Steel works prove del­i­cate yet durable

The Commercial Appeal - Go Memphis - - ARTS - By Fredric Koep­pel Special to The Com­mer­cial Ap­peal

One of the most im­por­tant se­ries of lo­cal ex­hi­bi­tions is the “Trib­u­taries” suc­ces­sion at the National Or­na­men­tal Metal Mu­seum. Launched in 2008, “Trib­u­taries” has brought to the mu­seum 28 artists and crafts­peo­ple whose na­tiona l rep­u­ta­tions bring honor to a some­times over­looked in­sti­tu­tion. The wide di­ver­sity of these artists’ work re­flects the great va­ri­ety of vi­sion and tech­nique — whether ex­trav­a­gant or el­e­gant, func­tional or fan­ci­ful — that black­smithing and met­al­work­ing can achieve.

Many of the par­tic­i­pants in “Trib­u­taries” have ties to the Metal Mu­seum, in­clud­ing the lat­est, Stephen Yusko, who served as a black­smithing ap­pren­tice and artist-in-res­i­dence at the mu­seum from 1991 to 1996. His ex­hi­bi­tion, spare and thought­ful, will be dis­played through Aug. 7.

Ev­ery work of art is a bal­anc­ing act, whether in the whim­si­cal, off-cen­ter, just-poise-for-equilib­rium fashion — think of Paul Klee’s chirp­ing, f lirty draw­ings and wa­ter­col­ors and Calder’s beau­ti­fully and im­prob­a­bly bal­anced sculp­tures — or in the sense that art­works chal­lenge as­sump­tions about util­ity and aes­thet­ics, method and mad­ness, medium and mes­sage. Yusko’s pieces in his “Trib­u­taries” ex­hi­bi­tion en­com­pass all of these lib­er­at­ing and provoca­tive fac­tors.

The artist lives in Cleve­land, Ohio, and it’s in­ter­est­ing that his work dis­played here evokes the ma­chin­ery and me­chan­ics of Northern industrial cities, their 19th cen­tury rail­road tres­tles and bridges span­ning his­toric rivers with names de­rived from Na­tive Amer­i­can lan­guages — Cuya­hoga, Al­legheny, Susque­hanna — when iron and steel

be­came kings of the Old North­west. Yusko up­ends ex­pec­ta­tions, though, through the pure el­e­gance and im­pec­ca­ble, seam­less crafts­man­ship of his met­al­work and by a sense of whimsy that is un­set­tling enough to verge oc­ca­sion­ally on mildly dis­turb­ing.

One would not, for ex­am­ple, want to go with “The Way Things Go,” nec­es­sar­ily, since the small yel­low house perches at one end of a nar­row steel road that does a loopde-loop at the other end where a sim­i­lar yel­low house ca­reers through the loop, like a car­ni­val ride. The con­struct is held high by a se­quence of pairs of nar­row, slightly curv­ing legs as del­i­cate as lit­tle cat’s feet yet seem­ingly as per­ma­nent as a mon­u­ment. The joints where the legs are fas­tened to the road, here and in sim­i­lar pieces like “Long Way Home” and “The View from Here,” il­lus­trate the care and sense of style that Yusko takes with the small­est and finest de­tails.

The at­ten­tion to mat­ters both broad and minute does not fluc­tu­ate with pieces like the two “In­ter­sec­tion Ta­bles,” one sub­ti­tled “Stain­less De­tour,” the other “Dou­ble Yel­low,” small ob­jects that mimic roads diverging but with pos­si­ble use as ta­bles if you were so in­clined. The anomalies in this group of works that stand on thin legs are three quite small boxes named “Sig­nal Box (trio),” which I won­dered about un­til re­al­iz­ing that the col­ors, red, yel­low and green re­ferred to Stop, Cau­tion and Go; and the com­pact but im­pos­ing “Citadel,” a bleak fortress that re­sem­bles a com­bi­na­tion of a Mid­west­ern grain el­e­va­tor and a prim­i­tive cas­tle from one of the more back­ward en­vi­rons of Wes­teros. I think he has fun with that.

Yusko ac­com­plishes his bal­anc­ing act with aplomb and grace, though he deals in a most durable medium: forged, ma­chined and fab­ri­cated steel.

His en­try in the “Trib­u­taries” se­ries is nei­ther the largest nor the most flam­boy­ant, but in its wit, its style and evoca­tive na­ture, it suc­ceeds bril­liantly.


Stephen Yusko, “The Way Things Go”; forged ma­chined and fab­ri­cated steel; 2015. From “Trib­u­taries” at the Metal Mu­seum.

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