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“The Ambient Art of Christopher Sproat”

Christopher Sproat’s work is “environmental” or “ambient”; it projects into the space of the viewer as do some Abstract Expressionist paintings and dominates surrounding space more forcefully than does most object sculpture.  In the past decade there has developed a significant international tradition of environmental art, including the work of such diverse artists as Robert Irwin, Bruce Nauman, Richard Long, Mario Merz, and Joseph Beuys.  Designed for specific places and often temporary, installation pieces activate and transform the spaces in which they are located.

Constant throughout most of Sproat’s work is the element of the light – most often neon, although he has also used incandescent and fluorescent light.  Sproat’s interest in light is for its ethereal, mysterious qualities rather than its “strip” or Pop associations.  The possibilities of subtle but intense luminosity led Sproat to first incorporate electric light in his art in 1966.

Pieces such as those done by Sproat at the Parker Street 470 Gallery in Boston in 1972 and at the Boston Museum of Fine Arts’ “Rohm/Sproat” exhibition of 1974 were “skeletal” and horizontal, following the basic planes of floor and wall.  The peace at Parker Street 470 Gallery was in fact floor- bound and splayed like Giacometti’s “Woman with Her Throat Cut” of 1932.  The pieces of these years involved an explicit exposure of electrical hardware and fixtures.  In this they reflected the natural elegance of the large open loft space in which Sproat lived and worked, and in which structural elements were frankly left unconcealed.  These skeletal works had an appearance of lightness, reflecting Sproat’s interest at this time in “dematerializing” sculpture, a medium traditionally involved with material concerns.  As his interests shifted toward a stronger physicality in his pieces, Sproat worked with increasingly heavy metal parts.  Despite this shift of intention and means, the pieces continued to seem somewhat insubstantial.

In 1975 in an exhibition at the Harcus Krakow Rosen Sonnabend Gallery in Boston, a piece called Pairing extended from the floor and wall to the ceiling, and Sproat incorporated a horizontal band of chalk drawing executed directly on the wall.  Sproat was in this way able to achieve a feeling of weight, by working with the implications of drawing and light rather than dealing with actual physical bulk.  The medium of electric light is itself clearly a medium of implication and illusion.  It is precariously ephemeral and utterly fragile.  Since the introduction of drawing in 1975, Sproat’s pieces have developed a strong verticality.  With the introduction of “chairs” in Family Portrait of 1977 there emerged a suggestion of anthropomorphic presences.

There is in all of Sproat’s work a precision in the handling of details.  Sproat uses standardized as well as specially fabricated parts.  While it is his intention to use the most direct, straightforward solution, there are whimsical solutions as well.  The use of alligator clips in Plasma and Alligators of 1977 is a gently humorous arrangement of lively, almost animate connectors biting the wires they join.  The wires, metal and glass tubes, transformers and junction boxes assume compositional as well as functional roles in Sproat’s work.  Transformers are in some works (Ripple, 1977) visibly contained in clear boxes; in other’s (Stance, 1977) they are concealed in opaque boxes, serving as compositional weights, which do not distract the eye.  Coiled, taut or slack wires serve as linear elements in such works as Sleep (1975), December (1976) and Field (1977).  The historic lineage for the inclusion of such mundane, “non-art” elements in art descends from the dual sources of Dada ready-mades and constructions and Cubist collage, through the assemblages of Robert Rauschenberg and Jasper Johns, to the recent proliferation of artworks incorporating non-art materials and techniques.

Sproat has used the lines of illuminating tubing in varied ways.  In Pairing, light emphasized and echoed the clean architectural lines of the gallery.  In Palace at Mantis, installed at the Rose Art Museum in 1977, double bands of vertical blue neon tubes established an architectural bay rhythm consistent with that of the museum, organizing space with geometric regularity and creating a processional rhythm.  In Fire and Ash, also at the Rose Art Museum in 1977, neon was used to create a floating horizontal line of fiery, orange-red color.  Sproat coerces from the potentially lurid or garish medium of neon both an evanescent subtlety of light and an intense clarity of line.

Sproat has long been interested in the inventive, imaginative possibilities of technological solutions. But in the last three years, since his introduction of chalk and pastel drawing, and wall painting, the exposure of wires and hardware has become less emphatic than in such earlier works as Sleep of 1975.  In Fire and Ash, Palace at Mantis, Stance and Field, Sproat’ drawing is a rhythmic activation of surface, intended to give the space a sense of “touch”.  This method of agitating an area and conveying a sense of the hand’s activity contrasts with the stillness with which it coexists in much of Sproat’s work.

