David R. Nelson: Demiurge in the Crucible

at Wood Street Gallery, through March 30

By Fred Camper

David R. Nelson’s 27 new sculptures at Wood Street don’t look like much at first: rusted wire mesh, an old canteen, forked pieces of wood, wooden blocks and boxes–familiar-looking found-object assemblages, though without the genre’s flashy effects or easy jokes. But the more pieces I viewed, the more I was overcome by an unaccountable melancholy colored by feelings of removal, alienation, and absence.

The muted colors surely play a role. This is an exhibit of tans and browns and grays and blacks; the occasional green or red is pale, as if mixed with the natural colors of wood or rust. The number of repeated objects certainly suggests an artist obsessed: all but two sculptures contain a canteen, a sieve, or a forked stick like a dowser, and most contain two of these items. Many of Nelson’s sculptures look like failed tools, attempts at mastery by a lost civilization that never quite made it into the industrial era. If a dowser does lead to water, how is the sieve next to it going to help? And more often than not these works have a void at the heart. The sieves, made of wire mesh or a metal plate with holes and mounted on a wooden box, are often placed at the center, so we look through them to an empty space within. In others the center is occupied by a canteen so rusty looking it seems likely to spring a leak or by a half-open box filled with unadorned wooden blocks.

Almost any old, rusted artifact evokes some sort of nostalgia; but as I started to realize that Nelson fabricated most of these objects himself, my emotional response grew stronger and more precise. I’d already begun to suspect that he’d made all the sieves: many are an unusual triangular shape, and they all looked handmade. Nelson told me that he’d also made the canteens, pointing out that the rough “low-tech” oxyacetylene welding is evidence of his hand. “A bought canteen,” he says, “would probably be mechanically welded. I want the viewer to wonder whether these were made by an individual, and hopefully come to the conclusion that they were not mass produced.” In this way he transforms nostalgia from the vague, sloppy emotion it usually is into a far more pointed feeling. By handcrafting objects that at first seem artifacts from an earlier industrial era, then archaeological finds from a civilization that never was, and finally aesthetic objects made by an artist, Nelson distances himself from traditional artistic self-expression. Redefining his role as something in between cultural critic and anonymous artisan, Nelson locates the work’s melancholy not in his own moods but in the state of our civilization.

Nelson’s ambivalence can be seen in the contrast in most of the sculptures between the dowsers–sticks he picks up and strips of their bark and outer layer of wood–and the sawn wood that goes into the boxes, the wire mesh, and the other rectilinear forms, which almost always convey an uncomfortable feeling of confinement. The dowser itself signals a belief in magic more common in prescientific eras. Three small pieces titled Journeymen-Handled Sieve I-III, all centered around triangular sieves fitted with wooden handles, make it seem Nelson is wishing for a world that no longer exists or never existed. In one the sieve is wire mesh, in another a metal plate with circular holes; but they seem far too small to be of any practical use. At the same time the handles are molded into handgrips, indicating a craftsman’s careful attempts to accommodate an individual user. Nelson evokes a world in which people would treasure their own personal sieves.

The organic growth patterns of nature and the products of the plumb line and the straightedge have never seemed more alien from each other than in some of Nelson’s modest, unassuming little constructions. In Journeymen-Sieve w/Dowser the sieve is wooden mesh mounted on a triangular wooden box; the dowser is attached along the side. The mesh presents us with a blank, almost barren face; its irregular green patina is oddly mirrored by the irregular coloring of the dowser. Yet the Cartesian grid of the mesh and the Euclidean shape of the box throw into sharp relief the tiny irregularities of the dowser’s “Y”: each tiny bend, each minuscule change in thickness, announces that it comes from a different world. Some of Nelson’s sieves suggest tools used in mining, gold-panning for instance–they seem metaphors for the way we enclose, sift through, and divide the planet’s land into those parts we wish to use and the slag we cast off.

Nelson (a Chicago resident, no relation to the satirist and occasional Reader illustrator David K. Nelson) has written that he hopes each viewer’s “interpretation may be filtered through his or her own experience.” But his works are specifically autobiographical; as a child he was an amateur archaeologist. Born in Oakland in 1959, he and his family moved every few years when he was young because his father was in the Navy. When he was 10, the family settled in the Panama Canal Zone, where Nelson remained until he was 21. One of the first things he told me about the Canal Zone was that it was surrounded by an eight-foot chain-link fence–a perfect metaphor for U.S. imperialism and the divisions inherent in any industrial society. At first he regarded this fence as “a safety net” against “this other culture.” He’d picked up a standard prejudice: “‘Don’t drive in that neighborhood, those people are bad.’ We were very well protected within our little nest. But young Panamanian kids would often climb over the fence to steal mangoes. It was difficult for me to understand that for many months of the year this fruit was rotting on the ground, but these kids weren’t allowed to take it.” Eventually Nelson and a brother made friends with some of these children and began making forays across the fence. He and his brother also explored abandoned settlements in the jungle, townships where people working on the canal had lived. They would “look for evidence.” Nelson describes himself and his brother as “naive anthropologists” who “made decisions about these people based on the objects we found.” His sieves, he says, also refer to the tools used at archaeological digs.

Viewers of Nelson’s objects may wonder, as the brothers did, about “how these things would have been used,” about the story behind them. But explanations don’t always come easily. Journeymen-Carryall With Site Markers is a half-open oblong box–a surveying tool? Inside are compartments that hold simple wooden blocks, the “site markers.” On the box’s lid is another dowser with two pegs between its widening branches filled with round disks, as in an abacus. But the pegs are so full of these disks it’s hard to see how they could “take inventory,” as Nelson himself claims. Or consider Journeymen-Metalograph, a box on a high metal platform though most works in the show are wall mounted. To its right are six bullets Nelson found buried in a tree he was sawing into boards. He “excavated” them, building “stories in my own mind about how they might have ended up where they were.” To the box’s left is a shelf with a lead ingot Nelson cast himself. The raw material of which bullets are made reminds us that these are not natural objects but the products of human minds–and mines. A dowser lies across the box, but this time a rubber tube with leather in the middle hangs from its ends, suggesting a slingshot. It would never work–the attachment is too tenuous, the rubber tube too long and inelastic–but it provides a commentary on the bullets and ingot. This low-tech weapon–which can be made by human hands, without machines or molds–isn’t nearly as efficient as a gun. And unlike bullets it suggests heroism, the biblical David.

But other forms in this piece are harder to account for: a mushroom-shaped piece of metal below the box, a concave metal plate near the floor. These don’t cohere rhythmically, and as in the combinations of organic wood and sieve grids, the lack of integration becomes part of Nelson’s statement. Rather than a unified decorative object Nelson has made one full of fissures and discontinuities, provoking thought. He may hint at an irretrievable past and ask us to make up our own stories, yet the contrast between the ingot and the slingshot unmistakably establishes industrial production as alienated from nature, as a Cartesian prison.