Mark Handforth

The Hong Kong–born, Miami-based sculptor Mark Handforth has on occasion referred to his exhibitions as “landscapes.” The description is apt, given that he often grafts a specifically urban vernacular onto a unique brand of formalism, not only to summon such art-historical precedents as Mark di Suvero’s and Anthony Caro’s metallic structures but also to make clear turns on the project of Minimalism—on Donald Judd and Dan Flavin in particular. Whereas Judd’s forms often invite circumambulation, allowing viewers to discover what had been hidden bays, for example, Handforth will twist the frame of a large highway sign (such as Untitled Silver Sign, 2005, in this show) so its face flattens against the floor like a wilted flower, one corner mischievously folded back, as though hinting that some crucial directive to the viewer may be concealed underneath. And whereas Flavin typically held the question of illusion at a distance from his light sculptures, at the Kunsthaus Zürich, Handforth went so far as to create a determinedly urban ambience with an irregular wall installation of pink-, blue-, and peach-colored fluorescent lights titled Harvest Moon, 2005. (On other occasions the artist has even pushed figuration with such lights, arranging them into starlike wall installations.) A moody, diffuse glow pervaded the low-ceilinged gallery, instantly evoking the artificial light that bathes cities at night.

Handforth’s exhibitions to date have typically featured a number of interrelated sculptures displayed in close proximity, and this richly evocative show of four works was no different, the various pieces complementing one another and together reinforcing the sense of a metropolitan environment. Of all these sculptures, Hydrant, 2003, is closest to being an object as one would find it in everyday life, sitting low on the ground and lit by a single, bright beam of light. Yet the piece seems nearly as organic as industrial, covered with layers of red and yellow enamel “drips” like some decomposing mushroom with secretions bubbling down its surface. Those familiar with Handforth’s previous work, however, will recall the accumulated candle wax appearing in his other city-evoking sculptures, such as the Vespa he has installed elsewhere with candles actually burning on top—and so the hydrant seems a deeply romantic sign completely in the spirit of those noirish overtones generated by the fluorescent lights of Harvest Moon.

The same might be observed of Golden Phone, 2005, whose illuminated yellow sign and holes punctured along one side in the shape of a receiver also resembles an object from the “real” world (indeed, its insignia was stripped off an actual booth). Yet here again the quotidian is transformed. Though its appearance might suggest otherwise, the object was not found vandalized and abandoned on a rubbish heap by the artist but rather fabricated with subtly rounded contours to become a kind of surreal emblem: Golden Phone was clearly the most moving work in the exhibition, perhaps because it comes closest to conjuring a human presence, a forlorn reminder of the countless conversations that may have taken place inside its shell. Hanging askew on the wall and warped out of shape, its tortured form exuded despair fueled by desire. Indeed, this sort of melancholy tinged with humor permeated the show. Handforth’s work only starts to get under the skin when the viewer gives in to such melancholy, recognizing the way in which all his sculptures seem psychological or totally suffused by an emotional subjectivity well before the viewer arrives on the scene.

In this regard, it is significant to consider how Golden Phone and Untitled Silver Sign, bent and folded in the gallery like an ungainly animal, are variations on Handforth’s series of lampposts, which often appear in his installations sprouting numerous lights or with crooked metallic stalks. Such playful, poetic sculptures recall Martin Kippenberger—or at least the German artist’s tragicomic Street Lamp for Drunks, 1988, which similarly invests a banal object with human traits, conjuring a version of reality clouded by a night of carousing. With such a comparison, one may recognize how Handforth, taking formalism into a narrative practice, also manages to cast doubt on the reliability of our very sense of perception by distorting a commonplace thing, thereby thrusting it into a realm of uncertainty. Indeed, the artist’s work may be strongest for how it ultimately forces us to consider the way in which we are programmed to read our environment—how our encounters with the most mundane items are filtered through our subjectivities, our perceptions and emotions.

Curiously, Handforth has observed that his installations are above all entropic, in true Robert Smithson fashion. And indeed, there was that sense here, with signs and objects twisted or lying flat on the ground. But this analysis does not account for the way in which Handforth’s sculptures aestheticize such decay and inertia—even when it comes to defunct art-historical movements, allusions to which are everywhere to be found. The artist clearly draws on Judd and Flavin, di Suvero and Caro, as well as on Kippenberger, and moreover could be said to project these elements through the lens of Pop. Yet all these allusions seem present as if in a commemorative sense. Numerous analyses of Handforth’s work have underscored its romantic dimension, but perhaps the significance of this sensibility is greatest for the way in which entropy and memory come together.

Felicity Lunn is a critic based in Zurich.