At a time when sculptural craftsmanship is often subordinated to idea—and idea is at best inconsequential—it was refreshing to see an exhibition of works both beautifully made and “weighty” in thought. Duane Paxson’s recent show, which featured more than 60 sculptures from seven series made during the last 30 years, married masterful technique to thought-provoking reflection on the raw energy of nature, and the sometimes nefarious machinations of society, especially the contemporary political arena.
Works from Paxson’s recent series, “Mors Eloquentiae” (2017–20)—literally “Death of Eloquence”—were prominent. Sparked by the 2016 Republican presidential debates, which brought to Paxson’s mind a 1986 Crossfire interview with Frank Zappa, these sculptures embody a witty, penetrating assessment of the U.S. political and cultural climate. In the interview, Zappa offered a zealous defense of the First Amendment, saying of pornographic lyrics, “It’s only words.” After countermanding centuries-old traditions honoring the value of language, Zappa further advocated that politicians be direct, even scurrilous, in their discourse. The Republican debates certainly fulfilled his directives.
Paxson’s sculptures consist of steel “cages” encasing large elliptical fiberglass forms, some black, some white, each linked to a particular controversy. Denying Dendera (2017), for instance, was inspired by a highly disputed Egyptian hieroglyph, the “light bulb” from the Hathor Temple of the Dendera Complex. “Outsider” archaeologists interpret this image as analogous to a Geissler or Crookes tube, indicating an early use of electricity. The device would therefore explain why no lampblack is found in Egyptian tombs. Mainstream archaeologists, however, consider the hieroglyph as a djed pillar and a snake within a lotus flower. Hindenburg: May 6, 1937 (2018), takes its name from the sleek hydrogen airship that burst into flames as it docked in New Jersey—a disaster believed by some to be the result of a conspiracy. Directed downward, the inner form of the sculpture recalls the zeppelin falling to the ground, and the welded armature replicates the airship’s charred steel framework.
Additional references inform the series. The steel frameworks suggest megaphones, and each projection is like a giant tongue slanted languidly downward. The tongue is often likened symbolically to a flame. Agile and of the same shape as a flame, it both creates and destroys. Though powerful, Paxson’s forms seem to “wag” aimlessly. Too big for their supports, they reflect the current proliferation of empty, hollow verbiage, particularly in politics.
The most recent work in the series, The White Elephant in the Room (2019), encases a large fiberglass elephant head in an intricate steel frame. Derived from the sacred animals owned by potentates in Southeast Asia, the term “white elephant” has come to refer to a possession, which, though valuable, is rather more burdensome than useful, a blessing and a curse. (Because white elephants were sacred and therefore exempted from labor, they were costly to maintain and of no practical use.) Paxson’s sculptures deal with the “weight” of being white in a racially polarized society; they also make the obvious association of the elephant with the Republican Party.
Where, Paxson asks, is the truth? Conflict, misinformation, and overt deception reign—all resulting from the debasement of language and ignorance of the inherent value of words.