San Francisco

Rob Craigie

With “Sublime Air Clot,” 1993, an installation of ten sculptural wall ensembles that hold various fluids, foods, and gases percolating through a system of laborataory jars, surgical tubes, and beeswax replicas of such objects as basketballs and aortalike heart valves, Rob Craigie achieves a brilliant synthesis of energy and entropy, effectively blurring the distinction between open and closed systems.

As metaphors for the body and its functions—including digestion, elimination, and even memory storage (or loss)—Craigie’s sculptures generate energy as a by-product of entropy. A drying “potato heart” sits in a specimen jar, emitting gases through a plastic tube into the air; a jar of water, heated by gallery lights, pushes warm air through a parallel series of tubes into seven successive jars filled with gurgling cherry (blood-red) Kool-Aid; or 60 beeswax basketballs with tinted Pyrex “windows” set into their faces are arranged on a grid of metal shelving, absorbing a waxy luminous light while projecting a comical blank stare.

These systems are either emitting waste, recycling waste into energy (as motion), or simply remaining stagnant. This “performance” of natural phenomena (much ado about nothing) underscores the deadpan quality of Craigie’s ensembles, a quality evident in the artist’s almost obsessive commitment to precision in the service of nonsense—a kind of pragmatic Dada. That precision/obsession is perhaps best exemplified in the artist’s notation of the constituent elements—the “units”—of his works, either on neat little name-tags hung around the necks of jars (as puns on title-tags for paintings) or in the printed “inventories” that accompany each sculpture. Scan an inventory, and you may read such entries as “Small Green Kool-Aid Organism with Teeth,” “Dead Fly Buried in Chromium Green Pigment,” or “Interior Beeswax with Sucking Tube.”

A kind of parallel concrete poetry, these straight-faced descriptions are very important to Craigie. They chart in the language of pseudoscience the course of his intuition as it invents systems designed to sustain it. Like an artist, he throws a fly in the ointment here and there (in one work, a “male Hawaii yearbook photograph” dissolves in water). But it’s the capacity of his ensembles to define the terms of their own performance, to be what they do, that constitutes their poetics. In this reduction of subject and object to a mode of performance, Craigie’s sculpture recalls the infamous “theater” of ’60s Minimalism. What Craigie adds is an alchemical absurdity that signifies the energy and entropy of the creative process and the systems with which we rationalize and subdivide it.

As potatoes grow inside of plaster, as photographs dissolve, and as the sweet residue of Kool-Aid clots the inside of surgical tubing, these sculptures will continue to change. At this stage in his career (which is just beginning), Craigie seems to be experimenting with what happens when the contents of art are trapped in its forms. The performative flow or stagnation of his systems are metaphors of the idea—perhaps the spirit—of meaning and substance in art, and the containers, connecting tubes, organisms, and artifacts that either breathe or die on the shelf remind us of our capacity as artists both to liberate and to suffocate that spirit.

Jeff Kelley