The large-scale drawings, which cover the walls of Attic and Empire State, the two installation pieces in the present exhibition, are geometric.  A development of the past year, these geometric drawings recall the patterns found in primitive arts.  The origin of the particular “module” of these recent drawings can be traced to the floorboards of Sproat’s loft on the Boston Waterfront where he lived until his recent move to New York.  Sproat’s rectilinear patterns relate to carpentry, in fact.  Planned at room scale, they become actual size analogs for a kind of fantasy construction.  Architectural in size and reference, their challenge is the achievement of a freshness and intricacy of solution.  For Sproat the particular approach of these drawings parallels certain aspects of music, especially Japanese koto music and Balinese and Javanese gamelan, in the rhythmic use of theme, repetitions and slight alterations.  Lacking curvilinear elements, the geometric drawings create an impression of having been “built”.  Their handling in black chalk leaves a residue of smudges, thereby conveying a sense of touch, the hewn quality of the drawings contrasting with the sleek precision of electrical elements.  Sproat draws or paints almost exclusively in black and white; color is reserved for the enveloping light, which washes over and paints the surfaces.  The somber spare ness of this palette recalls black and white African textiles, and creates a sense of solemn grandeur.

The inclusion in the last two years of “chairs” in Sproat’s work marks a shift of mood.  The size and proportion of the chairs deny their role as seating elements.  They are sculptures, which resist straying very far from the everyday objects to which they allude.  The first chair was small (roughly 1 ? feet tall), with the square, wholesome proportions of a child’s chair.  It developed into the piece called Family Portrait (1977), an arrangement of three chairs. Sproat has since constructed chairs of widely different characters ? ranging from Ernst-like thrones to attenuations recalling Giacometti’s The Invisible Object of 1934.  They create a sense of presences or absences, assuming a totemic rigidity in Palace at Mantis and conveying a haunting sense of emptiness or loss in Absence (1978), an installation piece at the Lamont Gallery.


In Absence chairs assumed a more ponderous role.  Four eight-foot high chairs with, with seats 42 inches above the floor, dwarfed the viewer, creating a confusion and fantasy of scale.  The chairs were of normal proportions, austere in their flat black finish and stern rectilinearity.  The feeling created was of a child’s malaise and sense of vulnerability in a dark formal dining room, with unapproachably high chairs.  Ten parallel red neon tubes, also 42 inches above the floor, and about five feet apart, created a low, table- like plane, activating and illuminating the space and enforcing the distance between the chairs.  The plane created by the parallel lines of light intensified the spatial malaise, eliciting a physical timidity and caution.  One sensed in Absence an empty banquet.  The room and chairs remained poignantly devoid of anyone of suitable stature and scale.

In Palace at Mantis, a work closely related to those of the present exhibition, two throne-like, impossibly tall, foreshortened chairs, facing each other from opposite ends of the gallery, presided over what came to seem a long space.  Ordered by vertical bands of neon, the space looked like a “skeletal architecture”.  Two Plexiglas boxes containing bones were screwed into the walls, which had been painted and drawn on.  These bones, which recall the skeletal bird of Giacometti’s The Palace at 4 A.M. of 1932 ? 33, are actually fish bones gathered along beaches.  They were included as found objects of archeological interest.  Mysterious relics of extraordinary delicacy, they were selected for their marvelous survival, having somehow eluded the leveling forces of the sea.  The tall chairs of Palace at Mantis, Egyptian in their rigidity, anticipate studies for Empire State and Attic.  In these studies the tall, narrow chairs are even more drastically foreshortened.  To Sproat these light, upward aspiring forms are like Gothic cathedrals.  Such slender and insubstantial structures parallel Sproat’s use of light ? hovering in space without actually filling it.

Ghost (1978) contains two large chairs like those of Absence, one white and one black.  These are accompanied by a brief text, an account of a dream involving the death of the artist’s father and the destruction of his studio and work.  It is a simple eloquent work of art expressing a profound sense of loss.              There is a formality about Sproat’s work, which results in part from the careful calculation of intervals of space and from his pieces’ resistance to touch.  Although we literally move through the works, enveloped by their sensuous luminosity, there remains a subtle tension.  The hum of electricity announces its fairly perilous power.  We did not wish to touch the neon tubing or wires, nor should we touch the flat black chairs in a work such as Absence.  A sense of almost hierarchic fixity prevails, enforcing a feeling of timelessness and inalterability.


The text of the dream for Ghost:

 I woke up one morning after spending the night in my car, which was parked behind my parent’s house in Lexington.  The first thing that I noticed was that someone had opened the garage door, and had smashed all my old sculptures.  The sculptures, made during my late teens, were very large, and made of plaster.  My first thought was that my mother had done it, although I knew that I was not yet thinking rationally.  I also didn’t see how she could do that while I was asleep ? it would make such a racket.  I then noticed that it looked as if fairly sizable portions of the sculptures were missing ? pieces weighing 50-100 pounds had somehow been carried off.  I went into the house, which was in utter shambles.  Everything of value was gone, and everything that was not was destroyed.  When I reached the top of the stairs to the second floor, I encountered my mother who was ringing her hands.  She said, “They took everything”.  At that point, I realized that the whole house had been systematically and miraculously robbed and destroyed while we slept.  I started to search for items that might have been missing, when the doorbell rang.  Hoping it would be the culprit, I rushed down the stairs and out the front door, no one was there, but as I stood on the stoop, a concerned neighbor was coming across the long.  It was then that my father came out of the house and stood next to, and a little behind me.  I was very surprised to see him, because he had just died very suddenly, from acute leukemia.  In this dream, he was in his early 30s, or about my age.  The neighborhood looked the way it did after the hurricanes in the ’50s.