Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

Visual Arts

Volume XXVII Number 2
Spring 2005

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Galo Moncayo
Galo Moncayo
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Georgia Strange
Georgia Strange
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Mike Wsol
Mike Wsol
Photo © Tyagan Miller

The Shapes of Sound and Silence

by Erika Knudson

The Calder, an enormous, red, abstract steel form looming in front of the Indiana University Musical Arts Center. A marble statue of a Greek god, arms amputated by warring tribes and the passage of time. A porcelain urinal. A surreal cup and saucer made of fur. A cartoonish, outrageously oversized soup can emblazoned with the eternal brand, Campbell’s. A hamburger for a giant, fashioned out of soft cloth.

An easy chair upholstered with raw steak. An LCD scrolling messages that examine society’s status quo. A series of minimalist metal boxes emerging from a wall. A pile of stones. A stack of televisions. A cloth dummy with a video-projection face. Herman B Wells cast in bronze, seated for eternity on a bench in IU Bloomington’s Old Crescent.

All these are answers to one question:

What is sculpture?

It is an art with few boundaries. While traditional examples include naked gods hewn from marble, IU South Bend Professor Emeritus Tuck Langland’s more modestly attired bronze Wells, or even the monumental modernist sculptures of Alexander Calder and Mark Di Suvero, the art form has expanded infinitely as new technologies have developed. From the mass production commentary of Pop art (Warhol’s soup can, Oldenberg’s hamburger) to postmodern and post-postmodern works incorporating sound, video, and digital technology, contemporary sculpture admits an almost infinite realm of materials, styles, and forms.

Which brings us to 150 PEZ candy dispensers wired for sound; a gathering of human heads in various states of pain and grace, made of clay and perched on elaborate metal chairs; and a shipping dock resting on a pedestal. No, this isn’t some modern-day Salvador Dali canvas, it’s what awaits a visitor to the studios of three IU Bloomington sculpture professors—Assistant Professor Galo Moncayo, Professor and School of Fine Arts Director Georgia Strange, and Assistant Professor Mike Wsol.

The Social Theory of PEZ

“My studio is a big playplace,” says Galo Moncayo. “I find little things that are interesting, and I put them together.”

Moncayo makes fanciful machines that create patterns of sound and line, artistic automatons that play with our expectations and preconceptions about how to interact with and view art. A recent work, short-lived moments, is an example of his experimental creative process. Moncayo had designed a bubble-making machine that used ink instead of soap, releasing ink bubbles at regular intervals over a belt of paper, some of them finding their way to the paper and others floating beyond its edges. He also had 150 PEZ dispensers that friends had given him after he’d incorporated a few into another work. He wired the candy dispensers to a computer circuit board, hung them on a wall to chatter away, and combined that assemblage with the ink-bubble machine.

“Only about 10 percent of the bubbles made a mark, but each mark created a sound, had a consequence,” he says. “The piece has a complexity that keeps adding to itself.”

Moncayo often discovers that his work takes on new meaning after it is completed. In short-lived moments, he saw an example of social theory in action. “All the characters were arranged randomly, but they were distinct representations of societal types,” he says. “Fred Flintstone was the father figure. Then you have Peppermint Pattie: butch girl. Also, Storm Troopers, Yoda, Batman. Well, Batman and Fred Flintstone broke, but Peppermint Pattie kept clacking away. The big male icons broke.”

As Moncayo moves from one fabulous machine/sculpture to the next, a restrained humor runs beneath his descriptions of their function, sound, and engineering. He shows me two “drawing machines,” simply built, elegant metal frames with armatures that hold paper and a pen counterbalanced with a magnet. A motor powers the drawing process, and the results are dark, intense, heavily inked, and abstract. “Stormy landscapes,” he calls one hanging nearby on the wall.

“I think of my work as performance art. It’s just that I’m a little shy in public, so the machines perform for me,” he says.

Another work in progress has a goblet-shaped water glass that turns on a metal pedestal, with a soft clamp running along the rim to create a constant crystalline hum. Above that, the drawing machine’s stormscape is displayed alongside his own drawings of clouds.

