Metaphor unleashed

As a microscope can bring into focus a host of living creatures in a single drop of liquid, so modern art can bring about the discovery of unthought-of worlds in the most prosaic details of natural or man-made objects. In fact, many abstract artists have deliberately made their work as bland as possible because the discovery of something new and different about them would be much more amazing by contrast.

These artists do not want the viewer to ooohm and ahhm about the virtuosity of their techniques. They do not want to attract attention away from the chemistry in the work of art, the way different lines, shapes or materials interact when used together. Such an artist is Richard Fisher. The work pictured here is not sculpted from stone. Instead, its surface is covered with grains of sand still clinging to a plaster cast Richard Fisher took from a small section of beach at Plum Island, Massachusetts, between high and low tides.

Even though all the ripples in this piece are nature's handprint and not the artist's, you don't get the impression the artist is making fun of you or playing tricks on you. for one thing, the work is not displayed casually. It is part of a well-organized exhibition emphasizing solstatial alignments. This emphasis is reminiscent of primitive places of workship like Stonehenge. Then, too, the individual artwork looks too permanent to have been done thoughtlessly. Here the artist has intervened in nature rather than simply utilizing it as a source of inspiration for his sculpture. The ripples in this sand would have been washed out to sea in a couple of hours, perhaps made into new formations by people's feet long before that, if the artist had not preserved it.

This work makes us look at sand from a different position than we've been used to. We must face it standing up rather then kneeling or lying down. Somehow, looking at sand that way fixes permanently in the mind what we are prone to forget -- sand is not one uniform color. This particular stretch of sand is made up of beige, orange, and brown grains, mixed in varying proportions. The sparser brown flecks have been swept together so that they look like wispy drawings over the sand. Most people probably wouldn't remember patterns like this because when dry the sand would shift at a touch.

One would think that castings would make faithful copies of nature -- so literal that they might be considered the three-dimensional equivalents to mirror images. But like a mirror, a cast reverses everything. So the very literalness of the artist's technique transforms nature, for in this work of art the original depressions in the sand are turned into hills. Light reflects off these curves and grains of quartz in the sand, but not as evenly as it would outside. Light in the gallery is much more dramatic, brightly splashing certain areas, leaving others velvety black. (During a celebration of the spring equinox, the artist even had people bounce prismatic sunlight off the sand with mirrors.)

The patch of sand radically changes once a round frame has been placed over it. The wavy formations suddenly look heavier, as if they were pulled by gravity down to the bottom of a round container. Or the sand looks as if it had been pushed into wrinkled mountain ranges by the sea. Through this use of the frame, the artist has made this quiet little section of the beach into a metaphor for rather earthshaking natural forces. That such a small alteration by the artist could do so much suggests that the artist has cast himself in the role of the catalyst, unleashing a capacity for change embedded in the components of the artwork itself. Consequently, the awe the visitor feels is for the magical quality produced by the physical elements in the work, not for the perfection of the artist's technique.

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