Troy Stanley: concrete-spring

by Bill Davenport January 19, 2014

looped cords copy

Troy Stanley’s concrete-spring at Barbara Davis Gallery in Houston is sparse: eight pieces, not counting the intricately coiled electrical cords near the ceiling, which are not on the gallery’s checklist, but are one of the best parts of the show. Stanley’s forte is facture, and the cords, which power the three pieces hanging in the front gallery, loop with gratuitous, playful exuberance on the way to the electrical outlets, running free from the earnest, but facile meanings that weigh down Stanley’s official works.

It’s a materials show, and the materials Stanley chooses are proletarian: concrete, speaker wire, MDF (medium density fiberboard), crocheted cotton thread, new lumber with shiny new nails. The use of everyday materials in inventive ways reminds me of Houston artists Paul Kittelson and Joe Mancuso, who have also both shown at Barbara Davis. Mancuso is more process-oriented than Stanley, more focused on the physicality of poured paint and cast concrete than on imagery, but the parallels are strong: Mancuso’s 2012 Barbara Davis show included vaguely floral process pieces, some, like Stanley’s, titled Bouquet. Kittelson is more like Duchamp in overalls, using the hardware aesthetic to create homespun Dada.

baskets copy

The three centerpieces of the show, titled Perennial 1, 2, and 3 are ersatz potted plants in macramé hanging planters. Every natural element is replaced by a technological substitute: the baskets that hold the plants are skeletal MDF constructions, the macramé is braided speaker wire rather than rustic jute, and the plants themselves are tangles of shredded green paper. Ordinary office shredders hidden inside each basket spew out ribbons of moss-green paper at intervals, in spasmodic parody of growing houseplants.


This is Stanley at his best: the Perennial pieces are immaculately made, with an innocent enjoyment of technological improvisation for its own sake. Stanley is a tinkerer; his focus is on intricate, high-craft mechanisms with a nifty, crowd-pleasing appeal. Precisely cut MDF (laser cut, or water-jet cut, I presume) bespeaks access to industrial fabrication tools. His cast concrete blocks are bubble-free. One of his best known works is Zephyr (2006), a waving wheat field of squared sticks, remotely controlled by the wind, originally installed at Lawndale Art Center in Houston, and recently reprised at the 2013 Texas Contemporary Art Fair.



Procession is a stack of truncated pyramids cast from plant propagation flats and arranged in artistic asymmetry to create a miniature city of little blocks on the most beautiful shipping pallet I’ve ever seen. The sense of spit-and-polish newness Stanley achieves is so impressive that even without exotic, luxurious materials or imagery, it emphasizes the gallery’s role as showroom for expensive merchandise.


bouquet install

Stanley is great at effects: Bouquet is a spattered line that looks as if it has been stenciled around a bridesmaid’s bouquet, the kind that gets tossed at weddings. Soft gray concrete slurry has been sprayed or splashed along thirty-six feet of white galley wall. The sludge adheres to the wall around the flowers, and runs downward, forming a mechanically precise veil of drips, like a curtain of rain.  Not knowing what to do with his new effect, Stanley repeats it on down the wall like a swatch, showing us what he can do, but not why it’s necessary.

Bouquet (detail)

Bouquet (detail)

If you look past the gizmos, there’s a perceptible growth theme: sprouting plants, stencils of flowers, tree rings, planters, acorns, but it’s as superficial as “what I did on my summer vacation.” Stanley has dutifully given himself one of those vague, second-year sculpture class assignments: “concrete-spring” and approaches it like an exhibit designer or a custom furniture builder, satisfied with cute ideas and immaculate craft.

It’s no great leap to use cardboard to make tree rings, green paper to create growing moss, or speaker wire to weave baskets, but in each case, Stanley has executed these simple transformations with a sensitivity and care that go a long way towards making them great.

What it’s missing is much harder to define: heart or soul, or maybe point of view is really what I’m left looking for. The hanging baskets are funny and interesting. You can admire their craft, but in the end they’re an overly elaborate joke for a fairly small payoff: they’re not screamingly funny, just very well done. Stanley is so wrapped up in getting his paper shredder trick to work he doesn’t stop to ask why.

concrete-spring will be on view at Barbara Davis Gallery through January 31, 2014.






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Logan Beck January 20, 2014 - 11:18

Stanley’s concrete-spring is about Houston as much as it’s about the technology we have ready access to now. It may be new and scary to some because there is very little paint and very little canvas but make no mistake, it is more true to it’s place and time of origin than anything exhibited in Houston this year.

The cursory evaluation of the processes and the methods of fabrication employed in Stanley’s work exposes the author’s underlying lack of understanding of these processes. A hypochondriac WebMD user shouldn’t be publishing reviews of the latest organ transplant techniques.

