New York

Richard Wentworth

Wolff Gallery

André Breton’s Surrealist “object lessons” did not go unlearned. The British sculptor Richard Wentworth, like certain other contemporary sculptors (such as Edward Allington, Antony Gormley, Eric Bainbridge, Jennifer Bolande, and Saint Clair Cemin), has learned them well. Working with found objects, altered objects, antiquated objects, or forms that look too much like familiar objects to be truly nonobjective, these sculptors create a simultaneity of appearance-linked familiarity and abstract estrangement.

The found and fabricated objects that Wentworth uses to compose his sculptures are reminiscent of the unglamorous materials used in arte povera. Galvanized steel basins, old metal garbage cans, light bulbs, mirrors, and concrete combine and recombine promiscuously in his work. Transformed into art, these utilitarian objects and materials lose not only their specific uses but their familiarity as well. They become evocative, abstract images. Wentworth’s basins and ladles contain an illusion of liquid (in the form of poured metal, as in Trophy for a Three-Legged Race and Clasp, both 1988) and his chairs act as seats for other objects; but these formal devices are not metaphors for human experience any more than formalism is anthropomorphic.

Wentworth is an artist who is extremely well-versed in the formal concerns of sculpture. His work, though it apes Surrealist eccentricity, is almost too ordered and too dependent on the logic of formalism as its guiding principle. His repetitive use of specific objects and materials suggests that he is building up a personal iconography (as Beuys did), but he only mimics meaning. He uses ladders for the same reason we all use them, because of their height.

Pair of Caves, 1986, is a beautifully composed and balanced piece consisting of two hollow house-shaped objects made of leaded steel, placed upside down on two tubular steel chairs as if seated there. The chairs serve as successful bases, for they are pleasingly overwhelmed by the more voluminous caves. In its simplicity and its seeming lack of intervention on Wentworth’s part, Pair of Caves looks as if it had simply been found this way. Wentworth’s best sculptures are descriptive of configurations of objects present in urban “nature,” as if piles of refuse or building materials were arranged by an unseen hand for our pleasure. It is this type of everyday recognition of the urban still life that Wentworth can capture so effectively.

When Wentworth’s intervention is too conspicuous, his work becomes overembellished and gimmicky. Wentworth uses more refined materials in his steel basin pieces. Creating the illusion that these basins are filled with mercury or liquid copper, Wentworth deprives his work of its best qualities—its formal ease, simplicity, and apparent lack of intentional mystification. Trompe l’oeil effects are a strange choice for an artist such as Wentworth, who responds more convincingly to what he sees rather than what he thinks he sees.

Matthew A. Weinstein