Robert Wiens

Carmen Lamanna Gallery

Sculptor Robert Wiens is more of a polemicist than a poet. His work is about the big political subjects—torture, censorship, militarism, poverty. But Wiens is canny about his political content. He knows that the topicality of such subjects can seem like headline hunting, borrowing emotion and misfortune that often have little to do with the work itself. It’s a problem of safe worlds looking at sad worlds—of authenticity—and Wiens is careful to account for his place and his projections in the midst of the larger political realm. This gives his work its moral tone. He brings the headlines back into a context of. North American reception, back into a framework of shared responsibility, implicating both himself and his audience in the subject matter at hand.

Wiens accomplishes this pivoting of focus by working in a way that diminishes the scale of the work’s political voice. He has frequently used mock-bronze surfaces, craft prototypes, anecdotal texts, and even a straightforward smallness in size to bring art and politics down to a less pretentious and more personal level. He wants his art to create a common ground for the common man, a place where it’s possible to make an integrated transition from the headlines and the history books back to home.

The Little Boy, 1986, one of two works in this new show, is, for instance, ostensibly about the dropping of the first atom bomb (a.k.a. “Little Boy”). A brief wall text quotes an account of the drop, including mention of Harry Truman having lunch as he heard the news. The purpose of the text is ironic. It documents a reprehensible casualness—both in the quoted author’s account and in Truman’s lunch itself—and plays on the now common knowledge of the horrors of Hiroshima and our anxiety about nuclear war. But Wiens also sets up, as partner to the wall text, a tabletop model replica of “Little Boy” transformed into a kind of Flash Gordon roadster, changing the focus of not only the tone of the piece but also its subject. Political finger-pointing turns inward as the bomb/roadster, with its backdrop of endless road, is linked to the naive fantasy of “little boys,” to something that—at least politically—seems as clean as a whistle, but which the piece makes part of a broader, more convoluted story of responsibility.

The Rip, also 1986, works as a complement to this questioning of innocent culture. The wall text is about a growing rip in a movie screen, started first by an Indian who pokes a knife into it. The table shows an elaborate balsawood model of a movie theater—clean beams and buttresses on the outside, dark space lit by a white light on the inside. The sinister look of the theater is connected with the Indian and his knife as part of a chain of alienation and resentment insinuated into the happy idea of popular entertainment. With its white light and red Indian, The Rip is a social allegory laid out in fairly blunt terms. It is to Wiens’ credit that this bluntness doesn’t feel like the heavy hand of easy rhetoric.

Richard Rhodes