When Moncayo needs to re-center himself, he says, he sets his video camera on a tripod outside his studio and films a couple of days of clouds going by. He picks the most interesting cloud formations and projects them onto paper, draws the outlines of the clouds, then moves the paper over and draws the next video frame. “I’m paying homage to an ever-changing element,” he says. “When a cloud comes out of nowhere and disappears the next instant, I feel like I could have been the only witness to its entire lifespan.”

Such evanescent, random moments are evoked in a work he created for an exhibit at the Arlington Arts Center in Washington, D.C. The sculpture—titled so far, i do not know—is an arrangement of 22 speakers, each controlled by an independent computer chip and filled with pearlescent, pure pigment in blue and green. When each speaker emits a sound, a cloud of pigment bounces into the air. In the installation photograph, the speakers look like ceramic bowls glazed in streaks of blue and green. “There were moments of total chaos and cacophony that would suddenly group into a harmonious moment,” he says of the piece’s impact on the senses.

From this synesthesia machine to a laughing machine called not at you, Moncayo’s work involves the viewer/listener, emotionally and psychologically. not at you had infrared sensors at the bottom that could sense a person’s presence. “Whichever side you were on, the opposite side would start laughing,” he says. “Some people felt uneasy, some were amused. Some walked around the piece to see who was laughing.”

Although his art supply source is often an electronics catalog, Moncayo says his work has a traditional context. “The craft that goes into it—working with steel and other metal, how to weld it, get a structurally sound joint, work with color, get it all to be balanced—that’s how formal training comes across in my work.”

Apparitions of Scientists and Saints

The studio of Georgia Strange is haunted by tortured souls, their heads perched atop tall metal chairs that stand in for bodies. They are present-day emanations of her artistic imagination. Up high on the wall above the creative clutter is the ghost of her past, a huge, colorized 1950s photo of a scientist in a lab coat, hunched cheerfully over test tubes.

Although always interested in drawing and painting, Strange decided she was going to be a doctor in the fourth grade, when a friend’s mother died of cancer. She studied microbiology and worked as a lab technician for the IU microbiology program chair in the 1970s until a pottery class changed everything, and she was inspired to dive headlong into a career in art.

The vulnerability of the body and the processes of illness and death, however, continue to assert themselves as important themes in her work. These subjects have sprung both from personal experience—including losing a close friend and her mother to cancer—and various artistic influences.

She calls her recent series of ceramic heads with metal chair bodies Sinners and Saints. The individual sculptures have titles like Affliction, Flame, Malady, and Turbulence, and their faces are contorted with pain, pox, and various physical and emotional deformities. They have a medieval presence; some of the chairs have thick chains attached to them or a cage-like space incorporated into their structure, and the faces look like they might have sprung from Umberto Eco’s darkest monastic fantasies.

“The climate was very much against working with the human figure when I started in art,” says Strange. “But I found myself getting increasingly interested in realism and the body, and working with students interested in working from models and representing the figure. I started to do it, too, just to help them.”

In 1999, she taught figure modeling for the first time, and her interest in Renaissance portraiture took her to Certosa del Galuzzo, a 14th-century monastery outside Florence. As she describes in her artist’s statement, “the monastery’s Great Cloister is ringed with 66 portraits (majolica tondi) of saints and prophets by Andrea and Giovanni della Robbia. The Cloister’s grand architectural space is rendered intimate by the serene depiction of the human image transcending torment.”

The materials Strange uses in her work echo the physicality of her subject matter. “There is an emotional, physical connect in the modeling of clay,” she says. “Clay takes on the imprint, the minutiae of decision making. But if you touch metal, it bites you. I love its strength, its rigidity. Because of its tensile strength and compression, torsion, you have to affect it violently to change it.”

