Gary Kulak

Robert Kidd Gallery

Gary Kulak is unusual among sculptors working in Detroit in that he is one of the few using raw industrial material—in his case, welded steel and automotive paint—in the manufacture of art objects. Even though Detroit has a preeminent place in the history of industry, the area’s sculptural practice tends either toward an academic use of traditional materials and methods—such as bronze casting—or a form of bricolage whereby urban detritus is recombined as art. Kulak’s work, on the other hand, comes out of post-Minimalism; the artist uses highly reductive images of chairs and buildings as analogic signs of the phenomenal world.

Kulak’s early work is primarily concerned with an analysis of the devices of representation; in particular, it participates in a destructuralization of the grid. In the late ’80s, Kulak moved toward a new subjectivity, double-coding the chair by converting its back into a facial profile, formed by a torch-cut line. Those works are small, with multicolored surfaces. Kulak asserts an allegory of dualism by his use of positive and negative images of the face. The steel bars upon which the face plates are mounted bend and twist the metal so that, in most cases, the positive image of the face dominates, with the negative image below.

The new work continues the narrative of domination and repression, but moves the conflict from the private to the public realm. Kulak makes industry the frame of reference for the sculpture by employing larger scale and diagonally striped surface treatments. The sculptures are fabricated from standardized components, such as the plate used to form seats. The height of the seat from the floor is also standardized, mimicking the regulation of the machine and additionally functioning as an embedded pedestal. Oskar Negt and Alexander Kluge’s theory of public spheres of production is useful in considering Kulak’s work: “The proletarian life-context is split into two halves. One is reabsorbed into the new production public spheres and participates in the process of industrialization; the other is disqualified.” Of course, one of these disqualified life-contexts, subject to impoverishment, is the practice of art. In public spheres of production, art serves as an outlet for underclass fantasy, which according to Negt and Kluge functions as “a defense mechanism that protects the ego from the distresses an alienated reality imposes.”

Kulak’s sculptures are icons of the disqualified public sphere. In them, homo faber is posited as an index of production; its being is schizophrenic, divided between acceptable productive forces and a repressed fantasy world. In this arena, art becomes a pure simulacrum, standing as mute testimony of the unproductive. Materially, however, the work of art is also an interface between the private and public spheres. For Kulak, then, its production constitutes his most practical critique of alienation.

Vincent A. Carducci