In 2000, Charles Fahlen returned to the San Francisco Bay Area, where he was born and raised, after thirty-three years in Philadelphia, where he had become one of the city’s best known artists.
The return home after a long journey has an archetypal significance for artists, who are known to revisit their early life and work. In the 1940s and 1950s Georgio de Chirico famously went overboard and painted a series of lonely colonnades indistinguishable from those he produced as a youth during World War I.
Fahlen’s work is allusive and metaphorical. He himself is not that literal. So the homecoming took a different form. Philadelphia is a dense city with more than enough ambient light to obscure the night sky. It was only during road trip back to California, when he and his family camped out at night, that Fahlen remembers seeing the stars with clarity.
“The sky felt like a totally different place,” said Fahlen in a recent interview at his home along the Russian River, just north of San Francisco. “It’s a kind of presence here that wasn’t the case in Philadelphia.”1
If this were a Spielberg film we would cue the child, the skateboard, the aliens. The plot would teach us how the magic of the cosmos reveals itself only to the very young and the very old. The rest are too busy at work, fighting with their spouses or going to the hardware store to see it. But since this is a Charles Fahlen production we’ll dispense with the B-movie sense of wonder and just go to the hardware store.
Fahlen’s sculpture can be read on many levels but ultimately it privileges its own materials and production process as a point of reference over everything else. The 1973 Wawona Series, for example, is a collection of abstract sculptures whose title refers to a homesteaded area in Yosemite Park where Fahlen often stayed as a child and whose primal forms resemble the ceremonial objects of a lost Native American tribe. But it is the adventurous choice of materials — resin, latex, gauze, Sculptmetal, copper foil, roof cement, wire, Rhoplex, asbestos cement — and the craft in repurposing them by hand into sculpture that really stands out and which can be used as a guide to investigating his practice.
In this sense Fahlen is a product of his generation. He came to maturity in the wake of artists like Eva Hesse, Lynda Benglis and Richard Serra, who pioneered what some critics called anti-form, others process art, and which Lucy Lippard memorably named eccentric abstraction. Those artists had a number of goals in mind. One was a desire to further break down the object so it could be less easily commodified; another was to lay open and demystify the production process. They were completely unsuccessful with the first goal but critics thought much more so with the second. While the residue of these pursuits is present in Fahlen’s work, his path toward empirically based art had more to do with close encounters in his own neighborhood. In order to have a studio with room enough to work, Fahlen renovated old houses in the inner city of Philadelphia. He got to know the neighborhoods where contractors buy their materials. It’s perhaps too much to call him a flaneur of those “quirky Mary Poppins stores”2 where he rummaged through the “light industry leftovers,”3 but he was definitely inspired by them and took advantage of the technical expertise. One fabricator he visited had been crimping wire for over one hundred years.
“It’s not that I was unaware of Joseph Beuys,” said Fahlen, when asked about his use of felt in a 1970 series of sculptures. “It’s just the place that sold it was right behind the school where I taught.”4
Robert Smithson’s non-site sculptures of rock-filled bins were designed to take you out of the gallery and over to some obscure place, often a demolition site in outer New Jersey, where he was from. Fahlen’s sculptures essentially do the same thing, they just don’t explicitly announce it. They map a quarter of Philadelphia, some of it now gone, in the way that Joseph Cornell’s collages and box constructions map the lost world of New York City’s second-hand book shops and thrift stores. And, as a record of his specific perambulations, they recast sculpture as an experience of place. British artist Richard Long, who formalized the connection between walking and object-making, theorized in a 2001 personal statement what Fahlen merely did by intuition:
“Walking enabled me to extend the boundaries of sculpture, which now had the potential to be de-constructed in the space and time of walking long distances,” wrote Long. “Sculpture could now be about place as well as material and form.”5
If the materials connect Fahlen’s work to a specific time and place, their journey in the studio from utilitarian product to aesthetic object testify to the artist as alchemist. When we consider their original intention — to make things faster, to keep things from leaking, to help engineer what used to be called progress — their redeployment in quirky objects with a mysterious subtext destabilizes a comfortable situation and leaves us wondering about ourselves as both creators and consumers. Can we say that Fahlen is investigating the secret life of materials, giving voice to their latent desires and ambitions in the way the detectives on Homicide, the Baltimore-based cop show, used to say it was their job to "speak for the dead"? And in that sense are they then a mirror for the role of the artist, who, in theory at least, gets to act out on the collective fantasies of the population at large constricted by regular work?
“Technology and progress can be double crossed,” wrote Fahlen in 1976. “Processed industrial materials are sidetracked by the artist as magician who reinvents the relationship of materials and shrouds the implications of their transformation in mystery while the product itself is still clear. Both ends reveal a fantasy about ourselves as makers (creators, manipulators and controllers) of an environment and destiny for objects calculated to better the world.”6
In the Diptychs, a series of open-faced book sculptures each one made from a different combination of Fahlen’s typical materials, the artist substitutes the raw working matter for text, cueing us to see the material itself as the narrative or discourse. Anything but a dull read, he is here literally going outside his sculpture practice to comment on the centrality of material in it. Cracker Jack, a five-panel accordion-shaped folder with each a single material, bumps it up one notch and presents the materials as though they were so many pages in a menu. Like many of Fahlen’s sculptures from the period, it is named after a mass-produced item. In this case, the candy is both an analogy for the materials in the sculpture and a symbol for the child-like pleasure of making and enjoying the work.
