KENNETH BAKER, “ELECTRICITY AS MEANS AND METAPHOR? CHRISTOPHER SPROAT SHORT CIRCUITS”, THE BOSTON PHOENIX, PP. 12, 23, SEPT. 21, 1976
MIT’s Hayden Gallery is currently showing an ensemble of works conceived and constructed in the gallery space by local sculptor Christopher Sproat. Sproat continues to work, as he has in the past, with light, electric current and their attendant hardware. What’s new in this show is his graphic handling, with black paint and gray chalk, of the wall surfaces. He’s described his new work as “more pictorial,” in that marking directly on the wall broaches a non-literal, visual space that plays a part in each piece.
Sproat was a victim of last February’ Jamaica Plain factory fire, in which he lost not only his home but also his materials and documentation of past accomplishments. Having followed his work for several years (he has shown fairly regularly in the Boston area), I was curious to see whether it had changed since the fire, whether the fire had made a difference in the artist’s sensibility.
The only apparent change is a newly somber emotional tone ? though it might be possible to argue as well that his new work seeks a more intimate, more transgressive relation with its site than his earlier pieces did. However, the inference that an experience of loss accounts for these changers is one the uninformed spectator would not be likely to make. And in work like Sproat’s, what might count as a change in sensibility, or as the expression of one, is not easy to determine. Sproat has chosen a fairly inflexible sculptural vocabulary and draws again and again upon standard electrical fixtures, some of which, the neon and fluorescent lights, make visible the current that all his work taps in some way.
The use of light as an element integral to his work tends to stress its factual presence and materiality. The light sources Sproat employs do not illuminate so much as to locate, like signs. They betoken the specificity of the work and of its site. In these pieces the graphic treatment of the wall plays with the specificity of the site. For while the placement of the various fixtures and physical elements is quite definite, the pictorial treatment of the wall suggests a placeless ness typical of illusionism. The most effective example of this is “Sounding.” Here a large semi-circle has been grayed with chalk. At the top of this semi-circle, along a diameter parallel to the floor, are two sets of lights: blue horizontals with white bands at their centers. From the ends of these lights, four lengths of electrical conduit snake upward across the wall to a large junction box close to the ceiling. Viewed from a reasonable distance, the conduits seem to come from behind the gray shape as well as from above it. The pictorial element is made to seeing the most visually present part of the work. The conduits read as if they were marks, sinuous lines, without ever really disavowing their physicality. The gray shape sits like a bowl, as if on the floor ? like something placed, not drawn where it is.
In an adjacent piece, “Home of Mantis,” symmetrical black areas painted on the wall combine with symmetrical hardware attached to the wall to enforce an illusion of depth, of a gap like the space between swinging doors when pushed open. This gap is crossed by a length of blue neon that denies this illusion by the light it casts on the wall behind and that reinforces the illusion by means of its gentle, draping curve. Beyond their dark feeling (the light in a couple of pieces and seems swallowed by the areas of gray or black), the sculptures communicate very little. This sinister visual aspect is, unfortunately, not integrated with what is, for me, their sinister implication. For what Sproat’s works make visible seems less important, especially when you hear the electrical hum in the gallery, than the invisible network to which they are all connected, the energy grid we all take for granted. The meditative aspect of this work inevitably sets me to thinking about the network of electrical energy subtending the visible structure of the place, of which Sproat’s work seems to be an especially aesthetic outcropping. His willingness to use the conductive hardware as both structural necessity and aesthetic material is somewhat not acknowledgment enough of the vast implications of the system he draws upon. The industrial origins of so much of his material, even of electrical current itself, are a matter he does not deal with in any way that is apparent to me. The implications of using such obviously fabricated and standardized materials are a matter few sculptors have been able to deal with.
David Smith, who worked in a mode radically different from Sproat’s, is the sculptor who perhaps first made his ambivalence to the industrial origins of his material a theme in his work. Smith saw modern industry in general as sublimated munition, as what made modern warfare not only possible but necessary. His attitude was formed during the Second World War. Today, when we think we are at peace, the structure of business and industry implies, more simply, an oppressive system of compulsive labor. The invisible network of energy supply, in addition to making contemporary industry possible, is rich with metaphorical possibilities that Sproat seems to overlook. An example would be novelist Thomas Pynchon’s use of electrical systems in The Crying of Lot 49 as a metaphor for the submerged patterns of significance in experience that drive his heroine to distraction, and for their suggestion of invisible system of totalitarian control.
It may not seem fair to introduce a literary example in a discussion of sculpture, but it seems to me that Sproat’ access as a sculptor, to the metaphorical uses of electrical mystery are even more direct than a writer’s. His apparent failure to consider the metaphorical possibilities of his material, or his failure to make such considerations clear, is a serious shortcoming of his work, depriving it of a power that seems within the artist’s reach. It is easy to overlook, for instance, that the pieces in the Hayden show are interconnected by their drawing on the same electrical system. The inflection given the problem of site by the pervasiveness and invisibility of electrical systems is something else he might fruitfully deal with but does not. In short, Sproat’s show seems not to take advantage of resources of meaning that the work itself makes available. (The show continues through Oct. 2)