New York

John Chamberlain

Dia Center for the Arts

This show of 15 sculptures, 1991-92, would probably surprise even a die-hard John Chamberlain fan: the pieces look like scaled-down versions of themselves. Ranging from 7 to 90 inches in height, but mostly averaging between 7 and 12 they’re remarkably attractive little objects that would not look out of place in an upscale gift shop. The first of these sculptures was created—at the suggestion of Chamberlain’s old friend Henry Geldzahler—to decorate a box of chocolate truffles.

There’s nothing not to like in this show. In the past decade, Chamberlain’s work has evolved from something self-consciously violent and raw—the earlier pieces are marked by broken edges, ruptured and torn metal beginning to rust—to something unapologetically gorgeous and tame. The latest work is, if anything, much more allusive and visually subtle, and the fascination with material (luscious enamel glazes, steel and chrome twisted and scrunched to near-liquidity) continues. But it has moved away from his trademark appropriated car parts. The new work instead features chrome that is brighter, steel that is fresher, colors more intense and painterly than anything you’ll see on the road. It’s less a car crash than an auto-body-shop wet dream.

And now, even size and scale have changed: the new pieces are less the size of a Chevy than of a lady’s pocketbook. The question they pose—Can work of this sort still succeed when shrunk down from a heroic scale to a Lilliputian one?—seems, for this most macho of Pop Expressionists, an almost perversely daring challenge. (Or else just a return to his roots: Chamberlain began his career as a hairdresser.)

In any case, there’s no denying the prettiness of these sculptures. At this late point in his career, Chamberlain has gone from using a variety of car parts to selecting only the tenderloin of auto body: a single sheet of steel cut from the roof of a van. His assistants then custom-paint and chrome-plate each piece for a highly finished look, so jewellike that even the cracks seem predetermined. They are as Pop in their color, gloss, and high finish as ribbon candy or jelly-apples: sweet and scrumptious, designed to stir jaded desires, though perhaps not any real appetite.

These works don’t impress in the same way that Chamberlain’s earlier sculptures do, lacking their swagger and raunch, relying instead on gemlike beauty and roguish charm to win the heart. And so they are merely adorable: begging in their winsome beauty and tactile appeal only to charm.

Justin Spring