You have to be careful around an installation by Billy Maker. This is immediately apparent to anyone who has the pleasure of experiencing a grouping of his delicate, wooden sculptures first-hand. Recently, East Coast residents have had several opportunities to have their carefulness tested—and they have not always been successful.
Maker’s recent work consists of constellations or groupings of delicate sculptures made of basswood, sparsely painted, that project from a wall on minimal scaffolding somewhere between the thickness of a toothpick and a chopstick. At eye level, you might see a wooden platform at the end of two thin legs, harboring a tiny faux-wall or miniature patch of grass about four or five inches away from the originating surface. The number of pieces in a typical constellation is around fifteen—Maker prefers to let the particular space dictate the appropriate number installed.
Two particular constellations, as Maker prefers to call them, were titled “Platform-Outpost-Level-System” for a group show at Greene Contemporary Gallery in the lower-east side of New York City. This title seems appropriate, given the resemblance of many of the individual pieces to various types of platforms and how they can be easily seen as a type of topography, as suggested by the term “outpost.” The sculptures’ arrangement suggests a system or method of which the nature is not immediately obvious. While the individual pieces appear to have been spontaneously assembled—with rough cuts and uneven paint application—the constellations look as if they are carefully installed, with special care being given to the lighting and the interplay of the shadows cast by the individual pieces.
Maker’s work floats—not only literally, but also between a modernist aesthetic on one hand and a DIY construction sensibility (albeit on a tiny scale) on the other. It’s easy to see many of the individual objects as platforms, especially given the title, but platforms for what, for whom? Is each grouping of platforms considered an outpost? What is the system? And how does “level” play into it?
These questions could stymie the audience in another context or if applied to different artwork. In Maker’s work, however, the questions point viewers toward another line of thought. They hint at a general sense of order and purpose in the objects’ assembly. This order and purpose becomes apparent through the way the shadows lead your eye between, in and around the pieces, visually connecting them together. As your eyes follow the shadows, the constellation, though made of individual pieces, acquires the feeling of being a single unit—like a body made up of diverse parts.
Within this order there is also a palpable sense of emptiness. The platforms don’t hold anything recognizable—save, perhaps, the void from Italian sculptor Alberto Giacometti’s 1934 “Hands Holding the Void,” where a female figure sits with her hands in front of her as if holding an invisible basketball. Maker’s platforms similarly appear to be in perpetual readiness, built for a purpose yet to be realized. They suggest a hunter’s home-made tree stand (both Maker and I grew up in rural areas where these were common sights), or perhaps the surreal, unsupported walkways in space of Marvin the Martian from the Warner Bros. cartoons.
Two similar contemporary artists that come to mind are Sarah Sze and Jessica Stockholder, who have both built substantial careers around the transformation of familiar materials. Both use banal objects that can be found readily in a common household or at the Home DepotÂ®, and both use these objects to visually transform the spaces they inhabit. Sarah Sze’s 2003 exhibition, “Triple Point of Water” at the Whitney Museum of American Art utilized a visual cacophony of PVC pipe, plastic tubing and fish tanks to create what could be mistaken for a vast, plastic coral reef. Jessica Stockholder uses a similar array of familiar materials, but toward a more classically formal end. Everything from buckets to shower curtains are combined, painted and distorted in her 2009 exhibit, “Sailcloth Tears” at Mitchell-Innes & Nash Gallery. While Sze makes you intimately aware of her use of materials in forming an ever-expanding system, Stockholder, while appearing to use similar methods, creates distilled, contemplative (and contained) moments.
But despite similarities like these, Maker stakes out new territory in bringing together formal considerations and associations with familiar building materials. His pieces reflect simultaneously the detached aesthetic of modernism and the personal hand of the artist.
Maker’s sculptures, even within their constellations, also address scale in a unique way. They make viewers imminently aware of themselves—of their own presence and size, relative to the delicate pieces. It’s not so much that Billy’s sculptures reveal a tiny and mysterious world that challenges us to reflect on our own inflated existence—in a more abstract sense (American hubris) as well as more intimately and concretely (our own consumerist wastefulness). Perhaps it also has to do with our attitudes toward building and creating spaces. Humanity may be outgrowing its own systems for organizing and constructing spaces—sure, there is more potential area to fill, but our resources for such growth are ever shrinking. We are becoming giants in our own world.
When we’re in front of Billy Maker’s sculptures, we notice the fragility of his constructed environment and are warned from carelessly breaking them—a warning we should bear in mind with regard to our own environments.