A central part of the Chinati Foundation is the permanent installation of 23 John Chamberlain welded assemblages of smashed automobile parts. Created from 1972 to 1982 and housed like a site-specific installation within the spacious confines of the former Wool and Mohair Building in downtown Marfa, this grouping conforms to expectations of Chamberlain's work: that it is big, metallic, and colorful.
However, two concurrent exhibitions at the Chinati Foundation's Fort Russell exhibition spaces excavate Chamberlain's history to uncover investigations in decidedly different directions, shining new light on popular assumptions about the singularity of his aesthetic.
Made between 1989 and 2004 with a handheld Widelux panoramic format camera, his color photographs bend, fold, and mutilate reality. Chamberlain often moved the camera while photographing, creating distortions that stretch the space/time continuum into a dreamlike dimension. He has described these photographs as 'self-portraits of my nervous system." While I don't know precisely what this means, the very personal, diaristic nature of this work is evident in the artist's own twisted image, which hovers like a wraith in many of these photographs. Mostly horizontal in aspect, these untitled works have the predictable curves, sudden dips, and sharp highlights typical of funhouse mirrors. In #21 a woman's limbs are transformed into balloon-like appendages, evoking André Kertész's 1920s hallmark photographic abstractions of female nudes. In #1 Chamberlain swirls across the panorama like an elongated ghost; in #10 he is a disembodied, blurry head confronting a hotel desk clerk. Only a few images are free of distortion. In #25 he constructs a meticulous composition within his Paris hotel room, contrasting the view of the Eiffel Tower as seen through an open window with his own profile, captured like an intruder in a bathroom mirror framed by an open door that parallels the window. As a sculptor, Chamberlain is a master of materiality, but these photographs show him headed in the opposite direction. #23, which captures the entirety of the showy mount of elephants that culminates the Ringling Brothers Barnum and Bailey Circus, gets to the heart of what these pictures are about — sensory overload and theatrical spectacle.
During the 1960s Chamberlain stopped working in metal and began a period of experimentation in diverse materials such as paper, Plexiglas, and urethane foam. A second special exhibition at Chinati, Foam Sculptures (1966-1979), highlights some 30 of the 100 soft-sculpture constructions made during these years. Chamberlain's foam sculptures are as soft, light, and graceful as his steel sculptures are dense, heavy, and hard. Their dominant attribute is tautness, which is a direct result of their means of construction. In its natural state, foam is a paradoxical material — appealingly tactile and visually interesting because of its many small holes, but inert and blocky in overall form. To make one of these sculptures, Chamberlain looped cord or rope around a bunch of plain or painted urethane foam. Tightening the cord, Chamberlain created all manner of dynamic tension, which he occasionally heightened by further cutting or tinting. The result is a fluid, intuitive origami that transforms a quotidian industrial material into evocative abstractions.
The assembled sculptures range in size from intimately scaled objects measuring in inches to larger works with figurative or architectonic intonations. All are displayed on pedestals; most are demarcated by a lateral axis created by the binding cord. For works like Ju (1966), this axis suggests a bowl or vessel form. For most of the other, largely untitled works, Chamberlain tied off his foam gatherings to suggest bodily or geological orifices. Sometimes he colored the foam before sculpting it. In Stuffed Dog #2, paint marks a node at the center of the crenulated foam; in Stuffed Dog #4 the purple spatter and blue dots reinforce the floral overtones of Chamberlain's composition. For #7 (1966), Chamberlain heightened the inside/outside nature of his form by contrasting the natural ochre of his material with shadings of green, purple, and red, adding a string of beads to finish the piece off. These objects are Rorschach-like vessels waiting to be filled with individual projections, and in this sense they have less in common with the New York-based austerity of artists like Donald Judd and Carl Andre than with the West Coast voluptuousness practiced by ceramic sculptors like Peter Voulkos and Ken Price. The foam works ably evoke the tumultuous mix of violence and sensuality that characterized the time of their making, and they remain some of the freshest and most inventive work produced by Chamberlain over his long, productive career.
Images courtesy Chinati Foundation.
Christopher French is an artist and writer living in Houston.