Cracker Jack illlustrates Fahlen’s recurring tactic is to link a highfalutin aspiration, fine art with a feature of low culture, processed candy. We can see how this interrelation works in the realm of the spirit. The West has typically ventured East for enlightenment. The urge has been to smear the local as benign. Fahlen’s denaturing of high-tech, consumer material reverses that paradigm. Like the ready-mades of Duchamp, it suggests that we can find a plenitude of meaning in the diurnal and utilitarian.
The 1979 White Cloud is a perplexing architectural form composed of wood fibers, resin and fiberglass. The work glows with mystery and falls tantalizingly short of actually being a lampshade. Bereft of utility, however, the material becomes the occasion for a more intense experience of its own properties, thus generating an anxiety-provoking sense of freedom that takes it into the realm of the existential. There is a scene in My Dinner with Andre, in which playwright Wallace Shawn gives voice to this philosophical inversion in response to the outrageous tales of exotic wisdom gained by his friend, Andre Gregory, the avant-garde theatrical director.
“Why do we require a trip to Mount Everest in order to be able to perceive one moment of reality?” asks Shawn. “Is Mount Everest more real than New York? I think if you could become fully aware of what existed in the cigar store next door to this restaurant, it would blow your brains out.”7
Fahlen’s never made a sculpture that directly referenced Mount Everest, but over the years he has cited landscape monuments with mythic properties closer to home. One is Dirty Devil, a tributary of the Colorado River where Butch Cassidy was known to hide out from the law; another is Colter’s Hell, a Geyser field in Wyoming, felicitously named after the French fur trapper who passed through there. Both sculptures abstract the landscape forms and shrink them down to body size. The 1991 Dirty Devil further toys with scale by doubling as a giant camping cup that telescopes, something Fahlen used on Boy Scout trips. The relationships of body to landscape and high art to consumer culture are complicated through the intersection of form and personal memory, a dialectic which recurs with success throughout Fahlen’s career. In Colter’s Hell, a 1991 installation at the ICA in Philadelphia, Fahlen recreated the geyser field and then littered it with detritus he cast in concrete, points not only at the way we substitute our mythic idea of the landscape for the real one — if there is such a thing — but that we pollute the hell out of it too.
“[Fahlen’s] sculptural alembic echoes the transmutation of the west from a divine land — pre-exploration — to a monument to divinity — the period of western expansion — to a park for divine monuments,” wrote Patrick Murphy. “Perhaps the industrial language of minimalism [employed by Fahlen] offers the most appropriate means of commentary on this sequence of the mythical reduction of landscape to tourist industry.”8
The most recent body of work, executed since Fahlen returned to California, moves from landscape to skyscape, taking us back to where we started. Drawing inspiration from the starry night, Fahlen presents the universe on both the grandest and the humblest scale. From his old trick bag of materials, he uses chain link, crimped wire, painted spheres of epoxy and various other staples of the hardware store to fashion miniature surrogates of the cosmos. These constructivist wall sculptures flatten three-dimensional space into two, and sag with an existential shrug where a computer model would map with Newtonian precision.
As depictions of the cosmos they are no longer that dark wall in the Platonic cave onto which we project our fears and dreams. Intentionally grounded, we can now look at them face to face as equals. Positive and negative have been reversed: What was black sky is now white wall and what were glowing white orbs are now palpable, earthy objects. Some of the constructions look like oversized jewelry; others resemble toys and pedagogical models for children, things that have always inspired the artist. Nothing feels forced or pretentious.
“I think about Pick Up Sticks and Connect the Dots,” said Fahlen. “It’s a hands-on thing. Whereas constellations and the celestial array are a hands-off experience. In general, ideas are sort of hands off. Hands-on is the actual building or playing the game or manipulating the elements in the game.”9
Fahlen has also referred to "...crab traps, Tinker Toys, Woolworth's, unfinished furniture, creative playthings, Barbarella, how-to books, and pictures of samples."10 as things that inspired him. It’s tempting to think of him in the studio as a Gepetto-like figure, breathing life into inanimate objects with a toymaker’s delight. However, by specifically focusing on the heavens at this emeritus point in his career, he seems to be daring us to up the ante from artist as toymaker to artist as god.
In the 2007 Prophecies of More, a pun on Fahlen’s old school, he makes this analogy explicit. However it’s anything but a reference to the omnipotence of the artist. True, this tiny universe of Bauhaus color and contoured grid conjures up the magnetic fields of Enlightenment science and the primary colors of twentieth century utopian aesthetics, but it’s totally without the dogma of high Modernism. It’s a self-effacing, empirical world of bricolage, craft, irregularity and play. The portrait of the artist reflected in its glow is not some Apollonian magician loaned to us from Mount Olympus. Fahlen is what Sid Sachs dubbed him in a 1990 essay, the “handyman minimalist,”11 that resourceful guy who shows up at the door with a toolbox, high spirits, and a bottomless well of keen tactics who will impishly cobble together a universe for you with whatever’s ready to hand.
What we are left to ponder, in conclusion, are the thoughts and intentions of the god behind these mini-universes, given their foreboding titles: Dark Side, Calamities, Sky Quake, Pandemonium, Foretelling Floods. Is Fahlen looking through a lens darkly at his own mortality, or can we read these home depot solar systems as an escape from or an antidote to a nation in the political dumps, dangerously burning up its own resources? Fahlen lives now, after all in Northern California, the heart of America’s eco-consciousness and he has an original Buckminster Fuller Geodesic dome on his land! When accused of playing god, Steve Martin, a neurosurgeon in The Man With Two Brains, yells back: “Somebody has to!”12 Lets just say that Charles Fahlen is an artist doing what he can to construct counter worlds that humbly contradict the one we’re living in today.
