Chicago

Gary Justis

Compassrose Gallery

Gary Justis’ most recent sculptures assert a continued inquiry into the possibilities of kinetics, but do so in a quieter manner than did his earlier work. Gone are the confrontational figures of his previous efforts, the complex and intrusive evocations of spasmodically gyrating characters drawn from mythology. Also gone is the staggered and overlapping programming of the lights, levers, lasers, and motors that, in unending combinations, made these figures play out their arcane and predictable programs. In their place is work with a pristine sense of restraint, a determined quality of stylish refinement that aspires toward impressions not of power but of grace. Kinetics itself, once the touchstone of Justis’ art, is now put in a decidedly subsidiary role, either controlled and amended by formal considerations or, as in several pieces here, deleted altogether.

This suppression of drama in order to pursue other esthetic aims is illustrated in Untitled (Vase), 1988. A small electric motor turns a sprocket that pulls a cord that, after passing through an eyelet, tugs a piece of metal that is itself under tension. This push/pull tugging causes a small slotted opening at the top of the sculpture to become slightly larger and then smaller, in a kind of labial rhythm. Small columnar shafts of metal stand a sentrylike watch at the sculpture’s base. A certain amount of pleasure can be derived just by watching the piece play out its function, but to what end?

Justis shows great technical proficiency, but the range of his inquiry sometimes seems surprisingly slight. It is as if, this time around, Justis were willing to sheathe the power he had earlier exploited in kinetics in order to achieve sculptures of great balance and control. And he has succeeded—these are perfect as far as they go, but they do not aim to go too far. Kinetics—and, in one piece, video—seem to confuse the issue; only the slinky and sensuous winding away of the pieces’ electric cords hinted at further possibilities.

Justis is more successful in his non-kinetic works. Like immense pieces from some fantastic Duchampian chess set—one rises seven feet in height—these sculptures exude a strong sense of personality, as well as extraordinary craftsmanship. Untitled (Double), 1988, is set on an unpromising, solid, heavy, and somnolent base; however, the piece curves upward, with a baroque flip of great rhythmic and dynamic freedom, resulting in a true and palpable halo. In Untitled (Coronet), 1988, an open-latticed basket shape is presented as the fulcrum of a complex and successful balancing act, poised amid a variety of elements. Setting and solving delicate formal problems seems to be the main item on Justis’ agenda; in his nonkinetic pieces, he moves most assuredly in this direction.

James Yood