimp, but their sleek silhouettes are reminiscent of Airstream trailers.

Defying gravity is Hunt’s specialty. Jutting out of the wall well above eye level, these airships have no visible means of support. Like blimps, they are suspended, seem motionless. (They are togglebolted or mollied onto the wall.) It’s their precious-metal finish that qualifies them as artificts. Also their peculiar morphology.

Anthropologists, take note: the shape of these artificts evokes the menace of a shark or a nuclear warhead. These objects are too fragile to be tools, too small to be useful as transport, too abstract to be representations of something. Their metal-leaf finish gives them a presence more at home at the commodities market or jewelry store than the art gallery. Culturally speaking, the cognoscenti of metal futures know that these are good investments—for the materials alone.

What’s great about Hunt’s work—although I must confess his revamped design for the airships strikes me as less successful than the earlier versions—is its Buster Keatonish deadpan: his sculptures never seem gravitationally probable, and they patiently wait for your surprise at this. He makes airships that are kinetic in thrust but stable in behavior, and “waterfalls” of such exaggerated verticality that they should topple. Like Keaton, he’s amusing with a straight face.

What’s also a plus about Hunt is that his small-scale sculpture doesn’t crave the understatement or near-invisibility of small sculpture you trip over like a pothole. Instead of sneaking up on you, his work makes its presence apparent. The mysterious relation to gravitational pull, the metallic gleam of the airships, makes Hunt’s work the first reported IFO’s (identified floating objects) in Manhattan. If Buster Keaton were alive today, he’d be Bryan Hunt, space cadet, making artificts for the moon platoon.

Carrie Rickey