Steven Wolf Fine Arts
49 Geary Street, Suite 411
San Francisco, CA 94108
Gallery now located at:
2747 19th Street
San Francisco, CA 94110
San Francisco native Charles Fahlen spent much of his career in Philadelphia before returning to the Bay Area in 2000. The first ever overview of his work on the West Coast can be seen at Steven Wolfe Fine Arts. It brings to light a sculptor of keen aesthetic intuition, resourcefulness and unpredictability.
Fahlen works with readily available materials: wire and cable, wood, paint, cement, metal fittings from the hardware store. His pieces share a property common to much three-dimensional art, such as the sculpture of Eva Hesse (1936-1970) and John Duff, produced in New York at the turn of the 1970s: It strikes the viewer as an interruption. But of what? Of the unselfconscious processing of everyday experience through conditioned expectations and cliches of understanding.
Fahlen's Cracker Jack (1975) has this quality in spades. It takes the form of five panels, hinged along their vertical edges, hanging like a partially open folding screen across a wall at medicine-cabinet level. It may bring to mind the Pop furniture of Richard Artschwager or some of David Ireland's works with cement, as it incorporates panels coated with cement and papier mache. Cracker Jack looks designed to conceal something, though it serves only to display itself. That such an object can evoke confidence and lucid, if not communicative, intent on the artist's part will come as a surprise, and perhaps as a cause of resistance, to many viewers. Nearly everything in Fahlen's show has these qualities.
Calamities (2008) suggests some awful retro wall hanging, but a closer look discovers a hard-to-decipher complexity: a three-layered lattice of looped, braided wire studded with little colored spheres of cast epoxy. Something of the spirit of the science classroom conceptual model figures in this piece, combined with the air of a game designed to baffle the uninitiated. Perhaps, thinking back to his '60s roots, Fahlen had in mind Hermann Hesse's novel The Glass-Bead Game (1943), in which some people today find a vision foreshadowing the internet.
Fahlen brings such high-flown associations back to earth, though, by his work's do-it-yourself level fabrication. The odd and very individual integrity of Fahlen's pieces makes them hard to place in time. Just look through his show and try to peg the pieces' dates before checking the object list. Surprises guaranteed.
Finding figures in the night sky is one of humankind's first creative acts. Looking up into a limitless chaos of tiny, moving lights and enveloping darkness, the Greeks, for instance, found familiar heroes and their antagonists: Orion, Taurus, Pegasus. Charles Fahlen’s recent work doesn't find mythical beasts in the heavens, but it does share astronomy’s — and mythology’s — basic impulse: addressing a seemingly fundamental cosmic disorder. The title of Fahlen's Consolation #1, for example, evokes not just the word “constellation,” but also the comfort to be had in discerning people and animals in fathomless intergalactic space. There is, though, nothing melancholy about it. As with most of Fahlen’s new work, solace takes the form of unhindered free play. In this relatively small work (it is approximately three feet square), primary-colored glass balls of various sizes are strung on stainless steel cable that hangs loosely from three points, to make a loopy, necklace-like form. That the stars are our galaxy’s jewels is one implication. But the relatively big, simple, bright-colored balls, and their apparent (but illusory) mobility, also suggest a connection to a popular children’s toy, in which bright wooden balls can be sent careening around a maze made of rigid loops of heavy wire. It’s a well-established inclination for Fahlen; in a 1973 statement,1 he cited Tinker Toys and Creative Playthings among many everyday sources for his work, though their influence has seldom been as clear as it is now.
If Fahlen’s work negotiates myth, narrative, and observation, and if it proposes points of connection between two, three and even four-dimensional phenomena, it is also resolutely dedicated to the quotidian. Sometimes, it features casts or replicas of golf balls and billiard balls, fishing floats and marbles. Toy stores and hardware catalogues are among Fahlen's major supply sources. In an untitled sculpture, a loose grid of fine-gauge stainless steel chains forms a network in which a few dozen assorted round forms are caught. The increments of this relatively big grid — it is 96-inch square — become narrower toward the center, creating the illusion that it curves inward along two axes, a lightly indicated spatial warping that hints at the nearly incomprehensible things physicists have shown deep space to do. But the various round objects that irregularly mark the grid's junctures are as workaday materially (they are made of milled wood and cast epoxy) as they are familiar from their association to favorite American pastimes. The linear arabesque of bronze wire rope strung with small, bead-like brass balls in Pandemonium is more delicate and graceful, though again the title emphasizes its more unruly aspects: skewed orbits, latent energy and the active possibility of serious mayhem. Similarly, both the composition and the titles of Stranger Matter, Out of the Blue, Rumpus, and Unexplained Mysteries, with their scatterings of solid-colored and striped balls, loopy chains, and fractured grids, reflect cheerful acceptance of cosmic disorder.
The round-headed, metal-handled forms that propel themselves across the regular grid of Signs in the Sky suggest nothing so much as xylophone hammers, striking up the music of the spheres (though Fahlen says he was thinking, rather, of a skyful of comets). Music seems to be a reference, too in Hullabaloo, where bright-colored wood and metal balls each support a metal ring that circles it like a loose-fitting collar. Hung in an irregular pattern on the wall, these isolated color notes suggest the musical score of some bright, clear-toned melody. Slightly more raucous is the jangly Foretelling Floods, a scallop-edged curtain made of stainless-steel beaded chain that is hung with green, orange and yellow wooden balls of various sizes, some of them quite large. Down home as a hootenanny, or the beaded curtain-door of some 19th-century saloon, Foretelling Floods is brazen but also oddly delicate, the chains falling in precise measure, and the balls hung with a certain demure poise. Despite this work's Wild West overtones, its title, like several others, comes from a book about strange sightings and puzzling physical occurrences that caught Fahlen's fancy. Called Unexplained, the book describes celestial events that were once believed to foretell various natural phenomena: then as now, the distinction between reading signs and inventing them was difficult to draw.
