"Nathan Mabry: gripgrabstacksqueeze" at Cherry and Martin, Los Angeles (Installation view)
Nathan Mabry ar Cherry and Martin,
Los Angeles, CA
April 2 - May 14, 2016
By FRANCEASCA SEIDEN, MAY 2016
Nathan Mabry is somewhat of a cultural anthropologist. He uses his sculptural work and drawings in a sort of choose-your-own-adventure mode, in which the viewer takes a journey through historical and pop cultural references, incorporating architecture and mysticism with his usage of sigils, sentinels, symbolism and linguistics.
Mabry explores the power of transformation — both in matters of material and metier as well as in a more esoteric sense — rooted in the dichotomies of civilizations past and present, in an imaginative re-narrative of art, history, and humanity. He’s also got a wicked sense of humor. His latest exhibition “gripgrabstacksqueeze” (on view at Cherry and Martin in Los Angeles through May 14) includes new drawings and two new bodies of sculptural work, "Late One Night" and "Low Hanging Fruit," which comprise three distinct, but related themes centered on the nearly alchemical power of art to reinvent both objects and their meanings.
To an extent the show’s title is about “performative” studio actions and the result of material manipulation, as well as the specific role of color (especially red and black), or the lack of color, in generating a plurality of narratives and subtly undermining assumptions about the character of his imagery — varietal animals, fruit, plants and ambiguous detritus. The large-scale bodies of work are invigorated with mysterious, mystical signifiers; intimate bursts of cosmic energy. Mabry uses metaphors about culture that are unique as his process, which fuse an emotional, organic sense of humanity to an armature of steel and decontextualized, industrial metal totems. There is no single way in which Mabry approaches his creative process — though his attention to detail and craftsmanship would suggest otherwise — but an attempt at explanation includes arcane and archetypal historical references, esoteric philosophy, and Iggy Pop.
Whitehot Magazine: Do you believe that the core of energetic transformation that animates your work is something that happens during your creative process? Or do you feel that your work’s power and meaning continue to transform in the eyes of viewers?
Nathan Mabry: I have always found myself drawn to the power of the object — what it represents singularly, universally, as symbol and as an emotion. Then what happens when each viewer interacts with objects through their own personal associations and cultural experience? Intention is blurred and acceptance is challenged. I believe the “meta-object” transforms and ultimately the viewer transforms. How we do we filter experience?
WHM: When do you feel the sculptures are finished?
NM: The daily operation of my studio constantly shifts from concept to concept, project to project. At times I have a very traditional studio practice — months of repetitive action, repetitive thought. Other times it is pure research, material studies, building mockups and models, exploring new processes and ideas.
WHM: Do you encourage outside participation from colleagues in your creative vortex?
NM: Often I am alone in the vortex of making, as I trust my instincts the most. But I am always bouncing ideas off of people (including reading and researching), entertaining all thoughts and possibilities. That said there is no specific way I approach making sculpture. I want to explore all methods of making from hand-sculpting clay, to manipulating 3D scans in the computer with software called ZBrush for 3D printing, and everything in between. Part of the “Late One Night” series questions these very ideas, of when is it that something is considered complete.
WHM: In “Late One Night” what was your motive behind working with steel and junkyard metal?
NM: These works explore ritual, tradition and expectations. As well as reverence, subversion, and ideas of authorship. The works are amalgams of aesthetic tropes and methods of making sculpture. Specifically, the mid-century sculptural inclination of making abstract metal sculpture often assembled from industrial remnants or found pieces, which came out of Cubism and other modernist approaches to art.
They feel familiar in their emotive presence yet upon closer inspection they reveal themselves to be something completely different. Being at once metal abstractions, architectural supports, geometric totems, seemingly quick constructions, pure physical objects and combinations of letter-forms spelling words. They are a visual conversation of the authorized object with the anonymous symbol becoming a re-contextualized group of objects creating a whole new narrative.
WHM: Does the meaning behind what was once America’s leading industry combined with shadows of the “found object” reference our earlier society vs. the present? Or was it the personification of the medium itself?
