Contributed by Jacob Patrick Brooks
When was the last time you felt sympathetic with a monument, or indeed an abstract sculpture? Carl D’Alvia’s show at Hesse Flatow, “Sometimes Sculpture Deserves a Break,” is a playful, irony-laden take on the hyper-masculine minimalist sculpture canon. Rather than paying respectful homage to those that came before him, D’Alvia employs their language to his own ends, ultimately creating sensitive, vaguely human mirrors that stand to elicit something interesting in most everyone.
The work appears to be gingerly folded, as though worked by a pair of giant hands. You can imagine D’Alvia carefully forming strips of extruded Play-Doh into the shapes that would make up this show. The slabs somehow ooze personality. Loaf is a melting rectangle that leans against a wall. Despite having no particularly distinctive features, it manages to communicate a specific attitude. One could imagine the object itself smoking cigarettes with its friends. It might talk and act tough around others, but that’s about the extent to which it’s willing to rebel. Its pinkish flesh-colored coating and its physical need for support – it can’t posture without the wall – says its bad-boy aloofness is essentially passive.
The sculptures can be seen as monoliths that spent slightly too much time in the oven. Rather than towering above crowds of faithful believers, the names of war heroes engraved on them, they curl and fold onto themselves. Their power is diminished. Still, they might look at home on a miniature golf course, as a quizzical, inscrutably humorous obstacle to navigate the ball around. That’s something; just ask the Beach Boys. What it’s not is an object that merits unquestioned respect. That quality gently invites deeper consideration.
Unlike other large-scale sculptures that seek to confront you or stand forbiddingly in your way, these beg to be used. A great example is the sublimely evocative Slowpokes. Objectively, it resembles two highly processed string cheeses left in the sun on a car dashboard, or codependent seating used by office drones who might leave behind a half-finished paper bowl of chili after meandering lunch break, or a happily lethargic couple killing time on a lazy Sunday. The bright colors invite us in to interact, while the expectations of the gallery setting keep us at bay. The tension is stimulating and entertaining.
D’Alvia seems to be subverting the civilizational significance of the monolith, while acknowledging the minimalist sculpture of the mid-twentieth century. He clearly admires it, but can’t help but diss it, too. Even as he winks at the machismo of his heroes, he renders his work polite: self-deprecating as well as out of the way. In one instance, his laudable subtlety does seem to elude him. Sap grows narrower as it extends up, folding into a hanging phallus that lacks any potential whatsoever. Its best days are behind it, and it knows it. The patriarchy’s staleness notwithstanding, it probably deserves better than an obvious dick joke.
The generally incisive irony of D’Alvia’s work is worthy of grander contemplation. If monoliths for early humanity represented humankind’s reaching upward toward the gods, the reduction of sleek, solid-colored rectangles to human body language is comparably stunning. It could represent at once the symbolic toppling of art-history deities and the removal of monuments now deemed historically objectionable. When objects feel human, they become much less sacred. What does it mean to translate the monolith from 2001: A Space Odyssey into a slumping, yoga-posing, candy-coated abstraction of a wine mom with free time on a weekday? Our culture permits, indeed encourages, once sacrosanct symbols to be made relatable. If the point of art is to reflect the time in which it was made, D’Alvia may be both laughing with us and weeping for us.