A Constructor of Contexts and Situations

IF the sculpture of Catalan artist Susana Solano were described with simple, factual accuracy, it might sound forbidding, anonymous, or unexpressive. Many of her works might seem little more than rectilinear constructions of steel, glass, plastic, and lead, put together for some unknown function. Viewers might even question whether these sculptures are art.

The purpose of these pieces as large objects might be puzzling. They would seem to be constructions along the lines of such unpretentious and unnoticed structures as those scattered in railroad storage areas or encountered in factories or offices; they might be concocted to fulfill various functions such as disposal of waste, collection of raw materials, or for security, enclosure, or exclusion. Or they might be encountered on the flat roofs of high-rises, encasing heating or air-conditioning equipment. Solano uses industrial materials and has a special penchant for different kinds of mesh - for fencing or caging through which you can look but past which you cannot walk.

Such material is not in the least exceptional or surprising in itself. It is not even unusual as a means for making sculpture; sculpture fabricated from standard factory-made parts and substances has a longish history in 20th-century art. It links art with the ordinariness of the urban and the industrial and has helped to rescue sculpture from the traditionalism of such materials as bronze or marble. It has made sculpture more accessible to common experience and less a set-apart symbol of civic pride, or

heroics, or fame.

But Solano is not so much a maker of objects as a constructor of contexts and situations. Her sculpture is enigmatic. It acts on the feelings of people quite unexpectedly.

In the catalog of the Solano exhibition currently on tour in Europe, Teresa Blanch writes of "the damp images" of this sculptor's mind, which "comfort and yet perturb our unconscious existence with their imposing presence." This may seem an overstated response, but it does actually describe the kind of experience these structures convey. To analyze too closely why they are moving and stir feelings would probably be counterproductive.

But these works contain a paradox of the "less is more" variety. It is as if the artist is endeavoring to make an art form with minimal content or meaning, and with more empty space in it than positive mass or volume, and the more she tries to do this, the more expressive of some sort of shared emotion her works seem to be.

Solano herself has touched on this in a recent statement: "My ideal space is a single space, with no history, which I can fall in love with; a space I do not know, an atmosphere of thought. I would like now to concentrate on a life where there is nothing and to work with as little as possible."

It has been pointed out more than once that Solano's sculpture bears some relation to the Minimal Art of the 1960s and '70s. This tendency (rather than a movement as such), which took many forms, was an investigation of the ungestural, the dispassionate, the impersonal, and the simple as a reaction against the gestural, passionate, personal, and complex art that Abstract Expressionism represented.

ABSTRACT Expressionism, of course, was a term that covered some extremely reduced art, the paintings of Barnett Newman or Mark Rothko, for instance; but the Minimalists seemed to be looking for a materialistic objectivity, and perhaps an avoidance of feelings mysteriously contained within the art object.

Mystery seemed to be the last thing on their minds. Minimal sculpture, when it first appeared, seemed to be more to do with absence than definite presence, even though some of it was architectural in scale and thus not exactly absent in a physical, space-filling sense.

Solano's sculpture, which she began to make only in 1979, may appear initially to be this kind of Minimalism. Often larger than its observers, it, too, can be architectural in scale. And the quotation above suggests that her conscious aims have much in common with the reductive character of Minimalism - a lack of history, an emptiness, a "single space" (as opposed to a composition of balances and interrelations): All have a latter-day whiff of Minimal Art.

And yet, Solano's sculpture engages emotion and does not seem materialistic. It is full of hidden meanings, strangely rich - in spite of its nonart, nonopulent materials - in its mix of the familiar and the unfamiliar, of the unappealing and the appealing. It seems both warm and cool. On the one hand, it is almost fiercely "public"; on the other, it's intensely private. It is guarded - yet inexplicably inviting. Unlike some earlier steel sculpture - Anthony Caro's in the '60s, for example, the steel elem ents in Solano's work are not used to make every part of the sculpture open to view, or not solely for that reason. They are also used as barriers and to contain and hide.

HER sculpture can sometimes also be remarkably beautiful. Some of the heavy sheets of steel she uses have unusual or noticeable markings, like stains or fluids that have run over their surfaces and dried, leaving a permanent trace, like a dark shadow or a variation in color. These unintentionally beautiful characteristics, like interventions of nature on the surface of the man-made, act in counterpoint to the basic flatness and dullness of the steel. Perhaps they are signs of "comfort" in an otherwise di spassionate setting; and yet there are other such signs, too.

The forms or objects contained within the cages or enclosures that many of her works appear to be are not necessarily entrapped. They may be protected, like a nut within a shell. Some of the sculptures have what amount to roofs, again suggesting protection or even home. Many have recesses to which the "viewer" (surely the wrong word in the case of Solano's work) is not allowed access. You are simply not allowed sufficient approach or cannot maneuver into a position that makes it possible to see inside so me secretive space. This is amusing and annoying, as well as intriguing.

Solano is not one to indulge in too much explanation. If she makes statements, they tend to be rather fragmentary, a little epigrammatic. On "art and life," for example, she has such things to say as: "Today's art does not distance itself from the concerns of other times. Its form of expression is the only thing that changes."

In this way, Solano declares herself not at all a "formalist," concerned first and foremost with sculptural form, relationships, horizontality, and so on. Form takes second place to the same art concerns of other times: Such concerns were the expression of sacred meanings or the honoring of cultural beliefs.

In the case of a Catalan artist, one may well assume that this means such things as life and death, hatred and love.

"Art," she further states, "is nostalgia, reflection, and intellectualized ecstasy."

This is hardly a Minimalist speaking!

But Solano is not at all an Expressionist either. Emotion is contained rather than overt and dramatic. Nature is approached in her work - as in "El Fuente" for instance, which is like a bridge and a waterfall - not through imitation or obvious reference, but through the brutal yet authentic analogy of the urban and industrial.

`INSIGNIFICANT things attract me," she has written in another spurt of her "memoirs" - as she calls her statements. The insignificant is that which has lost or has never been invested with meaning or importance. It may also be that which is deliberately kept secret.

Secrecy as a concept seems to come as close to the heart of Solano's art as anything. "Beauty arises from secret, not necessarily beautiful memories," she says. And it arises in her sculpture from a quiet introversion, a privacy of feeling, even, which can apparently be communicated or enjoyed best when it is least vulnerable to our invasions. It must be kept away from us for its own safety. But does this mean that it is also held captive?

The ambiguity of Solano's art provides no answer to that mystery. That is the nature of ambiguity.

* 'Susana Solano,' an exhibit of the artist's sculpture, is on a European tour and will next be on the Centre National d'Art Contemporain, in Grenoble, France, from Sept. 11 to Oct. 31.

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