CAROL BOVE creates sculptures that seem to flow like water or tumble like loose fabric but are, in fact, as hard as steel. payal uttam reports
New York-based artist Carol Bove uses words like tender, light and soft to describe her sculptures, though she makes them using heavy stainless-steel tubes and unwieldy industrial-scale machinery. Almost in defiance of the very nature of metal, her vividly coloured works evoke crumpled fabric, clay or even paper. Intensely tactile, they teeter between cerebral assemblages, sensual sculpture and sleek design.
“We think stainless steel is hard and strong, and I’m wondering if this is really the case. Can it be tricked into showing a different side?” the artist mused recently in an interview with art historian Johanna Burton. “Under what conditions is it soft and supple? I never force the material to do something it doesn’t want to do. I let it lead me as much as I lead it.”
Almost like a pas de deux, she performs a delicate dance, allowing her materials to steer the outcome of her works. Her latest experiments with metal are on view at David Zwirner this month (until December 14) in a show titled Ten Hours. Spread across the two-floor space are a series of vividly coloured works composed of steel tubing, scrap metal and highly polished steel disks. These lyrical sculptures draw subtly from astrological, cosmological and art-historical influences.
While her work may be relatively new to the general public in Asia, audiences across the United States and Europe are very familiar with her oeuvre. Bove’s seductive sculptures have appeared everywhere from galleries and museums to outdoor parks and biennales. Since graduating from New York University in 2000, the California native quickly made a name for herself in the art world. She first became known for sculptures in the form of shelving units with a sparse display of books, magazines and random objects such as peacock feathers and crystals. By mixing images and texts ranging from a Playboy centrefold to
philosophical and mystical treatises, these works conjured the spirit of the bohemianism of the 1960s and ’70s. Many of her sculptures and installations resulted from scavenger hunts near her studio in Brooklyn’s industrial Red Hook neighbourhood, where she scoured for pieces of wood and urban detritus that caught her eye. In 2011, for instance, when she first exhibited at the 54th Venice Biennale, she showed an installation titled The Foamy Saliva of a Horse that consisted of a theatrical array of objects and materials she found on the Hudson River shore, including shells, a rusted oil drum, and driftwood placed in a bronze frame. Over time she began to shift away from assemblages made primarily with flotsam and jetsam and ventured into large-scale industrial works in the realm of 20th-century giants like John Chamberlain, Tony Smith and Anthony Caro.
In 2013, she created six sprawling sculptures for The High Line park in New York, including a slick white noodle-like tube of looped steel suggesting a Slinky. Other pieces consisted of rusted angular steel I-beams almost camouflaged amid the old rail tracks. This year at the Swiss Pavilion of the Venice Biennale (Bove was born in Switzerland, to American parents), she exhibited seven figure-sized metal forms suggestive of a family. The bright blue forms seem as if they’re in the process of being constructed. One figure is made of rumpled pieces of metal layered upon a tall tube like a tightly closed flower bud waiting to unfurl, while another has wing-like angular pieces that appear to be precariously attached to a central tube. She also showed some “collage sculptures”, which she began creating in 2016 from square steel tubing that she manipulates and often combines with pieces of scrap metal, painted in striking colours. Bove expands on this series of collage sculptures in her current show at David Zwirner in
Hong Kong, albeit on a more intimate scale. When asked how she creates the works, she’s explained, “We use a hydraulic press to start bending and massaging the tubes, and then we pull the bends closed using a chain-hoist system. Through this process of manipulations, the geometry of the steel becomes very complex, making the tube seem more like fabric, or something with a softer texture. It takes some patience.”
Her improvisational process often involves picking up metal pieces and suspending them in the air with a crane and finding the perfect moment for them to swing together. What transpires is a series of elegant forms that appear to bend, fold and twist gently in space. Many of the works are punctuated with highly polished steel discs that look like giant full stops. Inviting a kinaesthetic approach, her works lure you close to them and coax you to circle around them.
The sculptures are coated in urethane paint in colours ranging from a vibrant orange-red (inspired by a painting
by French symbolist Odilon Redon) to muted pastel pinks and jarring greens. “[My] intention is to approximate a palette that would make sense in a digital context, on a screen. At the same time, I choose colours that remind me of outdated print technology, and I play with combining colours that interfere with one another in the same way colour-separation printing can fail and cause frictions between areas of applied colour,” says Bove in the exhibition catalogue for the show.
A master of staging, she carefully calibrates each exhibition space to create a specific environment in which viewers can experience her works. For this show, she’s placed several colourful works on pedestals of varying heights in an open layout flooded with natural light. One work, titled Proof, 2019, is made of a jagged-edged, tornand-twisted piece of found steel that seems to collapse on to a crumpled piece of steel painted in vivid orangish red. The two pieces of metal appear to be entangled and leaning upon each other in a strange embrace. Meanwhile, another work titled Hinge, 2019, is almost anthropomorphic and comical in nature. It shows a tall yellow tube of steel that’s been folded over, like an elongated person bending over at the waist. At the bottom is a gleaming black steel disc that could be the person’s head – or the whole work could be seen as a pair of cartoonish yellow trousers with one leg balancing on a black ball. Other works are much more abstract and simply resemble crumbled nonfigurate tactile forms.
To understand the works, you need to walk through the full show; the artist describes her exhibition as “a complete statement” in which she’s carefully anticipated how viewers journey through the space and how her works tell a story of sorts, surprising and captivating viewers at every turn. As art critic Adrian Searle once said, “Her primary focus, as well as an abiding feel for form and placement, seems to be display: how things are presented to us, as offerings, gifts, rituals of animal attraction. Looking at art, we often forget that we are animals too.”
“I never force the material to do something it doesn’t want to do. I let it lead me as much I lead it” – Carol Bove
ANAMORPHIC SKULL, 2019 RIGHT: CAROL BOVE
CLOCKWISE FROM ABOVE LEFT: LA LUCE, 2019; THE ARTIST IN HER STUDIO; THE FIRST BRAID, 2019