MATTHEW McCASLIN

by Suvan Geer



"Intersection," TV/VCR/trolley/electrical
hardware, 1995. Courtesy
of the Norton Collection.

 



"Alaska," TVs/VCR/clocks/electrical
hardware/film stock/plywood/wheels,
1996. Courtesy Shoshana Wayne Gallery.

(Orange County Museum of Art, Newport Beach, Orange County) Art has a long history of investigating the world and renewing the way we look at it. Sculptor and installation artist Matthew McCaslin does just that by recasting our wired-up world of electrical outlets, underground cables and transcontinental power grids as a living circulatory system. His suggestions of a bodily kinship to the electrical network sneak up on you as you wander across floors spilling electrical cable like blood, past flexible conduit nesting like ganglia, and video screens throbbing with fecund images while listening to the brain-wave white noise buzz of radiant beds of florescent lighting. It's a little like walking through the entrails of a building still crackling with life.

This perusal of the inner workings of our infrastructures feels odd yet familiar. Like transgressing an off-hours construction site or getting lost in a mad dream at Home Depot. We know the stuff McCaslin uses, we just ignore it most of the time. It's behind our walls, attached to our ceilings, filling our corners. Ambient. Yet in this ten-year survey of the artist's works and installations it becomes clear that what is usually meaningless hardware can be anything but neutral. McCaslin makes these fragments overwhelm with a turned-on presence. In the emptiness of the gallery they coil, illuminate, time and play. In their own mechanical sense they are "live:" electrified and working. For the artist this is key. Each piece is a live channel circulating electricity, the life force of the modern world. It's a layered metaphor for life itself which suggests all sorts of ideas about interdependence, dependence, knowledge and control.

Clocks and light bulbs are everywhere in McCaslin's works. They are the symbols of incredible natural forces which humanity has "domesticated" as electric power. They are also the very devices


which replace nature's time and light for most people. There is a not-so-subtle irony to works like Places I've Been. Amid the wad of twisted cables and power plugs of this pointedly self illuminating, internally timed, interconnected wall network are simple off and on switches that allow the piece to be shut down and restarted, whole or in part, at will. It's a reminder about the absolute power of the individual within the network. But as the piece depends completely on one wall plug, McCaslin's art is a further query into the final authority to power and deanimate.

In McCaslin's work the plug is literally a sign of his work's connection to the outside world with all its structures of power. But if artists at the beginning of this century believed that electricity would usher in utopia, art at the end of the millennium has lost all enchantment with the promises of technology. Power now is seen less as a tool and more as its own structure and space. McCaslin's art suggests an electrically empowered space or closed power society eventually becomes its own timeless creation. His sites simulate life and stop there. They exist to power whirling fans, lights, clocks, videos and boom boxes which strip suggestions of breath, heartbeat, sight and sound down to the wires. In these spaces things are powered yet lifeless, detached yet interconnected. Time is in endless supply and constantly measured but has nothing to do with seasons, or time of day. Images repeat endlessly suggesting natural processes trapped by their representation. "ON" is simply function.

In a way the cool poetry of McCaslin's art lies in this very utility. Even as he generates questions he rekindles wonder at the way things connect, power up and just plain work. It's the very grounded, working class perspective of an artist who worked as an electrician. While it may be informed by a thick dose of the disillusionment pervading the century, it still exults in the fact that things can work. The surprise is that the sub-architectural fragments and power vessels he uses mirror so fully the complex hidden structures of the society which fashioned them.

 

"Places I've Been," clocks/light
fixtures/electrical hardward, 1991.

 

"Roadrunner," TV/VCR/light fix-
tures/cart/electrical hardware, 1995.
Courtesy Dimitri Paleocrasses
Collection, Greece.