Chicago

Bruce Nauman

Donald Young Gallery

Bruce Nauman as Midwestern artist par excellence? He was, after all, born in Fort Wayne, Indiana, and graduated from the University of Wisconsin, but the heartland has rarely been noted as an influence on his practice. However, a degree of independence from modernist isms, an idiosyncratic agenda, a wry and iconoclastic sense of humor, and an occasional fetish for highly crafted objects link some of Nauman’s concerns to the culture and traditions of the area. While the artist doesn’t often wax nostalgic or engage in overt autobiographical rumination, he does acknowledge that his One Hundred Fish Fountain (all works 2005) is rooted in his memories of boyhood fishing expeditions with his father. It is memory heightened, accelerated, and exaggerated, yet at the same time, somehow diffused.

The fountain in question emerges from a twenty-five-by-twenty-eight-foot basin. Suspended above it on wires are “one hundred” (actually, ninety-seven) approximately life-size casts of the kinds of fish he used to catch all those years ago—catfish, bass, and whitefish. Some of these are set just a foot or two above the basin, while others hang as high as ten feet above it, creating a loose three-dimensional grid. A system of transparent plastic tubes pumps water through each fish, which is permeated by several small holes. The resultant thousand or so rivulets of water create an aural and visual din, an endless effusion of liquid that lends the work an oddly festive air. There’s no sense of violence in the multiple piercings of the fish; their apertures seem to cause no pain as they cavort in and out of the substance around which their world revolves. The fountain runs for fifteen minutes, shuts down for two, and then the deluge begins anew. During the “off ” period, the fish continue to drip, and what had been a steady stream becomes a trickle until the pumps kick in. Nauman’s piscatorial meditations here take on the exhilarative air that fountains have had for him as far back as his well-known Self-Portrait as a Fountain, 1966–67. They represent a surrender to and memory of a liberating abandonment of bodily control.

Of a different hue are two smaller fountains, shown in a separate room. 3 Heads Fountain (3 Andrews) and 3 Heads Fountain (Juliet, Andrew, Rinde) are arrangements of the rough-hewn, colored epoxy resin and fiberglass casts of life-size human heads that have occupied Nauman for some years now. In each sculpture, three heads are clustered together and converted into conduits for water in the same way as the fish. However, the amount of the liquid is not as great, so what was a cascade in One Hundred Fish Fountain is now a dribble. The heads (some openmouthed or with protruding tongues) also appear comparatively vulnerable, even suggesting decapitation. But in all these works, a rivulet runs through it, a perpetual bathing and cleansing that signifies baptism and absolution, a gradual immersion in the ebb and flow of time and memory.

James Yood