NM: I have approached making these works systematically, yet randomly, by what was available at the scrap yard, choosing bold aluminum industrial shapes like I-beams, square tubes, cylinders. Most were cap-welded to create a geometric volume and various dimensions of flat plate (large entangles and squares). Once in my studio I balanced the works on a single linear plane, then clamped into place. The clamps were then cast in metal and are fully integrated as an element on each sculpture.
I want them to look “in process,” as if were the clamp removed they would fall apart — yet each one has hidden welds throughout — with the possibility of being in flux, similar to language itself and fluid in nature. To further the cryptic landscape, I have given each one a Latin title that translates into an aspect of the “sculpted” word. Linguistic word-play is used throughout my practice. Each word deals with ideas of mortality.
The title “Late One Night” plays off of an iconic Anthony Caro work from 1962 titled “Early One Morning” (which is also an early folk song from 1700’s) and is a famous example of modernist metal abstract work, the sculptural font of the times. This inversion of title and color (Caro’s red) references ideas of passing and specific time. "Late One Night" refers to notions of the time it was made, the idea of working in the studio late at night, inspiration, immediate action. material reaction...and the color represents the shadows in the mystery of creation.
WHM: In "Low Hanging Fruit" you use the color red to actualize animals, fruits and plants and detritus that complements the all-black nature of "Late One Night." What is the significance behind the color scheme?
NM: In a certain sense the "Low Hanging Fruit" works offer an antithesis to the "Late One Night" works. An absurd combination of 3D symbols, surrealist in approach, almost Hieronymus Bosch-like. Each one has its own purpose or idea, its perfect combination based on art historical sources mixed with a certain aspect of exploded Dutch still life, vanitas and literary references. The titles refer to the surrealist in question. The series title is a double entendre, offering multiple reads. I want the red to be invigorated, full of energy almost like cosmic energy, and to explore the influence and ideas of red. Monochrome can unite and democratize leading to a fully incorporated arrangement.
WHM: Do you feel that juxtaposing these two series is specific to American politics?
NM: Politics are always involved, not necessarily the goal, but inherent. The full installation focuses on an experience similar to a recreation of a temple or courtyard you would find at an encyclopedic museum. Something meant to transport you to a different place, to better understand the information presented to you. However, my recreation is much more cryptic and doesn’t attempt to offer overarching conclusions. I like to explore dichotomies and civilizations of the past, such as looking at Greco-Roman ruins. For example “Upswept Room Mosaic” which depicts the remnants of a banquet, a Memento Mori.
WHM: Your drawings are very tribal and totemic, whereas the sculptural work is very modern American in feel. What was the deciding factor in bringing ancient cultures into the same room? It’s almost as if they are watching over the room.
NM: I often bring in imagery from all cultures or different parts of art history. In other works the ancient imagery is front and center in the sculptural work. But for this show this specific imagery worked best in this layering effect of the drawing. I was making a whole new mask from other mask sources. They came alive in a new way as a new entity.
In one aspect they watch over the show. I feel the "Late One Night" works are very totemic and evocative of Ancient cultures, but also not as obviously as other works in the show. At some angles they are reminiscent of a Chacmool, various altars and a ruin of an architectural column. Another interesting unearthing (as in archeology) is how many of the Modernist artists directly drew inspiration from these cultures as well. By bringing imagery together in this way there are subtle references to these past strong relationships drawing other correlations.
WHM: Generally speaking, what thoughts would you like people to have after leaving the exhibit? The grand takeaway, so to speak?
NM: In general I like the viewer to come to their own conclusions, but I would say, to have them question assumptions of culture, art, history, humanity — and maybe enjoy a laugh or two. Humor is an important tool. I would like them to consider mysticism and how these objects embody larger ideas. Acceptance. But then late one night, while picking up my children’s toys from the floor while listening to Iggy Pop’s Lust for Life, it all started to make a different kind of sense... WM
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Franceasca Seiden is a writer based in Los Angeles.