Los Angeles

Peter Shelton

A reverent stillness permeates Peter Shelton’s recent sculptural installation Sixtyslippers, 1997. The work consists of sixty cast-iron cones of varying diameters suspended from the ceiling with wire cable, hovering roughly a quarter-inch above the floor in no particular pattern. The cones fill the gallery space while allowing the viewer to move around and through them.

Like many of his peers who began making sculptural installations in the ’80s, Shelton’s work combines Minimalism’s geometric reductions with post-Minimalism’s allusions to human and organic forms. There has also been a marked emphasis on narrative and metaphor in his art, with associative meanings relating in a kind of syntax, forming visual sentences (a trope common in the work of sculptors such as Tony Cragg, Richard Deacon, and Liz Larner).

Architectural space and the human body have been preoccupations, at least implicit ones, in Shelton’s work (as in SWEATHOUSE and little principals, 1977–82, which consisted of a small enclosure surrounded by dozens of abstract representations of body parts). Sixtyslippers, on the other hand, is more like a landscape that the viewer steps into. Wandering among the iron cones, we notice that they are all covered in a patina of rust as though washed up by the tide of time.

There is a stark power to this installation; its enveloping stillness and silence stop viewers in their tracks. Yet if we stand motionless, we slowly become aware that the whole installation is moving; the slightest breeze or turbulence in the air causes the cones to sway ever so slightly. The still-life/landscape is suddenly transformed into an animate field. These ponderous pendulums (the largest is a little over three feet in diameter, and some weigh as much as 450 pounds) seem to have come to life, disorienting us with a sensation of motion, of giddiness and quiet exhilaration, even joy.

And as this imperceptible movement reveals itself over time, another epiphany unfolds, engaging the senses by association. Looking through the forest of wires in search of a flat, still surface, the viewer seems to hear ambient sound, as though the installation had been transformed into a room-size instrument, some kind of gargantuan industrial harp or percussive machine. How could these discs—enormous cymbals, really—have given such an impression of hushed serenity? And yet, how could such laborious materials create sound—what giant could play them? Like a haiku, Sixtyslippers puts a metaphorical spin on ordinary materials; Shelton imbues the simple white space of the gallery and the denseness of iron and steel with a sense of wonder.

Rosetta Brooks