At first glance, the pieces comprising the solo show “Hammer Dance: New Works by Chris Victor” at the Muroff/Kotler Visual Arts Gallery at SUNY-Ulster convey a sense of weightlessness. Sparsely placed and dramatically highlighted against the clean white walls of the rectangular room, the three-dimensional wall pieces, freestanding sculptures and small collagelike pieces glint with hints of scintillating color, which are subtly enmeshed, like a covered giggle, in a variety of mysterious substances – some having a rough woven texture that looks both fleshy and threadbare, beautiful in its graceful folds yet slightly revolting, as if the material were something regurgitated. There are linear accents and extensions, with the “lines,” on closer inspection, revealing themselves to be constructed of straws, pencils, skewers and other long, skinny objects glued together end-to-end. You struggle to reconcile how such unwieldy materials, which retain their identity and never become aestheticized, collectively transmute into art, with its formal harmonies, its pleasing contrasts, its resolution into a unified whole. Obviously contrived, Chris Victor’s works feel fresh, spontaneous and alive. They transcend issues of style and instead point to a new kind of making.
The magic ingredient allowing for such inventiveness is hot glue, which Victor uses as if it were a kind of fast-setting molten metal, welding materials together and creating an extensive vocabulary of fanciful forms. Given his reliance on the synthetic and man-made (a favorite place for scavenging materials is the Town of Rochester dump), Victor’s deep connection to nature is not immediately obvious. But his quest for discovering intuitive structures, inherent in the materials and methods of construction, the open dialogue that he maintains with the work, which allows for the control of natural forces over a personal sense of arbitrary aesthetics, and the important role of chance in shaping the work are grounded in this love. “As artists, our role is to create our own wilderness, to mirror nature and the way it works,” he said.
No matter how inventive, no one can completely escape his or her time or culture. Victor’s work bears the stylistic imprint of Modernism, with its emphasis on abstract form and transparent process, but he interprets it in all its multifariousness. The two large pieces pinned to opposite walls, Phoenix Roadkill and Leviathan, which are fabricated from strips of hot glue embedded with bits of paper sourced from junk mail and labels and the insignia of his drawings, respectively echo the Abstract Expressionism of Gottlieb and Kline and the Color Field rivulets of Lewis and Frankenthaler. Phoenix Roadkill, which Victor wryly said resembles “the guts of a phoenix,” is a gesticulating, birdlike form in which the draped sections of hot-glued variegated colored strips equate to smears of ferociously applied paint. Across the room, the same material is draped along a horizontal alignment to suggest a landscape in Leviathan; secreted within the folds are pieces of clear plastic, glinting like water. “One note is not enough,” Victor said, explaining that he added the pieces because he didn’t want to use the strips of hot glue as simply a generic material for multiple pieces. “The flow of the process has to serve the spirit of the work. I’m not a slave-driver. I want to allow that freedom.”
For both pieces, he first attached the individual hot-glue strips into round sections, “like lily pads,” which were then pinned to the wall. With each installation, the exact form of the piece may vary, depending how the sections are pinned. Phoenix Roadkill, which consists of 13 sections, “is like a jazz standard. It’s different each time,” he said.
The third free-form wall piece, titled Lyra, resembles a delicate line drawing, conceived on a monumental scale. Long lines descend from a vertical wooden “mast” and are pinned to the wall in a triangular shape suggesting a sail, tent or lyre. The artwork began as a piece of painted plywood, which Victor cut into strips. He attached them end-to-end to create a 12-foot rickety stick, embedded with screws, then squeezed a dab of hot glue and crayon onto the head of a screw and passed a length of thread through the dab, stamping it to produce a hard colored bead strung on a thread. He repeated the process hundreds of times to produce a series of long threads strung with beads, thus generating the material of the piece. Each of the threads is attached to the top of the long stick propped vertically along the wall and knotted at the bottom, where they fall along the floor. Victor then pulled some of the threads sideways to the right of the stick and attached them to the wall. “This piece was born out of the process; it formed itself, starting from a random piece of wood,” Victor explained. “When I added the eyelet, the piece started to pivot. [The threads] can be closed or hooked out farther along the wall”: a quality of flexibility that he compared to the sewn bottlecap pieces of Ghanaian artist El Anatsui, which can be shaped to fit any space.
Reprilt-en (a made-up word) is more traditional in format, formatted around a discarded wooden frame whose inside edge is lined with small LED lights (the frame was one of 50 discards that Victor obtained from a decommissioned art project in Albany, called Breathing Lights). Broken and cut pieces of hot glue laid along parchment, which results in flattened sheets like paper, are inserted into the frame and connected with colored threads; the translucent material, whose jagged edges describe white voids inside the narrow box, has the luminosity of a morning fog, and the threads enhance the sense of delicacy and deep space. It evokes the nuanced atmosphere of Whistler’s Nocturnes and the spare simplicity of a Japanese ink painting. The taut strings convey a mathematical tension and precision, like the cables in a suspension bridge or the space-time diagrams drawn by a physicist.
