John Bisbee, installation view of American Steel, 2018. Photo: Andrew Estey

John Bisbee

Rockland, Maine

Center for Maine Contemporary Art

As the belief that art should actively respond to the political climate grows in intensity, many artists find themselves dealing with concepts that have not previously been part of their repertoire. John Bisbee, a Maine-based artist, has spent the past 30 years making abstract biomorphic or geometrical forms using immense aggregations of forged and welded nails. In direct response to the Trump presidency, much of the work that Bisbee created for his recent exhibition “American Steel” is anything but abstract—it is highly literal, topical, and narrative. “For the first time in my life, I’m doing basically three things that I have mocked my entire adult creative career—realism, political satire, and text,” he says. The show’s title is itself a capacious metaphor that embraces a multitude of references, including American labor, economics, and culture. Bisbee calls his new aesthetic “allegorical realism.”

Though the work has changed, the process has not. Bisbee and his team of assistants create everything from nails and spikes that are curved and twisted, looped and piled, bristling or delicately lace-like. They use every possible process connected with steel—welding, cutting, hammering, forging, and bending. “American Steel,” which was installed as a semi-linear narrative, relied heavily on text and familiar, even stereotypical imagery. The story took off from the Latin phrase on the American dollar bill: e pluribus unum, “out of many, one.” A series of tableaux followed, unfolding in a somewhat loony and cartoonish fashion. Texts and objects were both rendered in nails, nailing the meaning (and Bisbee’s rage) in place.

“American Steel” was written out in American cursive using loop after loop of chain. “BEAR WITNESS TO THIS CIRCUS DANCE” encircled a bear’s head with a bird standing on it, both made from densely welded nails. The end of a pile of chain hung from the bear’s mouth. “THIS ARRANGEMENT NO LONGER WORKS FOR US” surrounded a dense bouquet of bristling metal flowers. “DON’T BET ON ME” accompanied one of the most coherent tableaux—Ozymandias, a takeoff on the Gadsden flag’s famous image and slogan, “Don’t tread on me.” The letters, made from stacks of welded nails, were suspended from the wall above an enormous snake form. The snake’s raised head appeared to be spitting venomous spikes, while its body wrapped around several fluted columns (also constructed from spikes). In American Bits, a map of the U.S., made entirely from flattened nails, appeared to disintegrate.

The works in “American Steel” were not subtle. Created by an angry man who wants to make the reasons for his anger clear, they reflected the same outrage expressed on placards and banners in the thousands of street protests and demonstrations that have taken place since the beginning of the Trump presidency. Bisbee’s work has now taken its place in the long American tradition of protest art—home-grown, humble, and oddly traditional.