If you’re going to condescend to industrial fabrication tools at least do the research. Stanley’s Perennials were made using a CNC router — a laser would burn the MDF and a water jet would disintegrate it. The fear of the fool who doesn’t attempt to understand not only cheapens the direction and message of work like Stanley’s but it also completely disregards the city and time we live in. You could throw a dart at a map of Houston and chances are you’d hit an industrial metal fabrication shop or a custom cabinet company. Making use of the tools around him, Stanley creates work that is both timely and relevant without shying away from the things that are harder to approach and talk about. The “Amazon” brand shredders controlled by arduino microcontrollers are closer kin to the smart phones and other computers we are in contact with on a minute by minute basis than they are to a paintbrush or piece of charcoal that some of us use to paint their Sunday paintings. I’d say what the author call a “trick” is a hard critical look the culture we live in. The broken flowers splashed on the walls each appear unique but in fact are the same repeated shape each made to look new by small superficial changes. Reminds me of my facebook wall.

The surface of the show, marked by it’s “spit and polish newness”, may come off as “facile” to someone not versed in the origin or history of the work and the place it was made. The facileness instead reflects the rapid (and vapid) growth that is happening around us. The concrete spring is Houston, spewing stucco stock town “homes” like the strands of green paper through Stanley’s shredders as our streets begin to resemble the repeated concrete flowers on the walls of Stanley’s exhibition. Turns out you may not like what you see when you look in the mirror this early in the morning.

If heart and soul equaled paper mache then the author would be right. I almost hate to say it but heart and soul these days involves an electronic beat and perhaps a 3D-printed valve or two. It involves complexes processes with simple results. It involves transformation. It involves clean and transparent use of materials and processes to achieve results that are hard to distinguish from our everyday lives. Stanley’s work is for informed viewers who are able to make this distinction and discern the sharp criticism and wit in it.

It’s attitudes like this that perpetuate and encourage Houston artists to stay safe and continue to believe that painting mediocre paintings is acceptable. Condescending to these materials, this artist and this perspective is cheap writing at best and Luddism at worst. Instead let’s champion art that reflects the times we live in and doesn’t turn a blind eye to the technology that is invading our lives, homes and interactions.

Bill Davenport January 22, 2014 - 23:58

Waterjet cut MDF: watch and learn.

Troy Stanley January 23, 2014 - 00:26

Obviously thats CGI……

While im not really interested in the fabrication of those pot forms, industrial processes to me are just means to an end, the shape was important, the sheet made of sawdust and glue resonates with me. Kinetic artists and engineers are victims of getting point A to point B, sometimes you have to just run with wing nuts and various home depot departments to achieve the ends. I will say that those constructions removed from the hangers were interesting in their own way,…. thinking up new pieces in the future.

Also, while that waterjet is cutting MDF i can assure you at time stamp 20:00min its swollen 15-20%. Its as cheap as it gets, thats why we use it for spoilboards. Now if it was Aquatek or Medex…….

Bill Davenport January 22, 2014 - 23:59

Laser cut MDF: Watch and learn.

Logan Beck January 23, 2014 - 10:38

I never say it wasn’t possible. I meant that it would be pretty recognizable because of burn marks or swelling/ disintegration of the edges.

Bill Davenport January 20, 2014 - 13:04

Thanks for your comment, Logan, but you’re misunderstanding my reservations about Stanley’s show. I’ve got nothing against Stanley’s or anyone’s use of up-to date technology; it’s just that, in this case, the technology is Stanley’s real interest, and his formidable and interesting ability as a fabricator is being obscured by superficial, vague ideas about growth, or nature or something. That’s why the extension cords were the best part of the show: they were what they were, unapologetically. It’s not the technique that’s facile, it’s the theme. If he had done a show of just extension cords controlled by Arduinos, now THAT might be something!

Troy Stanley January 20, 2014 - 14:46

Thanks for taking the time to check out the show. I appreciate the critism and the viewpoint. One caveat i would add your perspective of growth or nature is one i was more conscious of while producing the show, that being death. I suppose to achieve that end, perhaps the viewers are getting caught up in the process rather than the origins. I will say i use every material exactly as it is, no lies, no tricks. If one can see growth out of deconstructing/cutting a roll of paper with a paper shredder, maybe the seed is planted.

Funny story. I had a client ask me to fabricate a new addition to their kitchen/bath the other day. Rafters, stud walls, doors, maybe some cabinets. Seemed easy enough. I had my helper drop off a pine cone at the clients house. I told them id be by in a few years to do the punch list.

Felipe Contreras January 21, 2014 - 16:21


NIce one Troy.

Amber January 20, 2014 - 15:51

Hahaha “water cut MDF”. Sounds like you researched the work and the meanings behind it an equal amount. Which is to say zero.

Laura January 21, 2014 - 07:48

This is complex, beautiful and thought-provoking art, with many levels of meaning. It should not be dismissed.

Joe Spurlock January 21, 2014 - 08:51

Evidently Stanley is not in the boys club of Davenport’s or other Glasstire contributors, but obviously he enjoyed the critique of his work and even gave a nice little jab there with the pinecone anecdote. Bill did his Bill thing, little snarky jabs, and showed a weak understanding of material, (but sure did look up the acronym for MDF). Anyway, good show, adequate review…maybe Joe Spurlock (ME) should make something and or write a review.