Whether charting local noises or distant galaxies, Fahlen's current work engages the issues that have long made mapping a peculiarly fruitful metaphor for art — that is, for the impulse to find, or impose, visual order on a decidedly messy sensorium. Jasper Johns' map paintings are the textbook example of the kind of image that works both as a depiction and an example of its subject — a visual composition that is both a picture and a tool. In the catalogue for a 1994 exhibition called Mapping, Robert Storr wrote:
"The particular opportunities maps provide visual artists — and their special appeal to modern sensibilities — result from their being the ultimate pictorial coincidence of exacting representation and total abstraction.”2
In other words, maps, and the art that follows from them, both show and tell. Among the artists Storr included in his show was Heide Fasnacht, who in work closely related to Fahlen's has imagined the stars as lumps of dense matter separated by coiled springs. Russell Crotty has represented the night sky in ways that resolve its dimensionless vastness to the finite volumes of surface and line, in his case with ballpoint pen drawings that he sometimes wraps around suspended globes. Both, like Fahlen, have found in the stars a generative ambiguity, a fluid relationship between line, surface, and shape, that is hard to come by on the ground. “As the unplotted world shrinks, there is ever less room for free geographic reverie,” Storr observed.3
Fahlen's attraction to territory, cosmic or terrestrial, that exceeds standard measurement is longstanding. Brought up in San Francisco, he often visited his grandparents in the Phoenix area; family trips included regular excursions to Yosemite National Park. The vastness of the Western landscape — matched only by the limitlessness of the sky above it — made an indelible impression, sustained by more than fifteen cross-country trips undertaken in the years since he left the West Coast. After living for more than three decades in Philadelphia, where (as in any major city) the night sky is deeply compromised by artificial light, Fahlen recently moved back West, to rural northern California. It is hard not to connect changes in his work with the impact of that move, though they were anticipated by sculptures made earlier, including especially floorbound work from the early 1990s that drew from topographical forms, and, subsequently, the beginnings of the constellation series themselves. The use of castings from found objects in the current work was also anticipated in previous sculpture, notably in a 1991 installation at Philadelphia's Institute of Contemporary Art called Colter's Hell. There, objects found mostly on the street, including castaway toys, lawn ornaments, footwear, and holiday decorations, suggested the extensive pollution of the contemporary urban landscape, stood for litter left by early tourists at Yellowstone National Park, as described in a 1807 account by John Colter (whence this work's title). The title honors John Colter, a trapper and guide who was the first white man to discover the wonders of what was to become Yellowstone Park.
In addition to early impressions taken from the landscape, Fahlen's career has been marked by his entry to the art world at a moment when Postminimalism was ascendant. Funky things suspended from grids appeared in Fahlen's work by the early 1970s — for instance, the gathered sheets of felt and latex sheets suspended from a wooden lattice in Untitled (1972) — and have recurred since, as in the fragments of granite hung on a stainless steel armature in Halfdome (1990). The former, especially, suggests the influence of the variously inflected grids found in the work of Eva Hesse, whom Fahlen admired early on. Indeed, manipulating the grid, taking advantage of its manifold ambiguities and susceptibilities, was a central gesture in Postminimalism. In a seminal 1978 article, Rosalind Krauss wrote:
"The grid's mythic power is that it makes us able to think we are dealing with materialism (or sometimes science, or logic) while at the same time it provides with a release into belief (or illusion, or fiction)."4
Twenty years later, Krauss collaborated with Yve-Alain Bois on an exhibition and book titled Formless: A User's Guide in which they explored an inimical mode of art-making in terms that are borrowed from Georges Bataille, but that also descend directly from Krauss' earlier formulations. Whatever resists the simple opticality, easy legibility, vertical orientation, and finitude of rationality — of Modernism — is formless; l'informe can also be characterized, in Bois' words, as: "Whatever does not lend itself to any metaphorical displacement, whatever does not allow itself to be in-formed."5 This not-quite-symmetrical polarity, between the rational grid and l'informe's resistance to reasoned order, is one way to map the field of Fahlen's work.
Other oppositions have been determinant, too: the demands for physical and symbolic stability made by permanent public art, which occupied Fahlen for many years, and the pleasures of (seeming) frailty and indeterminacy; the insouciant fun to be had in matching the trivial with the profound. Also, the pressures and rewards of urban life and academia (Fahlen taught for more than thirty years at the Moore College of Art), and the arguably deeper satisfactions of the countryside. And, not least, the formal oppositions of planar image and solid form, surface and space. "I was interested in thinking of the wall as sky,"6 he said of his recent work. When asked if he considers them sculpture, Fahlen hesitated, and then replied, "The beauty of living out here is that I don't have to talk about them — I don't call them anything at all."
600 Washington Square South
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Charles Fahlen: Unexplained Mysteries, Locks Gallery
ARTnews, December 2003
Review by Robin Rice
"Unexplained Mysteries," an exhibition of Charles Fahlen's playful yet formally elegant riffs on astronomical subject matter, featured spheres of varying sizes and materials attached to the wall. Fahlen uses metal to link his colorful orbs in different ways, though most here formed constellation-heel wire traces improbable calligraphic orbits; while in Out of the Blue (2002), seven striated cast-acrylic globes are suspended on a substantial swagged bead chain, using gravity to determine the form of the piece. Both Out of the Blue and Pandemonium (1997), in which handsome brass beads are threaded onto bronze wire rope, could be objects of Brobdingnagian jewelry, collapsed cats' cradles, or star charts.
