Man of steel

Sculp­tor Tom Joyce’s new ex­hibit, After­shock

Pasatiempo - - CONTENTS -

Iron con­nects us to Earth. It’s in our blood, and it forms the mat­ter at the heart of Earth it­self. Sci­en­tists es­ti­mate that the planet’s core is com­posed pri­mar­ily of iron. It fed the uni­cel­lu­lar bac­te­ria that swarmed the seas dur­ing the Protero­zoic era. Over mil­lions of years, life evolved on Earth to the de­gree that iron could be worked to the ben­e­fit of hu­mankind. Dur­ing the Iron Age, when met­al­smithing de­vel­oped to in­clude forg­ing, iron could be ma­nip­u­lated into a greater range of shapes for a larger num­ber of uses than the sim­ple cast­ings of ear­lier smithing could pro­vide. Forged iron was stronger, too, with more ten­sile strength than cast met­als. “The core of the Earth is iron, and there’s an in­ner shell and outer shell turn­ing in this dy­namic move­ment that cre­ates the Earth’s en­tire ge­o­mag­netic field that keeps us or­bit­ing around the sun,” sculp­tor and black­smith Tom Joyce told Pasatiempo. “Were it not for iron play­ing that crit­i­cal role, we’d be in a dif­fer­ent state, a dif­fer­ent en­vi­ron­ment.” Joyce, whose ex­hi­bi­tion After­shock opens at James Kelly Con­tem­po­rary on Fri­day, Aug. 7, cre­ates his works in full aware­ness of the prop­er­ties, history, and legacy of iron, his cho­sen medium.

In Joyce’s Berg se­ries — dense, amor­phous, fis­sured sculp­tures made from forged high-car­bon steel, an iron al­loy — he makes ex­plicit ref­er­ence to the ma­te­rial’s pri­mary source deep at the Earth’s core. Some of the squat forms ex­hibit a down­ward move­ment, al­most as though the sculp­tures are col­laps­ing back into them­selves. “A lot of my projects like the Bergs, they have this kind of di­rec­tional fo­cus,” he said. “The thought is that it’s be­ing sucked down as if it was point­ing into the cen­ter of the Earth.”

For After­shock, Joyce has crafted a new body of work that in­cludes two large-scale rings called Au­re­ole 1 and Au­re­ole 2, forged from stain­less steel, cracked and fis­sured like the baked earth in a dried-up riverbed. Much of what Joyce has been in­ves­ti­gat­ing in his cur­rent work is the fa­tigue fac­tor of the ma­te­ri­als, the point in the forg­ing process in which the molec­u­lar struc­ture breaks down. “A lot of the work is about set­ting up a for­mal con­struct that’s breached by some­thing that hap­pens nat­u­rally due to the na­ture of the ma­te­rial. With all the cracks and fis­sures and with all the tear­ing, the way it sucks back into it­self, that’s all the re­sult of the in­her­ent na­ture of the ma­te­rial. I’m try­ing to show some­thing about the prop­erty of iron I think is in­trigu­ing and worth ex­plor­ing fur­ther, es­pe­cially the fact that some­thing so strong de­vel­ops a frac­tur­ing that shows some­thing about its molec­u­lar struc­ture. All of that is the re­sult of think­ing about ge­o­logic forces and ex­pan­sion and con­trac­tion.”

The large disks that make up the Aure­oles de­vel­oped an all-over, frac­tured pat­tern, the re­sult of his ex­per­i­men­ta­tion with the lim­its of ma­te­rial stress. “This is just two, three, four heats away from fall­ing apart com­pletely,” Joyce said of one of the rings. “It’s very, very strong as it is now but, if these cracks de­vel­oped even far­ther and met on the other side, it would just crum­ble. It’s about 6,500 pounds of steel.”

Joyce, a re­ceip­i­ent of a 2003 MacArthur Foun­da­tion Fel­low­ship, makes his sculp­tures from the re­mains of scrap me­tal used for in­dus­trial ap­pli­ca­tions. “Imag­ine that there’s this mas­sive in­got, say 30,000 pounds that’s be­ing forged into a shaft for a hy­dro­elec­tric

dam pro­ject; they forge the shaft out of this big in­got but it’s rough on ei­ther end. The rough end is what I’m tak­ing. It’s cut off and there’s of­ten im­pu­ri­ties in the iron. So it has this kind of char­ac­ter. As a dis­card it has a mem­ory of what the par­ent was shaped like but it also holds the prior history of its mak­ing.”

Joyce’s de­sign work and ma­que­ttes are done in a stu­dio in Brus­sels where he works dur­ing part of each year. He main­tains two small forges in his Santa Fe stu­dio and larger pieces are made at a fac­tory out­side of Chicago. “It’s a big fac­tory. They al­low me to come in when­ever I want. I se­cure, usu­ally, 100,000 pounds, at least, of their scrap ma­te­rial and then just forge it into dif­fer­ent shapes us­ing clay as my model. There’s a tremen­dous pride among the peo­ple that work there. They’re very skilled tech­ni­cians. Be­cause we speak the same lan­guage from the train­ing that we’ve had — me as a black­smith early on — it al­lows this very seam­less way of work­ing where you have a safe en­vi­ron­ment to pro­duce work that wouldn’t nor­mally be pro­duced in those kinds of places.”

In ad­di­tion to sculp­ture, Joyce presents a se­ries of pho­to­graphic works in After­shock: CT scans of the molds made for his Core se­ries, small sculp­tures of lay­ered, cylin­dri­cal forms. The scans de­pict the neg­a­tive spa­ces in­side the molds show­ing a lay­ered re­verse im­age of the pos­i­tive sculp­tures, also on view, made from them. “In look­ing at the CT scans, and this is the thing that got me re­ally ex­cited, I’m able to see all the lay­ers at once so there’s a kind of trans­parency.” The CT scans are il­lu­mi­nated from the back, not un­like X-rays, but the scans pro­vide more in­for­ma­tion than X-rays. “With a CT scan there’s, say, 250 im­ages, mi­cro­scopic slices of the ob­ject and those are col­lapsed into a trans­par­ent view and you’re able to see the voids, the hol­low space that would later be filled with iron,” he said. In ad­di­tion, his re­cent works in­clude sev­eral singed wood pan­els called Penum­bras, “draw­ings” made from heated me­tal discs placed strate­gi­cally on wood pan­els to cre­ate a se­ries of charred, cir­cu­lar pat­terns.

Much of Joyce’s iron sculp­tures are pro­duced at tem­per­a­tures as high as a white-hot 2,600 de­grees. This al­lows for the ma­te­rial to be pli­able, like clay, and easily ma­nip­u­lated. Large in­dus­trial tongs grasp the heated me­tal, which is twisted and ham­mered into the de­sired shape. “Fifty per­cent of the time, at least, peo­ple mis­un­der­stand about the very process used to end up with this shape, and of­ten it will be talked about as ei­ther be­ing melted into this form, or cast into this form. But the forg­ing is re­ally this time­less way of mov­ing me­tal most ef­fi­ciently and more spon­ta­neously. Even though I know where I’m go­ing with the shapes, there’s still a kind of play­ful­ness in the re­sult. Set­ting up the con­di­tions where it can come into its own out­side of any­thing I might dic­tate is key.”

Penum­bra XVI (de­tail), 2015, charred draw­ing on wood fiber, 48.5 x 48.5 x 3 inches, framed

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