Chicago

Andrew Lord

Donald Young Gallery

One window onto the awful weight of history is the similarly awful weight of art history. Andrew Lord’s two recent series of plaster and beeswax sculptures are both elegant and elegiac in this respect, assertions of self achieved via an immersion in selected obscurities of our shared cultural traditions and an attendant insistence on the palpability of his own body.

Culture first—Lord’s ongoing series “Second Avenue” (all works 2007), named in part for a poem by Frank O’Hara, is a mannered journey through the ancient vase shapes that have interested the artist for some time. Completely nonfunctional, without cavity or aperture, his vessels have been reduced to visual essences, as if the allusive summoning of the shape of a pre-Columbian pot as a historical sign were enough, a testament to the authority of the past that expresses the vacuity of the present, a determined holding of the old gods to his bosom. Lord elongates these shapes into a slightly Giacometti-like stretched and striated verticality, their pitted plaster surfaces and petrified beeswax coatings giving them a poignantly battered-looking profile. They appear almost as if unearthed, and some are literally unsteady on their pins.

Second Avenue No 3 is Lord’s interpretation of an oenochoe-like form, but with a handle and body so impossibly stretched and slender that it has become ghostlike, a visual stutter, a gesture toward a custom that the artist respects but from which his work seems somehow alienated, its function now solely as cultural trope, a container of collective historical memory. But there is power in tradition, and Lord’s project seems to oscillate between homage and lamentation—homage to a group of hallowed cultural forebears, and lamentation for the impossibility of duplicating their achievements.

Vase shapes are already full of intimations of the human body, and Lord’s second series in this show comprise casts of parts of his own body and of the body of a friend. Disembodied fragments—a neck, a tongue, nostrils, buttocks, a penis, fingers, and a chin—are presented as decontextualized chunks of tea-soaked plaster covered with yellow-gold beeswax, each sculpture seemingly casually hung by twisted wire from a nail pounded into the wall. Amid the evocation of Jasper Johns’s Target with Plaster Casts, 1955, and some similar efforts by Marcel Duchamp, Bruce Nauman, and others, there is something intentionally forlorn about this project, a kind of fundamental assertion of personhood and presence without any assertion of personality or intimacy, autobiography without revelation.

Lord’s rough-hewn manner of casting, his purposeful clumsiness and inattention to detail, posits this as a kind of solipsistic exercise, a self-communing inventory of literal bits of the corporeal. His tendency to present these life-size body parts—his buttocks, tongue, and neck, for example—in both positive and negativecasts gives this all a somewhat arbitrary quality, and in several cases, such as cast neck (negative). the Bowery. March., it would be impossible to identify the subject without its title. Lord informs his viewers that the poetic inspiration for this series was Walt Whitman’s “I Sing the Body Electric” (1855), and while Lord doesn’t summon Whitman’s transcendental exuberance, both exhibit a similar delight in considering the body as a compendium of individual parts, each miraculous in its own way, nonhierarchically, nostrils no less significant than brains. It’s much like the different forms of ancient vases.

James Yood