Continuing through October 15, 2022
Art-historical labels are regarded askance in today's mix-and-match aesthetic climate. Why put artists — the most warily independent of people — into a box? Are we not all individuals? “Life of Brian” jokes aside, I feel that labels can be useful, both as a shorthand method of connecting the past with the present, and a reminder that the art of the past endures and metamorphoses (as will the best art of the present).
Marc D’Estout is a multitalented sculptor, draftsman, designer, art director and curator whose varied skill set is on display in twenty welded and painted steel sculptures dubbed “Irrational Objects.” The title is a nice bit of Surrealist wit in the tradition of Alberto Giacometti's 1931 Objet Désagréable: a dildo-shaped bronze horn with barbs at one end and an owl’s head on the other. D’Estout’s sculptures, generally of modest-size, might be called post-Surrealist, or Neo-Surrealist, for their absurdist humor, but they are also elegant in form and finish, with painterly surfaces and metal patinas, suggestive of wear and weathering, evoking a pleasantly melancholy fellow-feeling for these strangely soulful objects.
At the same time, the structures that D’Estout fabricates with hammer and arc welding equipment — the artist has a history with custom-car fabrication — are refined, streamlined vessels of understated poetic form that have been compared to Minimalism, an early influence in the artist's long and varied career. More pertinent here is the work's affinity with the stylized, semi-abstract forms of Constantin Brancusi, who’s iconic 1923 “Bird in Space” could be the aesthetic ancestor of D’Estout’s three 2021 bird sculptures, “Blackbird,” “Red Wing,” and “Pelican,” conjoined pairs of elongated melon-wedge shapes affixed to the gallery wall as if alighting from flight. Other sculptures read as animist artifacts that the artist calls “domestic objects.” These resemble tools of unknown purpose that are “vaguely, unpleasantly functional,” in the words of “The San Francisco Chronicle’s” former art critic, Kenneth Baker, and cousins to the pseudo-implements of Martin Puryear and Bella Feldman.
The largest piece is the show is “The Champ” (2021), which incorporates the recycled left and right front fenders of a 1947 Studebaker Champion (designed by the famous stylist Raymond Loewy). D’Estout has welded them together, back end to back end, erasing traces of the join, and recreating the blotchy aqua paint and rust spots that we would expect from a seventy-year-old barn or junkyard find. The resulting iconic, symmetrical form suggests a mask, with the wheel wells as eyes, accompanied by an additional set of eyes in the rounded rectangular gas-filler flaps set just above the nose or beak.
D’Estout employs a mirrored, symmetrical composition again in the botanic-looking “Green Ripple” (2021); in “Flipper” (2021), suggestive of a flimsy kayak paddle; and in a trio of “Topper” sculptures comprised of conical forms atop flat disks — like traffic cones or pointed witches’ hats — affixed, disc to disc, with their upside-down reflections. “Bouffi” (2022) is a stack of six bagel-like rings, tapering down at top and bottom, so that the ensemble is ovoid. The title is French, meaning swollen or bloated, but also, idiomatically, in tu l’as dit, bouffi: “You said it”!
Two pieces depict violent fluid mechanics in the seemingly uncongenial medium of hammered, shaped steel. “Sneeze” (2021) takes the form of two balloon-like wings, each exploding into rounded fingers of splatter, with the weathered paint seemingly packed with micro-organisms. “Impact” (2022) is undoubtedly inspired by Harold “Doc” Edgerton’s famous 1957 strobe photos of milk droplets splashing into crowns. In D’Estout's version, five slender stalks shoot up from a starfish-like base, terminating in spheres that suggest pitcher-plant glue droplets primed for prey, making (to quote Baker's brief review once more) “an almost unseemly visceral address to the spectator.”