The more modular Hullabaloo (1997) invited interaction in spite of a certain stasis at odds with its name. Croquet-size balls of red, orange, green, blue, and yellow were amounted on the wall, each encircled by a free-hanging ring of heavy, zinc-plated brass. Were we intended to grab a brass ring as we passed? Or were the bright balls targets in a carnivalesque game of ring toss?
Fahlen extemporizes with symmetry and patterning, deliberately confounding expectations. Unexplained Mysteries (2002), one of the most effective works in the series, is a net of interlinked hexagons and pentagons. Its bottom edge resolves into a lacy grid of rectangles, again invoking the relationship of diagram and ornament.
Charles Fahlen: Unexplained Mysteries, Locks Gallery — The Art of Physics: Charles Fahlen's Sculptures Try To Make Sense of the Cosmos
Philadelphia City Paper, September 5–October 11, 2003
Review by Susan Hagen
One of the biggest shortcomings of the modern world is the lack of visual images that express and give definition to our current understanding of the cosmos. (By contrast, the pre-Newtonian earth surrounded by celestial spheres was as easy to visually demonstrate as a set of Russian nesting dolls!) Charles Fahlen seems to be pondering this problem in a group of zippy formalist sculptures made of colorful balls and large-scale hardware that is now on display at Locks Gallery.
Fahlen, who taught from 1967 to 2000 at Moore College of Art and Design in Philadelphia and since then has resided in Northern California, has always had active and wide-ranging interests as a sculptor. Children's construction toys, the American landscape and trash are just a few of the many sources of inspiration for his work. He has always worked on several distinct bodies of work concurrently — among them prints, indoor wall and floor sculptures, large-scale outdoor sculptures and site-specific works with environmental concerns — and the eight sculptures in the show represent a single formal inquiry that Fahlen has pursued intermittently from 1989 to 2003. They're inspired by ideas in contemporary astronomy and physics — expressed through formalist studies in a terse language of everyday objects and materials. Many of the sculptures remind me of the demonstrations of physics principles using multicolored Super Balls, tennis balls and other toys and paraphernalia given by Mr. Pagel, my favorite high school teacher.
Chiron (1994), a wall sculpture made of half-inch stainless steel rods welded end-to-end into a continuous looping structure, is named for a large comet discovered in 1977. The metal frame is about 6 feet wide and 3 feet tall and is strung with oversize lathe-turned wooden beads that have been painted or stained in bright, rich colors. The metal loops arch gracefully, but with the mechanic precision and tidiness of atomic particles. Also built on a stationary metal structure, Voyager (1989) was formed out of an undulating oval mesh of half-inch steel rods that have been pristinely welded and buffed. In the concave center of the structure a large black wooden ball is nestled, as if to explain the relationship between matter and energy in a simplified visual form. Another piece, Hullabaloo (1989), is made of precisely placed colored wooden balls, with a ring of metal hanging on each one like an oversize nonfunctional drawer pull, and is installed on a huge expanse of white wall. This piece could function as a flamboyant geometry lesson, illustrating the placement of points on the coordinate plane, but it also suggests a display of newly discovered particles or planets.
In the later pieces, Fahlen continues the astrophysics theme without the rigid framework of the early pieces. Unexplained Mysteries (2003) is a roughly rectangular net made of stainless steel chain hung with brightly striped epoxy balls, like a cast of characters from quantum mechanics. Out of the Blue (2002) is even more loosely structured, consisting of a long looping stainless steel bead chain hung from six points on the wall. Each downward loop of the chain is strung with a cast resin epoxy ball, uniquely colored and striped and textured, which pulls it lower and straighter — like a down-to-earth demonstration of the complicated new physics theories of super-symmetry and string theory. These sculptures are both about affiliations and contingencies; their malleable formal structures organize a set of components that are always connected and move or remain stationary in relation to each other. Fahlen seems to be wryly suggesting that the notion of relativity is the only definite thing in the universe we live in.
While our current scientific understanding of the universe is so complex that a single visual image could never give the whole picture, it's encouraging to see a determined artist like Chuck Fahlen succeed so well in giving visual representation to so many fascinating ideas about the physical components and forces in the universe.
Terra Incognita: The Recent Sculpture of Charles Fahlen
July 18-September 15, 1991
Catalogue Introduction by Patrick T. Murphy
Monument. The word arises constantly when considering the work of Charles Fahlen. He uses it in reference to his own pieces, for the forms of his work are extrapolated from natural monuments. Although the term "natural monuments" seems oxymoronic, in American argot it has often been applied to the natural landscape, particularly in the descriptions and naming of the American West early nineteenth century explorers.
Here, monument assumes its two main qualities, commemoration and scale. The early expeditions encountered a vast and rich land whose geological features were unknown to them. This was "God's own country," an epic landscape in which form and scale bore no relation to Western man or his civilization. The structures of Monument Valley led some of these adventurers to believe that nature alone could not be responsible, so the landscape itself became the evidence of, or monument to, the existence of a higher order. As the myth of the frontier grew, the bounty and capacity of the territories were synonymous with the biblical land of milk and honey. The western expanses were the new covenant; the notion of land was linked inextricably to religious belief.
The twentieth century has seen the violation and redetermination of the symbolic dynamism of land in the American psyche. Now the most impressive areas of wilderness have been parceled and preserved as memorial to a landscape that once was monumental. The national park system can offer a simulacrum of the discovery experience to any tourist. Within their controlled boundaries, the epic can purport to exist; form and scale remain — but in the custody of rangers.
