By MEGAN REED, July 2019
Sculpture as an art form has a long history of celebrating and deifying the heroic and the powerful; reflecting a long tradition of human attempts to make magnificence manifest on a grand scale, competing with both the gods and nature at the same time (the Parthenon, anyone?). In contemporary terms, it’s most often encountered by the average person in a public context: adorning that other technology and hubris-fueled art form: architecture. In this vernacular, a staid, decorative image might come to mind; one intended to enhance a space without necessarily elevating the viewer to a spiritual plane. Even more, the materials often used for their weather-withstanding qualities (i.e. metal) can project a coldness, a hierarchy even that doesn’t always lend to contemplation. As we collectively acknowledge the damage done by mass production to the Earth amidst an increasing awareness we might be in the eye of the climate change storm, do sculptures mounted at superhuman scale in celebration of industry even resonate?
Micajah Bienvenu, a sculptor based on San Juan Island in Puget Sound, Washington--that rugged, vividly beautiful, complex landscape of rocky beaches, spectacular killer whales and legendary wild salmon--represents a refreshing shift: his work harnesses the capabilities of technology along with the tradition of public sculpture at heroic scales for the very purpose of making the human experience manifest, providing sites that are emotion made tangible, inviting us into spaces that reflect the enormity of the natural world and the human experience in relation to it at this very moment.
Listening to Bienvenu talk, I couldn’t help think of tales from Greek mythology of gods and hierarchies defied for the benefit of mere mortal humans. Prometheus, in fact, jumps to mind. That fire-wielding rebel provided the technology that sparked human advancement, and he paid dearly for it, in perpetuity. Bienvenu could be described as a kind of 21st century Promethean figure, embracing the advancement of computer-generated fabrication for the benefit of public sculpture, while humbly mining as his muse the spectacular (and increasingly fragile) natural infrastructure that surrounds him on San Juan Island. As an artist, he carries an obvious facility and knowledge of the heroic sculptural tradition that precedes him, but with a cautionary twist: yes, humans can do all these things, but at what cost to our collective humanity? To our precious resources?
It’s this really interesting juxtaposition of Bienvenu’s use of the computer with the handmade that positions him as an artist for the contemporary age, one where most of us are immersed in screens from dawn until dusk. Bienvenu conceives of his ideas on the computer, printing each piece with a gigantic 3-D printer or creating huge metal panels with a CNC plasma cutter that he then fabricates together by hand. The process sounds strikingly meditative: calling out an idea to the technological universe, which delivers him the pieces to make something clearly reflective of the human touch. “The Dancer,” a recently completed public commission, despite being over 17 feet high and fabricated in stainless steel, harnesses a very human sensation of being in the pure bliss of dancing freely. The figure has a lightness, airiness, and an infectious call to join in what seems a purely instinctive human act. This transcendence of materials belies the technical fastidiousness at work to bring it to fruition; what we’re left with is an almost perfect amalgamation of human ingenuity and technological genius.
Bienvenu’s work is currently on view in a more traditional setting, at the Matzke Fine Art Gallery and Sculpture Park in Camano Island, Washington. In a moment of delightful synchronicity, the images of the mid-size pieces on display resemble dynamic flames of fire in vivid primary colors, resting assertively on podiums throughout the gallery. Their materiality is tangible, inviting, but quickly reveals the unexpected: they are not cast bronze but 3-D printed PETG plastic, that most modern (and controversial) of consumer materials, especially in a climate challenged world. Within the park, four stainless steel sculptures also grace the grounds. The work gently calls us in, mirroring the elegance and perfection of nature in harmony. Once it has our attention, we are now inextricably part of the equation, confronted with an explicit call to action. Bienvenu-as-modern-Prometheus delivers the viewer a striking reminder through sculpture, if not a cautionary warning: we must protect the flame lest we extinguish it. WM
Megan Reed is a writer and fine artist based in Los Angeles, California.