New York

Steve Keister

Blum Helman Gallery

A stalemate of contradictory forms is the primary achievement of Steve Keister’s uncommon new sculptures. Within the context of the gallery space these pieces resemble the last of an endangered species, preserved in a formal presentation. Indeed, animal forms are the rough precursors of Keister’s more modified, regimented visions. Keister always combines two specific sculptural elements: spandex armatures stiffened with resin, Bondo, and fiberglass, and the metal frameworks of Bertoia, Eames, or butterfly chairs. Each individual piece represents an isolated moment of structural conflict that parallels the inherent opposition between the industrial and the organic.

Despite the specific limitations of Keister’s approach, the manner in which the artist immortalizes aggressive moments of action is impressive. Keister alludes to a desire for liberation within his more biomorphic spandex forms; however, he simultaneously reinforces the traditional immobility of sculpture through the inclusion of the rigid metal chairs. Although the angular legs and curving grids delineate specific lines in space, the juxtapositions of such forms to the more expressive invented shapes ground the individual pieces with cold severity. The hard-edged quality of the recontextualized furniture components countermands the refined elegance of the fiberglass-covered sheaths, which resemble animal carcasses. Even the tasteful, sanded-down surfaces of these twisting shapes react against the generic slickness of the steel. These are contradictory forms chosen by the artist to reflect a dichotomy between grace and awkwardness.

On occasion Keister demonstrates a sense of humor by playing with role reversal. In a particularly attractive piece entitled Minotaur, 1987, Keister allows the deconstructed chairs to act both as logical anchors and dreamlike, monstrous extensions from an oppressive, convulsive trunk. In this rare example of seamless complicity between forms, the overlapping legs of a butterfly chair support the weathered torso, while two gridform chair frames erupt from the severed neck of the invented shape. The lucid interaction of forms opens the work up to a multitude of readings that exceed the literal references of the stylized materials. In contrast to Minotaur, several pieces deal primarily with uncomfortable impasses between the wrestling components. In Inverted Venus, 1987, for example, Keister’s minimal formal vocabulary reveals itself in the nondescript pairing of the awkward shape of a black Bertoia chair and a stately stretched form. Each individual element maintains its formal autonomy despite the almost incidental linkage. This disparity carries through in a wall piece entitled Siren, 1987. In this equation of structures, a shiny chrome-plated chair pulls at a suspended white birdlike sculptural form on the wall. Here Keister makes a more didactic declaration of the influential pull of mortal weight on a lyrical, uplifted creation.

The formal proficiency and individual integrity of each piece is the result of Keister’s highly focused creative process. Although the use of butterfly, Bertoia, and Eames chairs appears to be a casual nod to trendy revivals of outmoded styles, Keister’s own intentions are anything but trivial. These slick chairs, which he uses for their structural clarity and linear elegance, provide sensible counterparts to his more individualistic invented forms. Of course Keister’s art is constantly evolving, so it is conceivable that the vigorous structural struggles that substantiate individual works such as the complex Laocoön, 1987, will carry through in an expanded repertoire of forms. The common threads that run from earlier work to this show are an alert inventiveness and a poetic interpretation of topological problems of form and space.

Jude Schwendenwien