In this atmosphere, Charles Fahlen spent his formative years. Annual family pilgrimages to Yosemite, Yellowstone, Monument Valley, and other parts of the Western states encouraged his abiding interest in nature and the literature of exploration. Later, as a young artist, he confronted the problem of how to make art out of his own experience when the contemporary discourse was limited to a reacting against the stricture of Greenbergian theory. Initially, Smithson pointed the way with his dialectical approach to the exterior and interior presentation of landscape. Joel Shapiro's austere manipulation of scale also interested him. Using the idiom of minimalism, Fahlen began to make small self-contained objects. The material (industrial) and process (fabrication) are the only components of minimalism that Fahlen utilizes. He rejected the programmatic progression to strict objecthood in favor of a more poetic, metaphorical sculpture.
The forms of his recent sculpture arise from the spectacular geological features of the West. Fahlen extracts the underlying geometry of a particular feature to produce a skeletal notation of its form. Robbed of its mass, Fahlen then decreases its scale to reference the human body. This sculptural alimbic echoes the transmutation of the West from a divine land — pre-exploration — to a monument to divinity — the period of Western expansion — to a park for divine monuments. Perhaps the industrial language of minimalism offers the most appropriate means of commentary on this sequence of the mythical reduction of landscape to tourist industry.
Within these dimensions diminished monuments, Fahlen carries out a sophisticated formal play with materials. Two, three, sometimes more materials are mixed in the construction of the pieces to produce inventive and idiosyncratic combinations. These juxtapositions serve to strengthen the incongruity of the natural forms he mimics, like the outrageous hoodoos that seem posed in a comical balance, acknowledging gravity while defying it. Added to this playfulness are visual puns based on childhood objects. The punching-bag clown, the cartoon telescope, the spinning top, the collapsible camping cup, all take the previous reduction of scale and turn it on its head into giganticism. This formal slapstick heightens the poignancy of the cultural and personal loss addressed in the pieces. Fahlen's position may be existential, his modernism late, but there is nothing belated about his practice. The pertinence lies in his compelling articulation of the atrophy affecting a major metaphor of this society.
Stephen Westfall cogently places the implications of this body of work within both the nature-culture discourse and the larger arena of nineteenth-century romanticism and twentieth-century modernism. We are grateful to him for his critical study of Fahlen's work. John B. Jackson has long been writing and conjecturing about the reality and myth of the American landscape. His afterword contextualizes the concerns of the artist and invites us to begin our own speculation on the dynamic and evolution of that myth.
I wish to thank the lenders to this exhibition for parting so generously with the artist's work. Beatrice Fulton, who worked on all aspects of the exhibition, helped considerably in bringing our efforts to fruition. Roy Goodman, of the American Philosophical Society, kindly directed us in our examination of early books on Western exploration. William Rumley assisted the artist in the creation of Colters Hell; we are appreciative of his cooperation and expertise. This series of exhibitions has been supported by the Dietrich Foundation. We are grateful for its continued encouragement. We also wish to thank the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the National Endowment for the Arts and the Institute of Museum Services for their support of ICA and its programs.
Charles Fahlen is the recipient of our greatest appreciation. His enthusiasm and commitment to this project has been an inspiration to all involved.
Institute of Contemporary Art, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
University of Pennsylvania
118 S. 36th St.
Philadelphia, PA 19104-3289
Terra Incognita: The Recent Sculpture of Charles Fahlen
July 18-September 15, 1991
Catalogue Essay by Stephen Westfall
Charles Fahlen is a sculptor whose art assumes the infusion of referential content into the forms of geometric abstraction. His pursuit of memories and associations beyond the self-referentiality of abstract essences has returned him to our culture of images, shaping a poetic sensibility as thematically complex as it is formally elegant. Metaphor is strongly at work in the calibrated simplicity of his forms, and it is clear that some kind of nature-culture discourse is being proposed. Fragments of forms acquired from culture and inspired by the striking natural features of the landscape of the American West are touchstones for reverie in his imagery. Fahlen's reverie takes him inside and out — to a recovery of his own history through evocations of the history of certain acculturated sites, along with homages to the New World myth of the frontier.
Tales of exploration and travel enthralled Fahlen as a boy, and continue to fascinate him to this day. His family took early trips by car from San Francisco to visit his grandparents in Arizona, and made regular visits to Yosemite National Park where they had a vacation home in a homesteaded square mile in the Wawona section. In Yosemite, Fahlen witnessed the now-discontinued spectacle of the firefall, a bed of red-hot coals that camp rangers pushed off one of the towering granite cliffs at the end of the evening's tales of nature and Indian lore. The landscape of Fahlen's childhood is illuminated by such powerful images and forms. The spilling glow of the firefall is echoed by the splash of a cave lantern across stalactites and stalagmites, the buttes and spires of Monument Valley, and the natural sandstone bridges in Arches National Park.
An awareness of the power and appeal of art had long been present in Fahlen's family. His father's doodlings of imaginary animals in multi-colored inks are hilarious; alarmingly detailed hybrids of fish, birds, and insects, many with human expressions, go far beyond idle sketching, recalling the hallucinatory and satirical drawings of James Ensor. Fahlen's grandfather, in Arizona, was quite a respectable painter in a Southwest Barbizon style.
It is curious that when Fahlen himself chose to become an artist, he veered emphatically in the direction of sculpture. Perhaps, in spite of the vivid presence of a familial pictorial tradition, his childhood was even more abundant with powerful apprehensions of sculptural form. In the distance, there loomed the stark and suggestive forms of natural monuments, not least the myriad hoodoos, the strangely anthropomorphic, stacked rock forms that dot the terrain at the Southwest. Close at hand were the intimate massiveness and visible mechanics of camp furniture, the richness of texture and everyday objects lying about his grandparents' residence, and loopy statuary mannequins advertising roadside America. These experiences are not unique to Fahlen's boyhood, but he appears to have been extraordinarily open to their sensuous impact.
