In the Studio

Object in a White Box

sculpture, white painted room, track lighting


Sculpture poses a unique challenge among art forms.  You cannot get outside of a sculpture.    That is, as a sculptor, you can never be sure where your piece ends.  Maybe it doesn't.  The viewer always experiences a sculpture and its environment as one, to an extent, because sculpture occupies three-dimensional space - the same space as the viewer, the same space as its surroundings.  The same is not true of two-dimensional graphic works, because they exist in a different kind of space than the viewer and environment.  Something about viewing a flat image, whether or not it is an image of anything, whether or not the artist has "holed through" the surface to create an illusion of three dimensions, tells the brain that this image object exists in a different, imaginary space that is not the space the viewer is standing in.  A two-dimensional work is, to a great extent, its own environment.  This is not to say that the experience of viewing a graphic work in any context is entirely the same as viewing it in another, but two-dimensional works are usually a more transportable experience than a sculpture.  

To demonstrate the principle, one need only consider the difficulty an artist or curator experiences in reproducing in another format a sculpture, as opposed to a painting.  Photographically documenting a painting is basically a matter of getting the light even and the colors true.  To document a sculpture, one must first answer the question of where to put it, then what kind of lighting to use, and what angles, of infinite options, are most necessary for the virtual audience to see in order to get the experience of the work that is nearest to being with it in person.  All of these environmental variables can drastically change the translation of the work into two dimensions.  Put another way, you might forget the wall, table, computer screen, or book page on which you saw a graphic work, but you will remember the space in which you saw a sculpture, if only peripherally - the way the light hit the object, the way you moved around it, the color of the walls, or perhaps the atmosphere of the outdoor space surrounding you.  The environment is inseparable from the art.

As a sculptor, I’ve recently realized that I face a sort of embarrassing conundrum, which is that when viewing a sculpture I am very rarely moved with the same intensity as I feel when I experience many other forms of art, including certain graphic works, literature, and music.  And if I’m honest with myself, whatever cerebral merit a work of art may have, a piece's ability to provoke a visceral reaction of some kind is my most trusted indicator of when I’ve done something useful in my own work.  Nevertheless, I keep making sculpture with a faith of some sort, because when it’s in my hands in the studio, it’s real.  That is, in the process of making sculptural works I can feel their potential, the powerful strangeness of an imagined object that comes into being, with me, in the same space that I occupy.  But after that comes the trouble, because between the sculpture leaving my hands, and entering the public view, an environment gets added to the piece.  Since a gallery of some type is most often the sculpture’s compulsory destination, the finishing touch on each piece is usually to encase it in big white, clean, empty room.  If that white box wasn't really an intentionally integrated or particularly effective element of the piece, I suppose it's no mystery why the work might fall short of the visceral communicative potential it showed before it got stuck there.

    I wonder if the gallery setting nearly always impoverishes a sculpture.  In the case of two-dimensional work, the purpose of the gallery is to be, in a sense, a non-space in which the work is allowed to exist unencumbered by conditions around it - perfect light, blank walls, the quiet that such a space seems to demand of visitors.  For graphic pieces, it generally works - the isolation helps the viewer mentally enter the imaginary space of the image.  But if you can’t get outside of a sculpture, then that white cube it's sitting in is always part of the piece.  Nearly every sculpture destined for the art market is some kind of object in a white box, an object within a sacred art-containing non-space.  For that reason, a sculpture in a gallery is perhaps in more danger of reading as rarefied, alienated from life, than a two-dimensional work.  The question for the sculptor then becomes, to include the white non-space in the work, or to break out of it?



Leah SmithComment