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January 6 - February 4, 2006 at L.A. Louver Gallery, Venice

by Andy Brumer

“godspipes” (in progress studio view--
detail), 1997-98, mixed media,
dimensions variable (188 elements).

"godspipes," (work in progress studio
view), 1997-98, mixed media
dimensions variable (188 elements)

"caterpillar," 2004/05,
cast bronze, 88 x 40 x 34".
When the poet Wallace Stevens wrote that, “In the sum of the parts, there are only the parts,” he clearly and simply summarized one of modern art’s principal tenants. Venice-based sculptor Peter Shelton demonstrates the concept brilliantly in his room-sized installation, which also helps mark the gallery’s 30th anniversary. Initially exhibited at The Irish Museum of Modern Art in Dublin in 1998, this is the work’s first U.S. showing.

Ten years in the making, the one hundred and eighty-eight piece “godspipes” is comprised of fiberglass molds of patterns Shelton used to make larger fiberglass and bronze sculptures which have been seen individually in numerous exhibitions. The collective effect is that of a splintered catalog-like retrospective, or, as gallery co-Director Kimberly Davis describes it, “a giant installation encyclopedia” of the history of Shelton’s work to this time. Shelton also made several new sculptures specifically for this show.

The relatively small, intimately scaled objects are in themselves translucent and hollow fiberglass forms that allude to, but do not depict torsos, limbs, vertebrae, joints, skin, and other bodily parts and organs, as well as to industrial pipes and/or parts of machines. They are all built around a lead, lace-like grid, which also helps to articulate the works’ surfaces and define their volume. They also suggest stained glass windows, or the panels of Japanese screens, and while these associations might raise the question of the ambiguous line between fine art and craft, the artist uses such references lyrically and unselfconsciously on his own terms.

While the hipbone may be connected to the leg bone in the lyrics of the old song, Shelton attaches his fragmented anatomy to the gallery’s walls. In so doing, the artist furthers his exploration of the relation between the human figure and architecture, as these sculpted, hollow anatomical parts are themselves containers contained by the gallery’s four walls.

The show’s title obviously points to Genesis and God’s “sculpting” of clay into human form, but also to the less grandiose notion of the creator as a plumber fitting his universe together with a system of utilitarian, albeit, divine pipes. What’s more, Shelton’s conical air-filled sculptures suggest musical instruments grouped to form a celestial orchestra.

The objects appear to float on the gallery’s walls, an effect that manifests the artist’s ongoing thematic interest in water as a powerful metaphor for change. Indeed, considered as a Rorschach test, the installation’s pieces might easily compose themselves into a cubistic jigsaw puzzle, whose wholeness (as Wallace Stevens’ line asserts) remains totally dependent on the autonomy of its parts.

Shelton’s sculpture readily aligns itself with the minimalist and neo-minimalist tradition of Judd, Serra, Andre, and Hesse, though it is graced as well with the older organic accents of Barbara Hepworth and Henry Moore. The deeper sense of Shelton’s bold inventiveness in fact occludes true minimalist austerity. Rather, the objects in this installation are so numerous as to feel infinite in number, as though viewed inside a hall of mirrors. As long as you make the effort to look, each object turns out to be unique and distinctive, and each a role player functioning to unify the installation into an integrated work of art.