Another major source of Fahlen's imagery is his avid reading on the history of exploration. Much of his imagery evokes a conception of a frontier or refers directly to the forms of navigational and astronomical instruments. The terms of exploration, of course, have changed dramatically in the last century. The closing of the territorial frontier barely preceded the first tentative mappings of the unconscious and the systems of structural anthropology. Exploration continues to mean "to discover" to a child, for whom a trip by car is a voyage of discovery. To an adult, however, exploration more often means "to uncover." The physical frontier has been replaced by multiple frontiers of textual and psychological dimensions. We step into a new place and are aware that it is new only to us. We are cognizant of the cultures that precede us and the culture we carry. Fahlen's indoor and outdoor work traverses the pursuit and recovery of personal and social history, and it does so through the forms of a textually enriched abstraction.
Fahlen's art divides into indoor and outdoor sculpture and more architecturally dispersed site-oriented work that uncovers and responds to the history of place. A new, large-scale indoor piece, Colter's Hell, combines elements of both. A look at the closed single-form pieces, which represent his core practice, indicates that his abstraction extrapolates from both the natural world and from culture. Sometimes his forms are de- and re-contextualized fragments of his source image; on other occasions, they are projections into geometric simplification and abstraction. Quite often, these routes to a finished sculpture will overlap since they are not antithetical to each other. Fahlen's work shares with Bryan Hunt, Phoebe Adams, R.M. Fisher, Robert Lobe, and Judith Shea, among others, a sculptural relation to New Image painting.
New Image painting isolated and emblematized fragments of recognizable subjects, presenting them with a geometric clarity that heightened the apprehension of the shape-value of the surrounding "negative" space. New Image sculpture, for want of a better term, enacts a similar sequence of perceptions in real space. Fahlen's sculpture usually cuts a sharply articulated silhouette in space as it works back to geometric form from its empathic source. Pearly Gate, (1987) and Betatakin, (1987), although inspired by the stalactites and stalagmites of underground caves, have "evolved" to the pure geometries of the cone, cylinder, and pyramid fabricated out of industrial materials, namely various types of treated steel. Part of the process of each piece is Fahlen's negotiation of the transition from comparatively unruly natural form to the crystalline realm of geometric classification and cultural production.
It is difficult to determine why this movement from source to abstraction should feel so poignant in Fahlen's work. A certain poignancy is a prevailing mood among New Imagists, who impose abstraction on representational imagery through isolation and lay siege to our confidence in scale. One is aware in this work of a hypersensitivity to the consequences of aesthetic classification, the analytical denaturalization of experience away from its incantatory, sensorial primacy. The corollary, in regard to scale, is felt when the monumental sublime is collapsed to human scale. Human scale, in turn, is further diminished or rendered comic. One way to read Fahlen's indoor sculpture is as theatrical devices or props; it is hard to resist the impulse to try on one of his cones as a dunce cap or, noting the alchemy of an aesthetic transformation, as a wizard's hat.
Fahlen's abstraction urbanizes the primal natural forms of his past, making us aware that this act of retrieval is not accomplished without a sense of loss. The power of such form may have best been described by Wordsworth. In the first book of The Prelude, he reminisces about a boyhood theft of a small boat for an evening's joyride on a mountain lake. He turns back in fear, though, when the mountains, and one pinnacle in particular,
"Towered up between me and the stars, and still,
For so it seemed, with purpose of its own
And measured motion like a living thing,
Strode after me."
He returns the boat to it's mooring,
"And there through the meadows homeward went, in grave
And serious mood; but after I had seen
That spectacle, for many days, my brain
Worked with a dim and undetermined sense
Of unknown modes of being; o'er my thoughts
There hung a darkness, call it solitude
Or blank desertion. No familiar shapes
Remained, no pleasant images of trees,
Of sea or sky, no colors of green fields;
But huge and mighty forms, that do not live
Like living men, moved slowly through the mind
By day, and were a trouble to my dreams."
To bring such forms indoors, to domesticate and abstract them, is the necessary beginning of liberation from certain fears and the inauguration of a new and more complex level of play.
Fahlen's Half Dome, (1990) comically miniaturizes and schematicizes the most famous of Yosemite's mighty cliffs. On the face of the gridded scaffolding that holds the shape of the Half Dome, Fahlen has fixed small hunks of granite, like notes on a musical staff. Half Dome is a monolith, one of the largest in the world. Fahlen has rendered its silhouette and contradicted its mass with an open framework that segments and frames volumes of air. Granite chunks, which are posted on the coordinates of the grid, "represent" granite and configure an image of precariousness. The piece diagrams its empathic source, a mountain presence grand and brooding enough to trouble the dreams of such Wordsworthian visionaries as Muir and Bierstadt, and, by diagramming, enacts the transition from the world of appearances to the diagrammatic model in Western art that begins with cubism.
"The metaphorical model of cubism is the diagram: the diagram being visible, symbolic representation of invisible processes, forces, structures, a diagram eschews certain aspects of appearances: but these too will be treated symbolically as sign, not as imitation or re-creation."1
If the closed skin and massive solidity of the actual Half Dome is perforated by volumes of air in Fahlen's sculpture, that is part of the aesthetic pleasure of the diagrammatic image that explodes linear constructs so that information may pass around and through the open spaces.
The diagram becomes the paradigmatic image of the sign — that praxis where trajectories of information and interpretation intersect, overlap, and change course. The diagram is hardly the exclusive means of representing sign. "The Empire of Sign" is everywhere; we drift into it.
