Steel works prove delicate yet durable
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.