Monica Coyne, Bird Djinn (detail), 2020. Mild steel, 60 x 15 x 20 in. Photo: Courtesy the artist

Monica Coyne

Eureka, California

Morris Graves Museum of Art

Artist and blacksmith Monica Coyne works in steel, and her sculptures are riddled with reminders of the forge. In a built environment predicated on the ready availability of prefabricated steel components, that’s enough to make them strange. From I-beams and girders at construction sites to machine-finished tools at the hardware store, steel has already been shaped and processed into identical units by the time we encounter it. We’re less accustomed to connecting the dots between forged implement and the human hand.

Coyne’s sculptures restore that connection, addressing an obdurate material through a range of intimate, homely actions. Steel gets pleated like an accordion, folded like an envelope, and crimped like 1980s hair. This approach estranges the material while, paradoxically, making it more relatable. A sculpture like Contrapposto, which lays bare the transition of unarticulated steel to sinewy likeness, reaffirms that steel does not emanate direct from the abstract object-world that early 20th-century visionaries proposed as nature’s replacement; it, in fact, belongs to nature.

William Butler Yeats’s often-quoted comment, “The center cannot hold,” is usually used as a metaphor for the state of society, but in the case of Coyne’s compositions, it’s a statement of fact. Female bodies, seldom at rest, figure in most of the sculptures; their facial expressions are checked out, bodies wholly engrossed in processes of transformation or transit. Tightly wound athletes modeled in motion stride or surge forward, muscles engaged, their poses the opposite of balletic. Feet flex; arms flail to the sides as if seeking balance. Centrifugal forces send these figures flying out from a vacated center in the same way that swings suspended from a carnival ride will orbit a spinning core. Even functional pieces, like the glass-topped Dovetail Table, are constructed in a way that makes it possible for them to uncouple. The table’s stability is not an immutable characteristic but the outcome of force applied in a vector direction.

Nude Midstride consists of a scissor-like pair of pinchers with a big rivet at breast level and a midsection that segues incongruously into a sensuously curving haunch. Apparently suspended in a process of becoming, this figure lacks a head, but she does have a multi-tasking industrial fragment in place of an outstretched arm. The sculpted steel slides easily into and out of representation, flickering like a mirage on summertime blacktop. In Flying, three related figures spring from a swooping base. Who ordains this collective metamorphosis? Is there volition involved? The piece brings the word “rapture” to mind—in the sense of abandon, as well as in the born-again sense of group levitation or liftoff.

Redirected forces and repurposed materials also characterize Coyne’s off-the-grid studio in southern Humboldt County, where her forge is powered by solar panels and a hydroelectric Pelton wheel. Acute awareness of blacksmithing’s energy demands and an interest in conservation have led to some ingenious methods of forge management. “About nine years ago, I began researching if I could somehow make my own oxygen,” Coyne wrote in an email. “This would greatly lower my fuel consumption. I found out that I could.” She uses an oxygen/propane torch and a propane forge: “The steel needs to be heated to 2,100 degrees Fahrenheit. The flame temperature of propane in air is 3,596 degrees. The flame temperature of propane in oxygen is 5,108 degrees. So, propane mixed with oxygen burns way hotter, which saves heating time and propane. Oxygen is clean, and not a fossil fuel. I bought an oxygen generator. It splits the nitrogen out of the air and slowly fills a bottle with oxygen…My solar panels fill my oxygen bottles, and my oxygen cuts my fuel use by almost a third.”

When Coyne studied industrial arts at Humboldt State University, her emphasis was woodworking and furniture. Later, when she trained as a blacksmith, many of the woodworking forms that sustained her interest translated to the forge. Her works implement a range of joins, from the familiar dovetail to more complex fastening systems rooted in traditional Japanese cabinetry. “Joinery is a puzzle,” Coyne says. “Using joinery, I can create pieces that can be kinetic, or that can be taken apart…I look at a cut woodworking joint and develop a method for making that joint by moving the material. This involves projecting where the material will go and what it will look like after it is moved…When I forge a hole in metal, I punch a slit and then force a drift (a long tapered tool) through the small hole and push the sides of the metal out around the hole until I get the size hole that I want.”

Steel might be gendered male in the popular imagination, but the insistent evocations of the forge in Coyne’s work propose a re-gendering. Woman Axle is part écorché figurine, part crankshaft, caught in a moment where neither term can suffice as a descriptor. Plenty of male artists who have sculpted in steel have reverenced the material’s unyielding strength. In Woman Axle, Coyne celebrates the opposite—steel’s shape-shifting capacity for change. This association is reinforced by allusions to nature spirits like dryads and djinns in her titles. Coyne’s pieces won’t let you forget the slipperiness and fluidity that steel displays when subjected to extreme heat and pressure—its literal grace under fire.