Bradley Borthwick
Bradley Borthwick, installation view at the deCordova New England Biennial, 2019. Photo: Clements Photography and Design, Boston

deCordova New England Biennial 2019

Lincoln, Massachusetts

deCordova Sculpture Park and Museum

A few years ago, the deCordova Museum, famed for its outdoor sculpture collection, transposed its name in order to focus attention on the sculpture park. Yet in choosing this edgy group of 2019 biennial artists, exhibition curators gave short shrift to those who work in three dimensions, admitting only a handful.

Outstanding among them is Bradley Borthwick, who combines a historian’s understanding of classicism with meticulous craftsmanship in time-honored mediums. He displays the hefty gray limestone slabs of Nero’s Analogue (2018) on oversize easels, each slab featuring his interpretation of ancient architectural ornament and detail. One replicates stone masonry in miniature, with a small stone cross projecting from a background of even smaller bricks. Another is pristine, except for a low strip of dentil molding. Borthwick explores various other sorts of molding, both plain and complicated, as well as arcs, implied circles, and Latin lettering, writ large. Here and there a chip or (fake) unintentional cut hints at chiseled handwork.

Turning to a very different medium, Borthwick casts patterned Tabulae (2018) in beeswax. Despite the softness of the material, the edges are as sharp here as in the limestone works. His installation contains a final archaeological twist with a set of five amphorae (Amphorae, 2018), almost five feet tall, roped together in a corner. Their bodies consist of cracked plaster, their corks and the tops of their handles, beeswax. It takes a discerning eye to notice that the cracks follow almost identical patterns, as if they were forgeries.

While Jonathan Mess was still a ceramics student, he took a fresh look at his medium and saw tremendous waste. He has developed a way to recycle unwanted, leftover materials brilliantly, gathering up shards and re-firing them at very high temperatures until they flow, meld, and fuse into multi-hued lumps. Then, with a stonecutting saw, he slices them open to reveal something like geological strata, full of cracks, pocks, and glittery bits (others, less satisfying, contain cut patterns, fans, or diamond shapes). These “Landfills” (works on view are from 2012 and 2015) replicate the kind of thing that future archaeologists will find when digging into our present-day dumps.

Insight into the mind of an artist at work is provided by Jenny Brillhart, who begins with detailed drawings of her studio and every object in it, down to the shims under the shelves. She translates these scenes into abstractions and, at length, into collages incorporating cut plywood, scraps of canvas, window screening, mirrors, and pieces of fiberboard.

Sound recordings, a geodesic structure, and various objects from LGBTQ culture are the métier of Eli Brown. His titles hint at the depth of his research and fully capture the bleakness of his vision: Interspecies Reproductive Device, from Interspecies Intimacy Survival Kit (2018) and Toxic Places, from Museum of Queer Ecologies (2017), for instance. His carefully produced and assembled artifacts are highly politicized. Whether his phallic mushrooms and sexual paraphernalia are elucidating, brilliant, provocative, disturbing, or just plain creepy must be decided by each viewer for him/her/their self.