Shortest Distance, 2006. Stainless steel, 9 x 12 x 17 ft. Work installed at the U.S. Courthouse, Eugene, OR.

Cris Bruch: Beyond the Street

A rejection of politicized subject matter in favor of abstract, autonomous, and independent-object sculpture is the key to unlocking the art of Seattle-based sculptor Cris Bruch. In 1991, Bruch made a clean break with his performance-based installations and object-conglomerations addressing social issues. Since then, in a variety of public art projects, museum shows, and gallery exhibitions, he has moved beyond the street into the private, subjective realm of abstraction. What connects the better, more recent work to the tendentious earlier work is a blue-collar work ethic. Repetitive studio techniques, elaborate fabrication processes, and humble construction-site materials form the backbone of Bruch’s enterprise. His extended stints as a carpenter prove to be the missing proletarian link between his sculptural extrapolations on homelessness, alcoholism, and consumerism and the refined, polished elegance of his sculptures of the past decade.

While some journalists implausibly see “feminism…socialist politics…S & M overtones” and “entropic failures of late capitalism,” Bruch’s work has become progressively apolitical since the days when he had himself photographed collecting empty wine bottles for his climactic homelessness piece, Burden of Proof (1991/2007), originally seen in a multimedia/aural version at the Center on Contemporary Art in Seattle. Completely devoid of social or political content now, the Missouri-born artist’s work involves a monastic dedication to the physical construction of art made by hand with tools, one element at a time.

Considering he attended the University of Wisconsin, Madison, that radical hotbed, it is not surprising that Bruch’s first Seattle period (1986–91) involved archaeological excavations of garbage, sidewalk rubbings, bottle collecting, and altered shopping carts à la David Hammons. Such an intense commitment to an art of social involvement led to little curatorial interest and a longer period of having to work full time as a carpenter. Once Bruch rejected his leftist enthusiasms in favor of labor-intensive, enigmatic objects, the regional and national honors, awards, grants, and residencies began arriving. Ironically, Bruch’s failure as an engaged political artist led to his acclaim as a formalist. As art critic Lyn Smallwood put it, “Bruch’s column of stacked garbage cans comically mimics modern abstract sculpture (in particular, Brancusi’s Endless Column), typifying the combination of smoldering humor and historical awareness that animates Bruch’s best art.”