Meadow Brook Art Gallery,
Joseph Wesners mid-career retrospective exhibition included an impressive sampling of abstract sculpture. The show traces his development from early conceptual work of the 1980s to recent work inspired by his residencies in Beijing and Shanghai, China. Firmly rooted in the traditions of art history, Wesner related in an interview that as a teenager in Philadelphia, he would spend hours in the Philadelphia Museum of Art studying the work of Brancusi and Duchamp. Later, while completing his MFA at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan, their influence would become apparent in Wesner’s interest in the Modernist grid and his obsession with found objects (he made baggage sculpture with rocks placed in suitcase shapes, constructed out of steel, with leather handles).
Wesner’s subsequent work evolved into screens which opened up and released the rocks, setting free an exploration of the horizontal and vertical. and resulting in a dialogue with projecting vertical angles. Crossroads (1983), a sculpture constructed from steel, rock, paint, and wood, recalls his undergraduate studies at Georgetown University (the oldest Catholic college in America). Wesner played with the grid and endowed it with religiosity, so that the grid suggests the Catholic confessional screen. After study trips to Florence and Paris in the 1980s, his investigation of Western art intensified, and he broke out of the static mold of the grid to create both cast and welded works with angles that thrust out, turn, bend, and stretch forward, in a series called “Borsa.” One example from the series, Borsa (1988), made of painted steel, exhibited the dynamism and kinesthetics associated with Italian Futurism. Next came the “Pherein” series, in stone, concrete, and welded steel that had been waxed, tarred, painted, and glued. Traces of figures appeared, carrying burdensome rock formations and emerging from a Brancusi-like base.
ln 1990, Wesner went to China for the first of two residencies at the Central Academy of Art in Beijing ln China, he experimented with such materials as hemp rope, bamboo, wax, cardboard, and Styrofoam. The Chinese basket and conical “coolie” hat with their woven patterns surfaced in Wesner’s work during this period and merged into forms intermingling the circle and pyramid. Works for China (1994), a unique bronze cast, is a transition piece in which an abstract figure, bearing for the first time a basket, seems to merge into the base as if it has found its resting place.
Recent work from the “Eco” series derives meaning from what Wesner stated as “The echo of sound…the metaphor of the circle and of the conical hat shape, with a central hole for passage into transcendence-which is also the Chinese symbol for heaven.” Eco (1995), is another unique bronze cast, this time with a weave pattern delineating the Star of David inside the circular form-not only signifying a political symbol, but also resembling a 20th-century satellite dish scanning the atmosphere for signals. Eco Song (1996), the last work in the exhibition, demonstrates all of Wesners concerns, including the grid, dating back to his early development, and is constructed out of welded steel, screen, and paint. Several circular rings support a mesh screen in the form of the satellite dish. These recent works comment on politics and society, not only giving an extra dimension to the beauty of Wesners work, but placing his innovative sculpture within the cosmopolitan context of contemporary art production.