Seattle-based Casey Curran creates carefully crafted kinetic sculptures and environments that question basic human drives (innovation and discovery) and assumptions (progress), along with their effects and legacies. His new exhibition at MadArt, a studio residency program in the heart of South Lake Union, Seattle’s tech quarter, echoes the mushrooming skyline of the neighborhood (with more than 60 new buildings in 10 years), but with a twist. “Parable of Gravity,” as the title suggests, issues a warning about continual technological advancement and entropy, as a strange kind of natural life of life begins to take over the built world. Curran’s work has always had a faux-tech, sci-fi element to it, filled with ornate references to elaborate thought systems of the past, the present, and, as is the case here, the future. Parable of Gravity resembles a Sol LeWitt installation assembled by gremlins and semi-human creatures instead of studio assistants. Grimy, crusty, and fecal-brown, the wooden lath structures follow the lines of a downtown street grid, with “alley-like” walkways set between them. The faster the buildings go up, Curran seems to suggest, the faster they begin to decay and deteriorate.
Over the course of a wide-ranging career that also includes collaborations with architects and performance art groups, Curran has been persistent in his exploration of themes related to death and regeneration, nature and technology, chaos and order, and energy and stasis. Whether backgrounding fashion models (earlier this year during Fashion Week in Paris, he created a walk-through environment for the runway show of clothing designer Iris van Herpen) or disrupting the movement of dance groups in New York or Austria, his works make no distinctions between audience, models, musicians, and performers. Somewhat akin to the parallel, non-relational collaborative aesthetic of Merce Cunningham, Robert Rauschenberg, and Jasper Johns, Curran balances his multidisciplinary interests with great aplomb, never adhering to programmatic or kinesiological systems. As in nonverbal ballet, every material gesture is magnified, ambiguous and enigmatic. Left to the viewer’s devices, levels of meaning rise or recede, rich in potential resonances.
Art critic T.s. Flock has noted that Curran’s “kinetic sculptures are a complex interaction of disparate parts, but among the things that matter most is the interaction between viewer and artwork in its simplicity.” In “Parable of Gravity,” visitors walk among and through three distinct sculptures: Kinetic Towers, mock-skyscrapers with delicate, viewer-activated, laser-cut paper blossoms growing on each ledge or “terrace”; Anchor of Janus, a giant, metal-webbed effigy of an asteroid; and We Spoke Like This to Remember, a hanging figure close to the street-level storefront window of MadArt Studio, visible at night. Each presents its own confrontation, insisting on a physical response and demanding an explanation.
Contrary to Robert Morris’s dictum, “Art does not seek control through explanation,” much of the critical response to Curran’s work has entailed a veritable encyclopedia of scientific and philosophical analysis. Given his ongoing collaborations with the performance realm, however, including blatantly consumerist haute couture, it’s impossible to take some of these lofty claims seriously. The degree of dependence on the viewer means that the object’s integrity and life blood are in effect a kind of parasite feeding off of its host, like a set design that doesn’t exist unless the show goes on. In Curran’s work, conventional Modernist, autonomous objects are forsaken in favor of a symbiotic relationship with the viewer involved in temporally defined public events. The trade-off achieves a collaborative effort of the highest order, yet Curran runs a risk of assembling artistic ghost towns, left to deteriorate in silence or cold storage.
That’s why the see-through asteroid, Anchor of Janus, and the hanging figure, We Spoke Like This to Remember, stand out as emblematic, powerful pendants to the automated rubble. Ominously shifting through the flickering movement of the carefully spot-lit paper shrubs, they hang at either end of Kinetic Towers, a metaphor for the gleaming, high-rise software factories located nearby. The two sculptures do not fit into the installation; they command it. Respectively blazed to a metallic sheen and bleached bone white, Anchor of Janus, with its allusion to the dual-faced Roman god, and We Spoke Like This to Remember frame humanity’s self-inflicted plight on earth. In the former, escaping gravity does not mean escaping fate. In the latter, the human body evolves into a support for growing flora, which could be the ultimate mash-up of how we will come to terms with our environment. Facing the towers and levitating above us, this hybrid being seems to rise purely through the strength of its interdependency on pulsing plant life (rather than invisible fishing line).