I smiled when I entered Nicholas Metivier Gallery and saw James Carl’s Pneu (meaning “tire” in French). I know this object well. I know this thing like I knew Carl’s Styrofoam takeout containers carved from marble, so many years ago. It’s a reassuring place to begin contemplating an artwork and an exhibition, and it’s no accident that it greets viewers at the front door. Carl understands the implications of these decisions—the shapes, scale, materials, installation devices— and he plays with familiarity and “knowing.” Sometimes, as with Pneu, he encourages our comfortable footing with his selection of such a quotidian shape. Carved from Kilkenny marble, black stone from Ireland with fossil flecks that look uncannily like white paint spatters, Pneu’s matte surface perfectly mimics rubber. I want to touch it, test its pliancy, but I know there will be no give. Carl is known to flip materials from soft to hard, transient to lasting, humble to elevated and in this case, from buoyant to weighty. Pneu also means “breath” from the Greek pneuma—an apt title for an inner tube sculpted to have just the right amount of deflation—it appears to be about half full. (I’m smiling again as I’m reminded of a difference of opinion regarding Carl’s early graphic image of a half-full glass. My colleague insisted it was half empty.) Much of Carl’s work is concerned with volumes—what is there and what isn’t there—emptiness and fullness, lightness and heft. The lowly inner tube—it hides in plain sight, yet it is essential. And it relies completely on a measure of air. Carl removes its functionality—it would literally sink like a stone (another smile)—and asks us to consider its perfectly satisfying form and what makes it indispensable and disposable all at once. Advances in computer mapping and marble cutting assist Carl in realizing a rough torus shape. Weeks and months of honing and polishing by hand forge the transformation from stone to believable stand-in for rubber. Pneu rests on a wood pallet as an inner tube might in the corner of a garage, but this pallet-plinth is elegantly crafted from hemlock, salvaged from his brother’s barn. Adding this personal material sparks an extra layer of warmth that, combined with Carl’s painstaking attention, transforms Pneu into something both poignant and remarkable.
The comfort I gained from my associations with the inner tube gives way as I move into the main gallery. Five energetic, disparate shapes sit atop plinths, all angles and bulges. Perhaps they are familiar shapes to some, but they are mysterious to me. The surfaces are detailed, containing clues like seams, ridges and indentations faithfully rendered in pale stone. They are each called Reservoir, indicating that they are typologies— different versions of the same thing. In fact, they are windshield washer bladders from different makes of cars—the titles include this information in parentheses (’97 DeVille, ’98 Venture). When extracted from a 2000 Neon, for example, a shape that would be seen only from above when the hood is open proves to be irregular and bulbous, with a nozzle that resembles an elephant’s trunk extending upward and another attaching it to its base. This object was designed to facilitate liquid in and liquid out, not a sexy job but a valuable one. It was never intended to be examined from all sides as a discrete object; it was made to squeeze in amongst all the other car parts, like an organ in the human body. It has such an eccentric shape that it seems barely designed at all, an afterthought. If it was meant to stay hidden and do its job, Carl has released it, exquisitely rendered it in marble, giving us the opportunity to have a surprise encounter with an object on which we rely but barely know. The variety among the five sculptures leads one to believe that there must be an endless array of whimsical shapes. Formally, the Reservoirs feel a kinship to Carl’s previous body of sculpture that employed weaving Venetian blinds into biomorphic shapes suggesting torsos, limbs and protuberant vessels. Those shapes were defined by what the technique and materials could do in Carl’s hands, and he was freed from capturing the likeness or essence of any recognizable subject. If that body of work felt like a tangent away from replicating commonplace subjects like the inner tube and takeout container, the Reservoirs bring those unusual yet elegant volumes back into the fold. While the Reservoirs are indeed a faithful representation of a thing in the world, their shapes are so weird and wild that ideas of abstraction, hiding and humour make me think and then smile on the way home. ❚
“Conformity” was exhibited at Nicholas Metivier Gallery, Toronto, from April 29, 2023, to May 19, 2023.
Pamela Meredith is a Toronto-based independent curator and advisor. Previously she had a monthly art column in IN Magazine.
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