San Francisco

Ian McDonald

The eleven sculptures that constituted Ian McDonald’s recent exhibition at Rena Bransten Gallery were bunched together on a single white platform. The mode of display seemed as important as the objects themselves—smooth, stonelike ceramic sculptures, at times encrusted with glittering purple crystals—in its address of a classic modernist trope. The works were also set on artist-designed powder-coated steel tables and in one case enshrined in a large vitrine, thereby blurring distinctions between art, décor, and institutional display. The totality of the installation evoked a combination of midcentury furniture, Minimalist sculpture, stylish bric-a-brac, and tailored munitions (some of the sculptures have distinctly bomblike shapes).

The ambiguous relationship of form and function has been worked through innumerable times before, but McDonald’s juxtaposition of forbidding power with bejeweled allure is particularly well suited to a cultural moment in which quasi-military vehicles like Hummers are marketed to the general public. At times, McDonald deploys black surfaces that are as slick as crude oil; visually sharp, such elements remain conceptually indeterminate. The objects are lent a formal distance by their fetishistic presentation, yet they are installed in a small gallery that forces close scrutiny of their seductive sheen. Two large works, Breather Collection (mono) and Breather Collection (purple & white), both 2007, have a similarly industrial gloss. Shiny hybrid forms, they suggest fashionable vases, bowling pins—or bulbous, pint-size missiles

Some of these particular works are capped with a variety of circular aluminum vents that suggest inhalation, but other urnlike sculptures in the show have a more deathly air. 1/2 vessel-full, 2008, is a hefty, shallow glazed vessel sealed at the top with cement that has been sanded to create a smooth but mottled surface. The suggestion that this contains something physically or psychically weighty—heavy metals, human ashes, or an incendiary document—is palpable. Placing the vessel on a specially made round table, McDonald counterbalances the funereal impression with elegant engineering; if you squint, it evokes a fashionable floor lamp. The work reflects the show’s title, “Optimism (If You Want It),” by offering the vague promise of consumer pleasure in the face of lethal implications.

A regal shade of purple appeared more than once, most emphatically in the prominently placed Chiminea, 2008, a miniaturized ceramic model of a fireplace. Perched on a stool-like side table, it looks fit for a bachelor pad. The object, however, is stuffed with lumps of coal, which, while containing shimmering flecks of mineral, visually recede into the body of the work like a hibernating predator. More glamorous minerals appear in works like Geode #1, 2008, a small ceramic boulder encrusted with borax crystals that suggests an uncomfortable conflation of well-intentioned New Age spirituality with the threat of radioactivity.

With ambiguity playing such a starring role, McDonald’s project flirts dangerously with obliterating itself with multiple interpretations. The works are presented in a tight grouping that reads as installation, yet are titled (and sold) separately. And their effectiveness as singular objects is sometimes questionable: Do they rely too much on the carpet-bomb approach? That McDonald’s title ironically invokes optimism as a guiding factor suggests that that battle might remain, for now, dynamically unresolved.

Glen Helfand