Vincent Fecteau

Vincent Fecteau’s modest-scale sculptures have always exuded a curiously mixed vibe: They’re inviting because of their arts-and-crafts materials yet repellent because of their open, even defiant expression of creative anxiety. The artist’s first solo museum exhibition, which took place as part of the Berkeley Art Museum’s “Matrix” series before traveling to the Pasadena Museum of California Art, included thirteen of these untitled pieces. As the largest collection of his work assembled by an art institution to date, the show had an unexpected graciousness, but the sculptures still conjured a host of enigmatic associations,with implied narratives and formal tensions embedded in their flatly painted veneers.

Fecteau finished all the pieces in 2001 or 2002, but, as pointed out by curator Heidi Zuckerman Jacobson, his creative process often spans many years preceding a work’s completion. That back story informs the thorny delicacy of these sculptures, which might initially seem tossed off or unfinished amalgamations of papier-mâché, Popsicle sticks, foamcore, and the like. The color schemes are basic—gray browns, matte blacks, muted natural tones—and some are smoothly applied, while others betray painterly traces of drips and brushstrokes. But on close examination, there’s a clear sense of exactitude to the artist’s activities, an angst-ridden mixture of plotting, tearing down, destroying, and reworking. This discord between intention and apparent accident is no small part of the work’s appeal. Fecteau purposefully deceives his audiences. His three-dimensional collages invariably suggest things they are not: What looks solid is really made of cardboard; what looks like metal is brushstrokes on newspaper; what looks useful is totally nonfunctional. Fecteau’s sculptures are delicate, lovingly crafted works masquerading as clunky craft projects.

The exhibition design in Berkeley was particularly effective in highlighting this kind of artistic practice. Individual pieces were perched on a series of high tables with white tops and unfinished wooden legs and illuminated with flat ambient lighting; the room resembled less a gallery than a tidy workshop with a baker’s dozen projects seemingly just completed. This setting also abetted the architectural discourse often used around Fecteau’s oeuvre (as it was when the work appeared during the past year in the Whitney Biennial and “Artists Imagine Architecture” at Boston’s Institute of Contemporary Art). His pieces often seem roomlike—some suggest miniature avant-garde stage sets with oddly angled ramps and space-age catwalks—and, while never getting too close to addressing social environments, refer to the convention of the architectural maquette. For example, one 2002 piece seems as if it were made from a hollowed-out salt lick; it is trimmed with twine and adorned with scallop shells and a walnut husk, all painted white. Made on a larger scale, the structure would look like a domed igloo or polar bear habitat at the zoo: Like all of Fecteau’s work, the sculpture thrives on a tension between its small size and its monumental aura. You’ll either imagine it getting bigger or picture yourself shrinking to run around inside it, ready to play some part in a drama about creative block. The story probably involves some kind of emotional outburst, one conjured up in the mind of the viewer daring enough to enter. Once inside this aesthetic worldview, you’ll find an artist hitting an important point in his artistic development, creating sculptural platforms rife with so many possibilities.

Glen Helfand