On View / Picturing sculpture; sculpting pictures

Erin Shirreff, Monograph (no. 3), 2012

Erin Shirreff, Monograph (no. 3), 2012


While visiting the Erin Shirreff exhibition now at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery, I was reminded of an incident that occurred in an art appreciation course I teach at Buffalo State College. Each semester, students are assigned to go across the street to the museum to view art in situ, and then write a critique on a work of their choice. On one occasion, a student chose Born, by Kiki Smith, an intriguing bronze sculpture that depicts an adult woman being birthed by a deer. In her description of the work, the student wrote that one foot of the woman remains in the dear’s birth canal, but she was uncertain about the other foot because its view was blocked. An amusing observation since anyone viewing the work in person can look around back to see the other foot.

The student’s choice of words revealed her decision to take a pass on the AKAG visit, and view instead the museum’s online photograph of the sculpture (it didn’t help that the work had not been on display for over a year). Her mistake was thinking that a picture of a sculpture is tantamount to the real thing—an all too common perception in our media-saturated world. To the student, the digitized reproduction, while not quite three-dimensional, is something more than flat. It’s somewhere in between.

This state of in-betweenness, where the tactile, the concrete, and the spatial are often conflated with their photographic representations, is the stuff of Shirreff’s exhibition. My student illustrated this concept—albeit inadvertently—in one poorly worded critique, while Shirreff fills several galleries with sculpture, photography, collage, and video in an intriguing, if occasionally tenuous, extrapolation of objects and their representations.

Some of Shirreff’s work is flat-out sculpture in the round. She utilizes a modernist vocabulary of abstract geometric forms and slabs, uniformly coated with graphite and stacked in prescribed still life arrangements. The gray mottled steel and plaster objects, with their appealing substantiality and seductive tactility, send out a siren song plea to be hefted and held (as evidenced by the surrounding wire barriers). In the rest of the exhibition, Shirreff uses various approaches to exploring degrees of transition between sculpture and imagery, challenging viewers to perceive the interconnectedness of form and likeness.

Erin Shirreff, Drop (no. 14), 2015

Drop (no. 14) comprises large irregularly cut pieces of rolled steel, stacked informally against the gallery wall. The term “drop” is used in industry to describe scraps left over from die- and laser-cut steel, and Drop (no. 14) looks like a stack of discarded factory remnants. But in a convoluted process, Shirreff actually has the pieces custom-cut to match small paper scraps left from her collage work. The seeming arbitrariness and relative two-dimensionality of the two Drop works challenge conventions of modernist sculpture.

Across the gallery, the counterpoint to Drop (no. 14) is Tacks and bracket, double, one of Shirreff’s large-scale cyanotype (blueprint) photograms. To make them, the artist lays large shapes that echo those of her steel “drops” onto photosensitized muslin. She adds and removes objects over a period of hours as the fabric is exposed to the sun. There is a considerable element of chance involved, because Shirreff doesn’t know what the photogram will look like until the muslin is rinsed. It was the early twentieth-century Dadaists who first embraced chance as a form of “anti-art” expression, and Shirreff’s photograms might rightly be called anti-sculpture. Though her process involves three-dimensional objects, the resulting images are ethereal versions of her Drop works, with phantom forms suggesting the antithesis of mass.

The exhibition is packed with similar interactions between form and illusion, artifice and authenticity. Roden Crater is a video loop of artist James Turrell’s unfinished monument near Flagstaff, Arizona. Over its fifteen-minute running time, a static view of the crater slowly emerges from darkness into what might be mistaken for blazing sunlight. Oddly, bushes in the foreground remain frozen in place, and a bright light travels across a textured sky. At some point, it becomes apparent that this is not a video made in real time, but a single image (from the internet as it turns out)—a solitary point of time temporally stretched into another dimension. Shirreff photographs the image hundreds of times under different light conditions, then sequences and processes the results to create a continuous smooth transition. In doing so, she facilitates viewers in an extended gaze, well beyond the perfunctory glance images normally receive. And she reminds us that pictorial depictions are impacted by the circumstance under which they’re viewed.

Still from Medardo Rosso, Madame X, 1896, 2013

Less immediately engaging in this regard is Medardo Rosso, Madame X, a twenty-four minute loop that similarly morphs a gloomy vintage reproduction of Rosso’s well-known sculpture. During the ten minutes I viewed, the barely perceptible changes confirmed what we might already suspect—attention has its limits.

Another way the artist directs and focuses attention is through her Knife series—archival-like photographs of make-believe artifacts. From plasticine, Shirreff sculpts miniature objects that look like rudimentary scalpels and other primitive cutting tools, or alternatively, mock-ups for larger sculptures. Plasticine being nonpermanent, these objects aren’t meant to last. Instead they are painstakingly photographed portrait style, blown up to human scale, and sumptuously printed in black and white chiaroscuro.

Artists sometimes speak of things having “sculptural quality,” meaning possessing substance, volume, and spatial depth. Conversely, photographs are flat, but Shirreff aims for that sweet spot between two and three dimensions. Her camera draws our attention to every detail of the artist’s hand at work, right down to latent fingerprints. Valleys, ridges, and gashes are so sharply revealed that the exquisite documentation appears more sculpturally compelling than the actual objects likely did.

In other work, Shirreff further displays her interest in pictorial documentation by repurposing yellowed book reproductions of sculpture that may or may not still exist. In her Pages series, she pins one clipped illustration partly over another to spotlight and combine parts of sculptural images. Her Relief works involve enlarged cropped photographs of her own maquettes, oddly juxtaposed, and printed on paper bent to suggest the contours of an open magazine—documented sculpture remade sculptural.

The exhibition also includes a room of archival photographs (selected by the artist) of sculpture in the Albright-Knox’s collection. It’s always fun to look back at how we once displayed and interacted with art in the days when people wore tuxedos to openings. The only weakness of this exhibition might be the way its curators have attempted to tie the many diverse threads of Shirreff’s oeuvre into a neat bow (something critics and artists are also highly susceptible to by the way). The work here spins off in a variety of directions that stand on their own to varying degrees, rejecting any overarching theme.

Erin Shirreff is on view at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery through May 8.