Jud Nelson

Fischbach Gallery

Jud Nelson is part Pop prankster, part Renaissance master, with a good dose of Minimalist strategist thrown in. With HOLOS, an ongoing series of sculptures he began in 1971, Nelson nods to both antiquity and technology. In Greek, holos means “whole” or “total”; it’s the root of the word “hologram,” or perfect three-dimensional illusion. Nelson’s title simultaneously refers to both ideal form and its artificially generated analogue.

Carved in stone or white polystyrene, the HOLOS are minutely rendered replicas of the most trivial items: tea bags, Wonder bread, sink stoppers, folding chairs, aspirins, Hefty trash bags. Nelson creates each object in a series of six almost-identical versions, life-size or slightly larger, that are presented deadpan in vitrines. The works are exacting, elegant, hermetic in their refusal to read as either straight life studies or expressive personal fetishes. Somewhere between the lush fantasy of trompe l’oeil and the analytic obsessiveness of seriality, the HOLOS are cool kitsch, ciphers for the insignificance of material things and the supremacy of observation.

In the group recently on view, containing nine works from 1993 through 1997, Nelson worked only in stone: a leather glove in Belgian black marble, chicken potpies in Roman travertine, a roll of Charmin in Carrara white marble. The level of detail was dizzying. Stitching on glove seams, the soft, bulging contours of toilet paper, and the speckled textures and minute pressure marks on a row of travertine bottle corks all caused the double-takes and admiring laughter that accompany successful illusionism. Color is inherent in some of the stones, which is in itself a departure for Nelson, who usually works in pure white marble. For the first time in this group, he has also applied pigmentation to some of the works, staining marble candy hearts with red pencil and browning potpies, bread slices, and Saltines with ordinary rust rubbed into their crystalline surfaces. The color laid an uncanny patina of life over the still forms.

The HOLOS are often compared to George Segal’s plaster casts and Jasper Johns’ Ballantine cans. A more contemporary comparison for Nelson’s work is Vija Celmins’ To Fix the Image in Memory, 1977–82, in which eleven ordinary rocks are paired with cast-bronze doubles painted so precisely as to be indistinguishable. The ultimate theme of both artists is the sheer will involved in acts of deep seeing. But while Celmins invests what she sees with the warmth of a completely personal aura, Nelson’s focus on the chilly, mass-manufactured character of his sources embodies a blend of perfectionism and banality.

These two qualities would seem to explain Nelson’s preference for materials at opposite ends of the aesthetic spectrum, the highest and the crassest. Had a few Styrofoam works been included in the show, in fact, they might have mitigated a kind of display-figurine preciousness that accrued as one walked through. (The aggressively neutral gray tone of the gallery walls was meant, perhaps, to evoke a museum’s dim, tasteful halls of classical sculpture, but ended up suggesting a high-concept department store.) Nevertheless there is something exhilarating in such mad attention to stonecraft, more so than in the easy rewards (and easier irony) of Styrofoam. Shielded from formal archaism by the throwaway subject matter, the insistent repetition offsetting cuteness, Nelson consciously accepts the aura of monumental achievement and grand tradition that accompanies sculpting in marble. If Michelangelo and Bernini did not have diamond-tipped dental drills at their service, they weren’t carving the strings on tea bags, either.

Frances Richard