New York

Conrad Shawcross

Location One

Conrad Shawcross’s Slow Arc III, 2009, is a small light in a cage in a darkened room—already fertile ground for metaphor—mounted on a mechanism that moves up and down, side to side, and forward and back. The light travels slowly from point to point along the three axes that these movements describe, and in so doing casts shadows of the wire mesh onto the walls; these moving shadows make the walls appear to recede and stop and come closer and reverse, a vertiginous and not entirely benignant effect, especially when accompanied by the relentless grinding sound of the mechanism.

Slow Arc III is the latest iteration of an ongoing exploration by the artist, inspired by a quotation from the British chemist Dorothy Hodgkin, who described making a model of pig insulin as “like trying to work out the structure of a tree from seeing only its shadow.” Working backward from this and from descriptions of Shawcross’s previous experiments in this vein, one could reasonably arrive at the conclusion that he is trying to determine the structure either of the expanding universe, or of Plato’s cave. In the end it doesn’t particularly matter which; the rather uneasy sense of being in the hands of something that doesn’t necessarily wish you well—that determines your perception of space in such an efficient, neutral, completely unknowable fashion—appears to be the point.

Although the roots of Shawcross’s explorations are mathematical and scientific, our relationship to the results of his experiments is provisional, even metaphysical. If we suspect there is an underlying order to the forces in the universe, we may find confirmation in a series of drawings, “Dumbbell (Major 6th 5:3) New York Series,” 2009, made using a pendulum somehow keyed to the major sixth chord, which, using various speeds and ratios, produces drawings both delicately incised and frantic, deliberate and scrawled, that appear to progress regularly in length. If we think that the universe is chaotic, we need look no further than Celestial Meters, 2009, a series of metal rods representing hypothetical variations on the meter—originally ten millionths of the distance from the equator to the North Pole through Paris—as a series of analogous measurements on each of the planets of the solar system. That the meter was born during the overthrow of all things imperial in the French Revolution demonstrates that what we perceive as a most logical system of measurement is actually the result of human passion, accident of location, and sheer randomness. Thus Shawcross creates philosophical objects, like something out of Borges, with which we can gauge our relationship to knowledge itself.

Lattice Cube IV and Lattice Cube II, both 2008, derive, we are told, from the artist’s interest in the Big Bang. The former is a cube made up of three-dimensional triangles neatly fitted together, and the latter shows the same tetrahedrons set a few inches apart from one another using aluminum tubes. A single sculpture would have been static, but the set of two suggests infinite movement outward by degrees: The aluminum tubes could be any length at all, moving the triangles farther and farther apart, the model becoming as big as the thing it represents and proposing a manageable idea of the universe—something very nearly impossible to visualize—as a kind of Erector Set.

Emily Hall