Art has a very schizophrenic relationship with its own traditions and history. On one hand, for about the last 150 years artists have been encouraged to be innovative and revolutionary, believing that the icy air of the avant-garde is reserved for the bold who burn all bridges behind them, who hurl themselves and their culture toward the misty future. But, on the other hand, artists are also told that they are the heirs of a grand tradition, that they stand, as it were, in the footsteps of Giotto, that they are the latest chapter in a continuum of humanity that has long been and will long be. Steven Easton is an artist of this other hand. He is a 21st century artist who is very cognizant of the twenty centuries that have preceded him and of the centuries before that too, he looks back to look forward, he culls yesterday to come to terms with today and tomorrow. Whatever else you might think of this artist, this seems certain: Steven Easton remembers.
He remembers, and sometimes he overtly dips into the rich classical tradition of the glory that was Greece and the grandeur that was Rome (mostly the latter; Easton's classicism has a kind of imperial sweep, more Corinthian than Doric, more reflective of the power and majesty of the Roman Forum than the sterner stuff of Athens' Acropolis) with impressive colonnades reflecting the timeless order and tranquility of the weighty past. Some of his portrait-like heads too bear the imprint of ancient Roman forebears in their treatment of the head as a vehicle of experience and wisdom, not idealized into some kind of facile beauty, but, as the Romans sought, sober, honest and true. But Easton is no perfunctory historicist, this is not some revivalist exercise hearkening back to the good old days. It seems instead some acknowledgement of the links between the ages, the sense that the fundamental essences of humankind may change their exterior shape, but not their inner meaning. We are not the first people on earth to ask ourselves what is our place in the universe, what does it mean to be human, what is my relationship to culture, what do I believe? The quest to ruminate on such questions seems the subtext of Easton's work, and sometimes it suits him to cloak that in more direct quotation of classical sources. They're soothing, his perfect rows of columns, they offer order and elegance, symmetry and reason (though Easton often undercuts this a bit by including scale discrepancies
STEVEN EASTON:AN APPRECIATION
JAMES YOOD, 2008
amidst them, these are never architectural miniatures), they suggest-as architecture often does-the sense of a communal authority that both includes and transcends the individual. They remind us that one definition of classic is that it is of the highest class.
But most often Easton's classicism is more metaphoric than literary--he is, after all, a sculptor, not an architect. Rather than echo the literal appearance of historical sources, Easton sets out to achieve their equivalence, their parallel in often very modern forms. It's the impulse that can make a Donald Judd sculpture comparable to the Parthenon, a kind of purism that aims for essences, not the trappings of appearance. (A quick confession: the first thing that drew me to Easton's work was the suspicion I had that his work was an effort to reconcile a desire to simplify, to reduce things to their visual and conceptual core, with another and seemingly contradictory impulse to embellish and decorate, to seek some spiritual core while exulting in the sensual play of the stuff of the world, to try to narrow and yet also to expand, glory and grandeur once again. Even the organization of the works in this exhibition, the way that they fully exist as individual sculptures and also as players within a larger and somewhat mandala-like display strategy has them do, as it were, double duty, as specific individuals and as voices in his chorus.) The simple grace of one of his sculptures of chairs, for example, as basic a form as one can imagine, is presented by Easton on a series of complex successively embellished bases, this is chair as body, as throne, as a symbol of civilization at its most basic, an Ur-motif. But the blocky and blunt chair must be seen in conjunction with the cascading rivulets of Easton's bases (I count six of these), the two languages inform each other, complete each other, need each other.
Glass is Easton's tether, and his skills in casting it perfectly suit his needs. He employs the lost-wax technique (itself thousand years old) to realize very specific details into his mold-forms, and these can be further touched up after his pieces have cooled. His color is subtle, almost always monochromatic, but never seems arbitrary. Easton lets the curious translucency of glass do its magic, the way it, unlike almost all other sculptural mediums, lets light enter its being, seeming to warm it from within, giving it a kind of glow that always seems to suggest that these sculptures keep their secrets well.
Life matters. It may be that we live in a moment of rampant cynicism, that irony and cleverness often seem more contemporary than metaphor and meaning. Steven Easton is having none of that; this is an artist who still deeply believes in the dream that art, too, matters, that through it he, and then we, can touch on central themes that construct and comprise the condition of humankind. His sculptures are platforms for reflection, they provide moments for us to pause in our daily swirl and ruminate, and they function, for me, at least, as oases in the desert of glut that surrounds us. Steven Easton remembers, and he offers us the possibility and challenge of doing so as well.