Martin Kline

Stainless Steel Painting

Historically, sculpture has been addressed in two ways, either three-dimensionally or in relief. In the first instance it attends to the materiality of its medium as it exists in three-dimensional space, in the second, as it explores pictorial illusion. It is not difficult to understand why these two approaches are antithetical. Three-dimensional sculpture works spatially, in the round, while relief, like painting, invites an essentially frontal visual assessment. This complex dialogue between freestanding sculpture and sculpture in relief is at the core of Martin Kline’s latest works in stainless steel, where each approach responds to the other.

As with much of the artist’s work, these sculptures are about the reciprocity between order and chance. Kline’s stainless steel sculptures address this relentlessly. At first sight, one is struck by the seemingly haphazard armatures that support the main body of the sculpture. This tree-like skeletal structure of sprues, gates, and essential casting pipes, has its own formal language of preformed elements. Undulating rods, bars, cups, are fused together in a functional relationship to insure successful casting at the foundry. This gating system is necessary, one element needs the other, yet they do not appear to belong together. Whatever formal or structural logic they have is due to their various roles in casting the objects, as channels spewing forth molten metal or as escape valves releasing pressure and scorching air. Thick and crude, their sturdy legs and outstretched braces offer solid footing for the shimmering surfaces they served to create. They orient the viewer by revealing aspects of the foundry process and they often orient the work itself by establishing the direction of its surface patterns and the height at which the finished reliefs are presented for viewing. Yet our confidence in the logic of the armature fades as it becomes clear that this casting carcass has been sometimes inverted, turned upside down, where the roadmap of the casting process has lost its gravitational direction, its ruling force, and with this, its logical syntax. Through this inversion, the pouring cups, once open mouths feeding the shell molds of the reliefs with molten steel from above, are now solid bases that support the reliefs from below. A definite tension develops between these cast elements, the panels and stretched canvases, the flat surfaces which are the “subject” of the sculptures, and the seemingly illogical appendages, residual elements of an umbilical armature that might otherwise be waste. Salvaging waste, coincidentally, assumes an important role in Kline’s recent oilstick on canvas works.

Although vitally important to the finished sculpture, the armature structures are secondary to the cast objects they support. The eye, seeking visual order, reverts to what is obviously the central element of these sculptures, the cast planes in the shapes of squares, rectangles, ovals and circles, the geometric fertile ground from which the elegant reliefs arise. Walking around certain sculptures or peering under them reveals the support and structure of traditional painted canvases, stretchers and corner braces. But in a breech of conventional logic where stretched canvases hang on a wall, Kline’s marriage of relief to armature is an allusion to a painting on an easel. These panels, formerly encaustic paintings apprehended pictorially, now burnt out in the foundry’s inferno, the memory of their former incarnation preserved in stainless steel relief, are wedded to the armature through which they arose becoming sculpture in the round.

In their new state these surfaces seem at times to bleed matter, such as Stainless Square Painting from Above, where the relief oozes from the surface, as though expunged from within. The most protruding relief elements are highly polished, creating a disorienting surface of changing light, color, and form as one moves about them. In Large Stainless Square Relief, a bloom of shiny beads swirl upon the planar surface like drops of water on a mirror. These deftly crafted mercury-like surfaces frustrate any concrete reading of depth. Their illusionistic qualities compete and call attention to the sculptures’ opposite feature, the impenetrability of the surface. In Stainless Steel Bloom, the pouring cup rises from the floor, hoisting the tiny panel upward, as if sprouting from the earth and reaching for light.

The Great Nipple Wreck of 2000 directly addresses the dichotomy of relief and sculpture in the round. Vast pools of the work’s surface have vanished. The plane is both a void and a presence. Its pierced surface exposes the axial support bars of the canvas’s stretcher and behind them the various rods of the casting armature. It is a harrowing work, admitting to the fallibility of the casting process. By having access to the full dimension of the sculpture through these apertures, one witnesses the surrender of the illusionistic mask of sculptural relief to the structural underpinnings of the three-dimensional object. It is through this accidental portal that the story of the sculpture’s making is revealed.