Christopher Saucedo: A Play on the “Real”

Christopher Saucedo, Temple-Arcade, 1/4 scale replica (unassembled), 2004. Cast aluminum, 22 x 57.5 x 6.5 in.

Ludic in temper, New Orleans sculptor Christopher Saucedo makes art that might be described as Postmodernist fun. While nodding respectfully at Rodin, Brancusi, and a host of others, he draws from wide-ranging sources both popular and learned, posing mischievous queries about the nature of the gravity-bound sculptural object. Saucedo’s ongoing dialogue with his own work and with the Modernist sculptural legacy was the focus of a recent exhibition at the Marguerite Oestreicher Fine Arts Gallery in New Orleans. In this quirky retrospective of sorts, the artist teased the viewer, showing no “real” sculptures, only three replicas of previous works, together with a number of wall pieces and unassembled “replica kits” of these same pieces beside recently fabricated glossy “posters.”

Pivotal to the exhibition were two assembled replicas of Pencil King (Three Kings) (1999), the first in monochromatic aluminum and the second meticulously painted to look like the original. Saucedo’s anomalous sovereign stands on three legs: two of steel, the third an oversized pencil with an emphatic and overtly bawdy lead point. A Brancusian metal “pelvis” joins the figure’s wooden log-body to its tripod appendages, and scores of pencils—reflections of Saint Sebastian’s painful arrows—create a multi-colored vertical band on one side. Crowning the ridiculous ruler is a jester’s headdress in golden rubber, a prize from Burger King. Counterposed to Pencil King’s look-alikes were a fanciful “poster” and a scale replica (unassembled) (2002), arranged with Mondrian-like precision within a metal frame.

Not only does Saucedo’s buffoonish, faceless potentate, together with kit and poster, undercut masculine sovereignty—his only prowess is sexual—it also satirizes the work’s “objecthood.” Embodying tension-filled potential, the kit anticipates an eventual actualization. But the real thing, alas, is usually less satisfying than its expectation. (One is reminded of Huysmans’s hero in A Rebours, who elected to abort a carefully planned excursion to England because the trip could never live up to his mental image of it.) In contrast to the imaginative heightening inherent in the kit is the actual hype the poster lends the work.

Christopher Saucedo, Temple-Arcade, 1/4 scale replica (assembled), 2004. Cast bronze, 24 x 26 x 22 in.

Through the magic of Photoshop, it pictures Pencil King, scale replica in front of a castle crumbling into romantic ruin. The title, written in wavering letters, seems worthy of a B horror movie. Further mock grandeur derives from the homegrown logo in the upper right, which conflates the letters NO, for the artist’s adopted town, and NY, for his native city. This detail hints at commercialization, paralleling the contemporary notion of branding, the effort to enhance product identity. What’s “real” here? The comic ruler? (He is, after all, three dimensional.) Or the unrealized idea of him in the kit? Or is it the glossy image born of advertising?

A similar aesthetic caper inspires Temple-Arcade, scale replica (assembled) (2004), as well as its unassembled kit and poster. Now gracing the courtyard of a French Quarter hotel, the original work (1989) was inspired by Michelangelo’s niches, “enhancing anything they held,” according to Saucedo, and the skyscrapers whose rectilinear construction he witnessed growing up in New York. In the spirit of these august precedents, the artist incorporated into the work both the golden section (in its proportions) and the Fibonacci sequence (in its columniation): 3, 5, and 8. The interactive work invites the observer to roll a rounded stone along a curved track at the top. Just as Camus’s Caligula wanted the moon, the viewer can reach toward this symbolic lunar planet; and with each move, he can grind it a little bit closer to a perfect Platonic solid.

Christopher Saucedo, Self-Portrait (in exact weigh and volume only) (detail), 2004. Steel, bronze, and lead, 19.5 x 19.5 x 28 in.

Subverting these highbrow allusions, as is his wont, Saucedo casts the work’s replica in bronze, patinating it to resemble a Remington “statuette,” in his words, a popular, decidedly lowbrow “Cowboy bronze.” Here Saucedo parodies the miniaturizing of masterpieces “for the mantel,” his burlesque sparked by a neighbor’s request: “You’re a sculptor. Do you have a small Kiss? (Rodin’s, of course). With further good-humored irony, in the “poster” he uses a digital reproduction of the Temple replica, somewhat like a blueprint. As background for this deliberately abstracted image, he chooses a New York bocce court, unmistakably a blue-collar site. (For the bocce court and for most of the other poster backgrounds, the artist is indebted to his immigrant grandfather who, during the ’50s and ’60s, spent his free time photographing not only family and friends but also numerous sites in the City.)

Other groupings in the exhibition reflected works no longer extant, such as Eye to Eye, scale replica (unassembled) with poster (2004), the result of a one-day workshop on diversity conducted with kindergartners over a decade ago. Dealing with one of his favorite themes, the perplexing and illusive ideal of equality, the “poster” shows the class—Caucasians, Asians, blonds, brunettes, girls, boys—standing solemnly on uneven steps built to regularize their height. Cast in aluminum, the replica of the graduated stand hangs nearby, the projections and hollows of its cubic grid reminiscent of Donald Judd.

Christopher Saucedo, Pencil King, 1/4 scale replica (assembled and painted), 2000. Cast aluminum, 18 x 18 x 25 in.

Saucedo’s sculptural legerdemain, playfully opposing seeming and being in the “retrospective,” gears up to an over-the-top tension between abstraction and realism in his latest work, a witty self-portrait shown this past June at the Steve Martin Gallery, also in New Orleans. Titled portrait in exact weight and volume only (2004), the steel and bronze cylinder, 19.5 inches in diameter and 28 inches tall (29.65 gallons), is filled with lead to weigh 228 pounds, duplicating the artist’s weight and volume on April 25, 2004. Imitating a pennyweight like those on a chemistry lab’s balance scale, the cylinder is stamped with his name, documenting that it weighs exactly one “Saucedo.” A cartoon drawing lists the steps in executing the project: a child fills a container with a garden hose, submerges himself, measures the missing water, weighs himself, records the data. Analogous to a cartoon’s thought bubble, the drawing—copies are available to visitors—serves to underscore the work’s amusing disjunctures: its successive movements, the cylinder’s monumentality; ephemerality, permanence; levity, ponderousness. The artist plans comparable “portraits” of his wife and two children.

Like the first Cubists, Braque and Picasso, who played with painting’s accepted techniques, inverting them into the radically new style of Cubism, so, too, does Saucedo sport with sculpture, re-examining its tenets, elements, even its significance. His good-natured aesthetic antics offer enjoyment both intellectual and perceptual.