Adjacent to Reprilt-en is its alter ego, Big Beat, in which the frame is replaced by a squiggly, black-painted series of cut blocks roughly arranged into a jazzy rectangular shape, which extends into a complicated bowlike configuration at the bottom. A network of stretched strings swirls across and outside the irregular wooden frame. Victor attached an array of wooden skewers, pencils and screws to the strings, and then turned them like a valve to tighten the string; conceived as tools, they were then left embedded in the piece, like artifacts. The spiky physicality of Big Beat is tempered by the gestural expressiveness of the pattern of strings, which suggests the lyricism of a Cy Twombly.
Two works are supported on pieces of wood that extend out from the wall, props enabling the art to levitate in space. Kiggys for Tweeblys, terms invented by Victor’s young son for a game of marbles, resembles a bizarre, chandelierlike light fixture whose bulbs shorted out and imploded: A mass of clear bubblelike forms projecting from cardboard tubes is positioned upright and upside-down, perpendicular to a frail framework of skewers, which is affixed to the wall with a piece of wood; yarn threads tacked to the wall above the framework provide additional support. Inspired by the glassblowing techniques taught at his alma mater, the Tyler School of Art, Victor filled the cardboard tubes with hot glue and breathed delicately into them, forming the bubbles; some are filled with BBs, thread, buttons, paint or other material. He cited Richard Tuttle as an influence: “I love his courage in showing his work and simply saying, ‘Here it is.’ I love the tension of this piece not being so solid. It holds itself up,” he said, noting that the piece has a modular structure and could theoretically be built out to a much larger size.
Different Music, whose droopy, loopy lines constructed of attached pencils and straws describe a drawing in space with a vaguely figurative aspect (the piece is aligned vertically, and the description of a circle conjures up a body or head), appears to be freestanding, but it’s actually held up by a piece of wood that sits perpendicular to a long horizontal support attached to the wall. Projecting from the vertical wood piece are pieces of broken plastic cutlery pierced by spikes formed from metal staples and iciclelike formations of hot glue squeezed onto the tips of pried-up staples. “I didn’t know where the piece would go and was compelled to do some weird process,” Victor said, noting that he used hot wax from a candle to attach the staples to the plastic cutlery. He added that the term that perhaps best describes his process is “jury-rigged,” which Wikipedia defines as “makeshift repairs made with only the tools and materials at hand.” “I considered putting that definition up on the wall,” he said.
As many of his titles suggest, there’s a kind of musicality to Victor’s art, a latent animation to their dangling, beaded and tied threads, their spiky projections of skewers and metal screws and their masses of air-catching bubbles, a promise of sonic resonance if a breeze were to blow through. One small piece, consisting of a large clear-plastic juice bottle whose sides are bulging with large hot-glue bubbles, Victor described as “an instrument of its own making”: The opening of the bottle served as a mouthpiece, which he blew through to create the bubbles from gobs of hot glue attached to openings in the bottle. A metal chain resting inside the bottle, which is displayed on its side, as if it were one of those mysterious ship-in-a-bottle contraptions, serves as ballast.
The bottle is one of four small sculptures displayed on a “conceptual shelf” in the middle of the room: a series of white-painted, multi-level single boards bolted together that rise up from the floor and are suspended from a single chain attached to the ceiling. The bare-bones shelf has a sculptural aspect itself, its irregular, up-and-down horizontal movement attempting to defy gravity, resisting its function while fully revealing its structure (and nothing more).
Filling out the show is a series of small collages on paper wrapped in plastic sourced from cereal bags, which have a graphic look, utilizing black ink and graphite. Each employs a unique methodology: For example, in one piece Victor manipulated broken pencil points slipped beneath the plastic wrap by pressing them across the paper, creating an Expressionist skein of blurry lines; he then encased each point in a square formed by four staples in the plastic, collectively arranged in a grid in each corner, as if they were games of tic-tac-toe. In another, similarly created piece, two rings of BBs frame a Rorschachlike blob dribbling rivulets of black ink. In these pieces, Victor taps a Dadaist energy and logic. In other pieces, his expresses a more painterly sensibility: For example, there’s a collage in which two pieces of ripped blue plastic form balanced color masses playing off a geometric configuration of welded straws and whimsical snippets of frayed string.
Originally from Bucks County, Pennsylvania, Victor lives in Accord with his wife and two sons. After graduating from the Tyler School of Art, where he majored in Painting, he moved to New York City and built props for commercials. That work “introduced me to materials and made me realize my colors and palette are not acrylic paint, but the techniques of making and all the tools used for that. It was a slow evolution to realize that I’m actually a maker and I paint with my making,” he said. He added that the radical nature of his art was made possible by “developing a stable relationship that was meaningful and starting a family. I had some shows in the City, but I felt very lost and realized I needed to be closer to nature. To make open, ungrounded, vibrant work, I need to be grounded in my life.”
“Hammer Dance: New Works by Chris Victor,” Monday-Friday through March 29, 11 a.m.- 3 p.m., artist talk Saturday, March 2, 1 p.m., Muroff/Kotler Visual Arts Gallery, Vanderlyn Hall, SUNY-Ulster, 491 Cottekill Road, Stone Ridge; (845) 687-5113, (917) 224-5953.