Vincent Fecteau

The viewer may find it disconcerting when Vincent Fecteau’s wonderfully erudite abstract sculptures reveal themselves, on close inspection, to be made of papier-mâché. Plaster, ceramic, or cast bronze seem the obvious media in which to produce such classically formal exercises reveling in unpretentious plays of shape, volume, color, and contour. But Fecteau is not compelled by elaborate lost-wax casting techniques; instead he uses simple means, building up these recent works with paper, glue, and gesso.

Curator James Rondeau notes in the exhibition brochure that “few artists have made such deceptively modest and idiosyncratic works so assured, involuted, and transformative.” Rondeau’s designations are right, though one of them only partially so, for while the exhibition’s eight small objects (all works Untitled, 2008) may be idiosyncratic in their individual forms, Fecteau’s abstract practice is in fact willfully unoriginal, the artist candidly pledging art-historical allegiances. He boldly summons, for example, Constantin Brancusi and Jean Arp (whose works hold court in the Art Institute’s modern collection), calling on the rudimentary formal language championed in early-twentieth-century avant-garde sculpture.

Each of Fecteau’s objects began as a papier-mâché cast of a beach ball. Working on all eight pieces at the same time, he pulled, bent, crushed, and cut at the basic spherical shape, adding papier-mâché appendages here and there and creating undulating organic contours and architectural planes, deep pockets of space and shallow crevices. Each of these assembled forms was then unified with a final layer of papier-mâché and gessoed and painted. Despite their varying appearances, the works are roughly the same in size and mass, a homogeneity brought into relief by the museum’s having displayed them on uniformly proportioned pedestals. Several have flat tops, which together, given the works’ equivalent heights, create the illusion of an invisible horizontal plane spanning the room, parallel to the square tops of the white bases. Such consistencies establish an aesthetic equilibrium from which the formal incongruities pleasingly rise to view.

Flat hues of purple, green, orange, red, and blue; faux finishes and white underbellies; scumbled shadows and brushy surface textures all imperil the sculptures’ compositional integrity. Art-historical evocations abound. For example, the ocher and black work, with its organic con- tours and hard edges, might be a section cut from Umberto Boccioni’s Unique Forms of Continuity in Space, 1913, but it also sports a black stippled pattern evoking the dotted surface of Picasso’s painted bronze Glass of Absinthe, 1914. The green and white sculpture is resolutely more graphic in its color combination and rectilinearity. Yet Fecteau carefully dirties its interior white planes, giving the illusion of both age and shadow.

In the exhibition brochure, Fecteau is quoted as saying, “Ideas that formed with one sculpture will often end up being used for another. Colors and textures switch and move around until they find their match. So they have an inherent relationship, kind of like siblings.” Although wrought from the same material as piñatas, the eight “siblings” here share an unmistakable, modern European ancestry; their unabashed formal conceit and indebtedness to early-twentieth-century abstraction make the Art Institute an ideal venue for their debut.

Michelle Grabner