New York

Mel Kendrick

John Weber Gallery

Mel Kendrick, now in his early forties, came of age in the thrall of artists such as Robert Mangold and Sol LeWitt, whom he had occasion to meet while working as a studio assistant for Dorothea Rockburne. He is a sculptor, in other words, who hammered out his sensibilities against some of the more daunting post-Minimal precursors. To be forced, at a tender and rebellious age, to recognize among artists then entering middle age the ability to produce Apollonian structures of the utmost finesse, can be an inhibiting experience. Indeed, for Kendrick, the great Picasso exhibition at New York’s Museum of Modern Art ten years ago proved a liberating antidote after so rigorous an artistic upbringing. Since then, borrowing lightly and intuitively from Cubism, as it extends backward to Cézanne and forward into many of Picasso’s subsequent argonautics—the ’30s kamikaze missions, for instance, against Marie-Thérèse Walter, Dora Maar, and the planar dimension—Kendrick has been building a pictorial machine of considerable flexibility. He may have a bit of the Emersonian naturalist within him, but his wood constructions, however beautiful, are never sentimental or preachy.

The four big new sculptures in this show seemed more relaxed and unbuttoned when they were in the artist’s studio; here it seemed as if they had been washed ashore and were majestically struggling to their feet. But this piratical air had its advantages. Several of the sculptures incorporated metal supports—semifunctional, crutchlike posts, which from certain angles suggested an unexpectedly amusing, Captain Hook-like silhouette. For an artist as thoughtful as Kendrick—and as wary of glib association—the new prosthetic devices are a daring proclamation of formal license.

The two lamest-looking pieces were the most affecting. On this grand scale, the illusion of being off-balance adds pathos. From a couple of different vantage points, these deceptively rickety, amplified aggregates even evoked the wearied miens of downtrodden cityfolk in the social landscapes of Balzac and Daumier. From others, blocky, stepped passages echoed the raked village streets in Cézanne’s Provence. And always, there is the wondrous, timeless tragedy of the tree. However bluntly Kendrick may use its trunk and branches for his formal purposes and otherwise put nature in its place, he ultimately depends upon a kind of underlying animism, evoking the spirit of the forest grove.

Lisa Liebmann