Strange is alternately deeply thoughtful about the meaning of her work and extremely animated. When she talks about metal, her inner biker emerges. “I just love the brute force interaction of sheet metal, grinding it, cutting it with torches,” she says. “People call sculptors crazy and macho. It’s a stereotype, but there is something about pouring hot metal that is hard to beat in terms of playing with fire and danger. It is more exciting than driving cars and motorcycles fast.”

She walks suddenly over to a Sinner/Saint figure with a wheel instead of chair legs. “Look at this thing—it’s kind of funny,” she says, the ceramic head rotating like something out of The Exorcist as she wheels it around. “I act silly. But it’s about resolve, the will to get through, to keep going. You have to laugh at death. It’s a release from yourself, maybe akin to a Mexican ‘Day of the Dead.’”

The Inner Life of Structures

“The clutter in here is killing me,” Mike Wsol says. “This place is usually immaculate—I like it to be very clean. But I’ve been here every day for the last three months.”

His (really very tidy) studio is filled with plywood shipping boxes, and the boxes contain sculptures that he is sending to Scope Miami, a prestigious national art fair. It’s like being in a chocolate shop that has dark curtains pulled in front of the display cases of candies; you can’t see the choices, only try to imagine them in the abstract.

Given the nature of Wsol’s sculpture, this turns out to be a very appropriate exercise in understanding his work.

His work constitutes an investigation of the structural, social, and economic systems that support people in a developed society. “The artworks that I make simplify these systems into studies of their specific functions and potential adaptations,” he says in an artist’s statement on the Web site of Saltworks, a gallery that represents him in Atlanta. “I believe that all of the different systems that I research interact with each other in both positive and negative ways while oftentimes remaining invisible.”

Editioned prints hanging on the walls of his studio are two-dimensional examples of this deeply theoretical, almost fastidious approach to dissecting urban systems. Two prints are about a refinery he used to live next to; they are visual silos of intertwined lines. The images are stark, graphic, almost like perfect woodcuts in their simplicity, and they show both the elemental shape and the essential function and flow of the stainless steel refineries.

“I came from a semi-working class family,” says Wsol, “and I didn’t understand what college was—I thought I’d go into the trades.” His father encouraged him to go to college, though, and he started out studying business at Eastern Illinois University. “I thought I had to do something where I could make a lot of money. But those classes didn’t keep my interest.”

He took an introduction to art class, where he had to weave a basket: “It was the first thing I’d had fun with.” Then it was a graphic design class, then one on sculpture, and he discovered the work of minimalist Donald Judd.

“I remember looking at books on Judd and thinking, ‘How could this be art?’” he says. “My interpretation of sculpture was figurative statues. I realized I’d never understood context—why people were making art when they were making it. I had to read so much about Judd, I finally began to understand.”

Wsol systematically began devouring books about artists and theory. He had an epiphany, though, observing a farm near campus. “I realized it was a measured grid—every acre was measured, owned, worked,” he says. “The farm was really almost the same as a city in terms of its system, but it required a different action. I started looking for that kind of thing everywhere, like the grid of a storeroom floor versus a soybean field.”

His work is based on geometric principles, and several of his pieces are created with tiled pieces arranged in different patterns. He starts by drawing out plans in AutoCAD, then cuts out shapes in plastic, stainless steel, and wood.

One of the few sculptures that isn’t already boxed up is Dock, a dense, dark construction that is a precise concatenation of planes and edges and seems massive even though it is really no bigger than a breadbox. Although it looks like it is made of something like black marble or heavy metal, it is actually constructed with tempered masonite and wood. Wsol is just finishing the piece, which was inspired by his fascination with loading docks, cargo ships, and shipping containers.

“I’m fascinated by the movement of items,” he says. “There are whole worlds in these containers—how they are packed, where they go, how many economic systems are involved in them. And they are made of polished stainless steel in these beautiful bright colors.”

Looking around at the shipping boxes that contain Wsol’s sculptures, I wonder what worlds and complex systems are hidden within. How would you define beauty? I ask him.

“I think . . . Well, beauty is strange,” he says.

Erika Knudson is a writer and client relations manager for the IU Office of Publications in Bloomington.