Tommy Gregory January 21, 2014 - 09:45

Congrats, Troy. Positive and negative criticism should be embraced. I think folks should read your interview on artstroller as well; it was a nice window into your studio practices and thoughts.

Logan Beck January 21, 2014 - 09:56

The thematic juxtaposition of nature and technology is provocative and relevant material, especially as we see technology move closer to the body in the form of augmentations/ extensions and in-home connected devices. Stanley’s imposition of this theme is like a runner setting a distance to run– it is a limitation that allows the work to be done and the creativity to flourish.

Your idea of “Extension cords controlled by adruinos” is like telling a painter he can only paint himself painting. Why limit the results of the process to being about the process when there is a world of ideas to play with? This suggestion hints that perhaps you haven’t invested in learning the language of this kind of work yet. Just as color and line and brush stroke inform how one enters into the viewing of a painting, motors and cast concrete and CNC machined parts provide their own structure for viewing and informing the process of understanding.

Limiting the viewing of this work to the one lens of “process” cuts it short and encourages others to maintain a limited and uninformed frame for the viewing of work they don’t immediately understand. Acquiring more tools for your toolbelt never hurt anyone.

Felipe Contreras January 21, 2014 - 16:25

The first line cemented it for me.

Richard Bailey January 22, 2014 - 12:30

My comment isn’t about the article. My comment is about Logan Beck’s comments. Beck’s argument doesn’t argue *for* anything. Rather, he describes an all too common problem in discussions about postmodern art. He follows an annoying trend that suggests attacking problems of spectacle — the acceleration of images and commodities into a culture to be looked at rather than lived in — with the very tools of spectacle will somehow make transformative art.

Going by the article, the pictures, the artist’s response, and Beck’s comments, it seems that Stanley is addressing the problem of capitalism destroying the realm of nature and replacing it with manufactured goods by eliding the problem’s mercantile aspects – – speaker wire, shredders, fiberboard, etc. Stanley says in his comment that he is looking at the end of an idea: nature having died, starved, it seems, by capitalism’s simulations of it. If that is the case, then Stanley seems to have made an interesting illustration of nature’s end.

But Beck argues for much, much more. And, in doing so, he does Stanley a tremendous disservice. It is flat wrong to assume this artwork illustrates the many complexities that working ecologists face. Beck seems to believe that fighting spectacle with spectacle somehow speaks truth to power. By drawing Stanley into his arguments, he inadvertently accuses Stanley of facile humanism.

Although I think it is very cool that Stanley is thinking Philip K. Dick thoughts — capitalism’s copies and simulations eating up and replacing what is real — it is wrong to say that he has engaged in the complex discourse on our planet’s many ecological emergencies. The only way these artworks could possibly participate in that larger discussion is through irony. The biggest mistake in postmodern thinking is the idea that irony is a transformative event. Very specifically, irony is not a transformative event. It is not even a leveling event. The best, the very best irony can do is create a thrilling swing ride between spectacle and paranoia. On the spectacle end: “Look– the speaker wire suggests an android’s version of a plant holder!” And on the paranoia end: “Look! — the shredders have eaten all the plants and replaced them!”

By banking on irony, Beck inadvertently accuses Stanley of making shrill arguments. It is time to reveal a simple truth about irony: it lengthens artists’ CVs but does nothing to illuminate the culture.

Marcel January 27, 2014 - 13:09

Maybe this is just par for the course for this art blogger, but calling the ideas in Stanley’s exhibition “cute” is incredibly offensive and this post pays short shrift to an artist who easily deserves more. This exhibition was probably one of the most soulful ones I’ve seen in Houston in a very long time. It’s a quiet and thoughtful exhibition. A sparse gallery show can be risky. I think it’s a testament to the capability of the artist and praise should be given to the gallery for having such faith in this artist. Despite the clean finishing and production value, it’s very much a heartfelt show. Each work is calculating and purposeful. Every element whispers at and nudges the viewer; they never shout. There’s a message, perhaps even a narrative, but it’s left to the viewer to piece out and think on long after they’ve left the gallery.

Perhaps one of the problems Stanley’s work suffers from is that the work isn’t overtly ironic enough. It definitely isn’t misogynistic nor does it contain a single dick and/or fart art-insiders joke. Stanley certainly strays from the dime store aesthetics so well loved in Houston. He also doesn’t seem to be a sycophantic, narcissistic hipster interested in the spectacle of the art world. Perhaps the real problem is that Stanley deals in subtleties and actual sincerity. He also seems genuinely interested in forming a dialogue with his viewers rather than attempting to outsmart them or having a laugh at their expense. He’s also an artist who seems legitimately interested in exploring ideas through the process of art-making and it’s likely some of his audience is too obtuse to recognize it.

Davenport is right in assessing that what’s missing here is a heart or soul, he clearly seems to be lacking one or both of these.


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