Washington, DC

View of “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture,” 2006, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. From left: Mark Handforth, Trashcan Snake, 2005. Mark Handforth, Northern Star, 2005. Mark Handforth, Mobile (Green, Yellow and White), 2002. Mark Handforth, I-Beam, 2002.

View of “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture,” 2006, Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden, Washington, DC. From left: Mark Handforth, Trashcan Snake, 2005. Mark Handforth, Northern Star, 2005. Mark Handforth, Mobile (Green, Yellow and White), 2002. Mark Handforth, I-Beam, 2002.

“The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas”

LOOKS CAN BE DECEIVING, in sculpture especially so. However expanded its field of activity has become, “sculpture” today might be seen to cohere around the deviousness of physical matter—its inexhaustibility, opacity, and guile. This, at least, was the common proposition of the works in the recent show “The Uncertainty of Objects and Ideas: Recent Sculpture”: You will never be able to apprehend all aspects of a sculpture at once, and it will always evade availability as universal (phenomenological) or collective (ideological) experience, despite modernist hopes to the contrary.

Fittingly, the exhibition’s nine artists—Andrea Cohen, Björn Dahlem, Isa Genzken, Mark Handforth, Rachel Harrison, Evan Holloway, Charles Long, Mindy Shapero, and Franz West—had plenty of tricks up their sleeves. Not least of these was an activation of space and material presence that reenergized the historical feints between a hard-edged formalist Minimalism and an aberrant, organicist post-Surrealism. Yet the show thankfully refrained from driving a simplistic wedge between these legacies. If contemporary sculpture has increasingly been traced back to a postwar duel of solid against sprawl—the taut freestanding density of a Tony Smith cube versus the molten dispersion of Lynda Benglis’s lead pours—“Uncertainty” deftly short-circuited this reductive binary of “rational” and “irrational” operations.

Curator Anne Ellegood used the Hirshhorn’s circular structure to create a shrewd feedback loop between the show’s sculptures and several peripheral galleries of earlier works, which she, Harrison, Holloway, and Long culled from the museum’s permanent collection. Perambulating through this historically layered arrangement, one sensed that things were not what they seemed. Franz West’s scabrous papier-mâché “Sisyphos” series, 2002, and Evan Holloway’s grotesque plaster growths in Power, 2005, revealed embedded elements such as pipes and batteries, respectively—resonating with West’s description of his related series of “Paßstücke” (Adaptives) as portable pieces that “hover between the mechanical and the organic.” Holloway’s Grey Scale, 2001, a fragile delirium of thin branches and metal base painted successive shades of gray and joined at right angles, likewise shifted between decaying naturalism, industrial fabrication, and the value gradations of painting (and Photoshop). But then again, the organic is inseparable from the mechanic, as a trip into the adjacent gallery disclosed. Here Holloway had unearthed a trove of mostly 1960s and ’70s works (not displayed for at least twenty-five years) that owed as much to the engineered geometry of Minimalism as to the abject and the psychedelic. The funk futurism of Mary Bauermeister’s ’60s works, wildly sinuous drawings distorted by a cluster of tumescent convex glass overlays, and Stephan von Huene’s Totem Tone V, 1969–70, whose motored wooden pipes robotically stuttered into sonorous action, frustrated any false dualism between the technoscientistic and the bodily, the inanimate and the messily animate.

“Uncertainty” indicated that the kinetic and anthropomorphic have returned to sculpture as close kin. (Michael Fried’s famous anthropomorphic “presence” is not the only pertinent term here; Jack Burnham’s lesser known 1968 invocation of a technophilic desire to invest objects with animation is also relevant.) This much was clear in the contributions of Charles Long, which agglomerated detritus from the Los Angeles River with the tactile pulp of plaster and papier-mâché to golemlike effect: A Slave Chemist, 2004, placed elements resembling carapaces onto thin steel appendages that, while static, evoked rotation around a spine. Long’s own selection of works from the Hirshhorn’s collection, orbiting in the next gallery, posed Eduardo Paolozzi’s mechanomorphic bronzes of the early ’60s amid the uncanny entelechy of sculptures by Lee Bontecou and Kenneth Price. Such juxtapositions continued to echo in Mindy Shapero’s plays on the random and the systematic. Her feathered accretions of chromatic paper swatches suggested malignant cloud formations or genetically modified birds, while a misshapen bramble of black-to-red wooden spokes was structured through the repetition of star-shaped modules, like architectural space frames or interlocking molecular models gone awry.

All these volumes and arrays drew an unexpected continuum between rectilinear structures and the fluid but no less rigorously mathematical topologies of early Louise Bourgeois, Bontecou, or Ruth Vollmer. Not coincidentally, Isa Genzken’s extraordinary pieces in “Uncertainty” recalled the artist’s own computer-generated “Ellipsoids” (1976–82) and “Hyperbolos” (1979–85). But these previous experiments in quadric surfaces perversely reappeared in derelict fashion: The glossy polycarbonate curve of Philippe Starck’s Ero/s/ Chair, 2001, for Kartell, now upturned and deposited atop Geschwister (Brothers and Sisters), 2004, seemed like so much modernist design on layaway. This reified equivalence of all things also ruled Rachel Harrison’s signature couplings and inversions. Seen in proximity to Genzken’s work, Harrison’s sculpture could be read in terms of a logic of substitution and interchangeability between the organic, the handcrafted, and the serially produced readymade (whether furniture or photograph)—as in Shelley Winter, 2006, a vertical stack of potted plant, amorphous polystyrene, and IKEA table, a kind of postindustrial cadavre exquis in the round. Even more explicit as a set of transposable parts was Duck’s Legs and Carrots, 2006. An ovoid blob was turned on its “side”; its upended wooden “pedestal” doubled as the vertical support for a framed digital print of the titular fowl; the entire sequence formed another sculptural mass that rested on a standard rectangular white base.

Yet if there is still something to activate in the object, however degraded or inert, Mark Handforth’s hybrid constructions hinted that it might lie in the temporal aspect of recombination and reuse. I-Beam, 2002, reconceived the I beams of Mark di Suvero or the L beams of Robert Morris in lusciously handwrought cherry, purple heart, mahogany, and six other types of wood with seamless joins (no nails); Flavinesque fluorescents dangled limblike by their wires as reconfigured in Mobile (Green, Yellow and White), 2002. These sleights of hand produced anachronistic admixtures of past process and new material—or new process and past material—that reveled in their historical disjunction and physical duration. Observing the works became a contingent exercise in retrospection and forecasting. “Uncertainty” likewise posits sculpture as a medium continually postponed. But sculpture also turns out to be a matrix that will find ways to continue, even those displaced or disguised.

Michelle Kuo is an art historian and critic based in Washington, DC.