"The pleasure of the text is not necessarily of a triumphant, heroic, muscular type. No need to throw out one's chest. My pleasure can very well take the form of a drift. Drifting occurs whenever I do not respect the whole, and whenever, by dint of seeming driven about my language's illusions, seductions, and intimidations, like a cork on the waves, I remain motionless, pivoting on the intractable bliss that binds me to the text (to the world)."2
Any form may enter this domain, set in motion, perhaps, by the gentle push of a title. Kayenta, (1987) is the title of a Fahlen sculpture; it refers to a trading-post junction east of the Grand Canyon and south of Monument Valley. There is a low-slung, rustic desert lodge in Kayenta where George Herriman, the creator of Krazy Kat, spent time. There's an unmistakable cartoon jauntiness to the stacked telescope form of Fahlen's sculpture, and one recalls that Krazy Kat characters are forever spying on one another with telescopes; indeed, the telescope is one of the standard anticipatory devices of cartoons. The telescope takes the eye to the far horizon (and in the desert that can be a considerable distance), but Fahlen's form is standing upright, lens to the ground. In this configuration, it resembles a cockeyed building or one of the hoodoos that offers feeble concealment and marks distance in Krazy Kat's surreal terrain. Fahlen's sculpture is a point of departure for a leisurely interrelation of scale and cultural location. The delicate scale of a hand-held navigational instrument is transposed onto the monumental scale of natural rock formations, finding a common ground in the human scale of the actual piece, where the costume or stage-prop association is acutely felt. Kayenta allows the mind to move between low culture and high, nature and culture, comic-strip narrative and the lonely forms that haunt the imagination of the American West.
The American imagination has always been driven by, and into, its open spaces. Beyond the vibrant nineteenth-century practice of landscape painting, led by Cole, Moran, and Bierstadt, among others, it is important to note the overwhelming influence of nature and the symbolist spirit of natural forms in the art of the first American abstractionists — Dove, Hartley, Marin, and O'Keefe. Robert Rosenblum established a compelling link between abstract expressionism and the northern European romantic tradition of landscape painting exemplified by Casper David Friedrich, and it seems plausible that the sense of scale and open space in the abstract paintings of Pollock, Still, Rothko, and Newman could have occurred only in post-World War II America, where hope was still reified as boundless space. A dialectically cooler and more industrially merged vision of extension propelled the endlessly repeatable forms of minimalism.
New Image painting and sculpture does not shut down extension but shifts the frontier from the physical plane to the textual, while retaining romantic vestiges of presence. It is not an art driven to an end, even if a sense of limitations is one of its formal and thematic tropes. Instead of an art of comic diminishment and melancholy detachment, it is now apprehensible as an art of drift, of reverie. In The Psychoanalysis of Fire, Gaston Bachelard contrasts reverie with dreams:
"This reverie is more or less centered upon one object. The dream proceeds on its way in linear fashion, forgetting its original path as it hastens along. The reverie works in a star pattern. It returns to its center to shoot out new beams."3
The object provoking the reverie may also be a subject, an idea. New Image painters may induce the reverie that leads them to an object through a free-floating contemplation of the nature of figure-ground relationships. One of the aims of art — itself a product in large part of reverie — is to induce reverie.
Fahlen's Dirty Devil, (1988) takes its concentric form from a collapsible drinking cup, the kind one takes along when traveling or camping. The sculpture is named for one of the last tributary rivers to run into the Colorado River as it makes its way through the Grand Canyon. The interior of the sculpture — a cutaway view of a segmented shell sloping upward and outward like a canyon wall — is a recognizable exaggeration of the shape of a dam. A cup becomes canyon wall and gigantic dam; in the actual presence of the sculpture, all associations are joined in the evoked scale of the human figure. As on Bachelard's description of reverie, Dirty Devil dispatches our thoughts in radial directions so that they may return ultimately to deposit fresh layers of interpretation.
The image of the dam in Dirty Devil raises particularly intriguing issues of the psychosocial content of the American landscape. Dams have fueled population growth and recreational development in the West; in doing so, they have flooded some of the most spectacular wilderness in the country. The air pollution from the power station at Lake Powell and the build-up of silt in the Colorado River threaten the ecological stability of the entire Grand Canyon. The damming of the Hetch Hetchy River, in California, erased a valley held by John Muir to be as beautiful as Yosemite. The dam becomes a metaphor for the erosion of nature by man. Yosemite itself has become an overcrowded amusement park on the valley floor. A backpacker cannot cast eyes across the wildest stretch of territory without seeing a power line or a jet trail.
One of the unmistakable messages of Fahlen's sculpture is that the primal, boundless territory of nature — an imaginative cultural construct of nineteenth-century romanticism or a powerfully shaping experience from our own childhood — is at a close.
And it is appropriate that the drama of its passing should be enacted in the Tombstone Territory of the American West, which held the last great promise for a settleable territorial frontier to the Western mind. We know that at various times in history the European imagination was inspired to reverie by the contemplation of its medieval and classical ruins. The only really commparable ruins in America are the cliff dwellings in the Southwest (the sculpture Betatakin is named for one of them). The American landscape itself is a ruin, both in physical fact and the metaphoric power of its shadowed, crumbling grandeur.
The most recent installation by Fahlen is a large-scale scatter piece entitled Colter's Hell, which serves as a meditation on our memory, ruin, and displacement of the natural landscape. This installation has its thematic genesis in the Lewis and Clark diary Fahlen read over a year ago. He came across references to John Colter's then-unverified discovery, in 1807, of the volcanic and geyser-laced region of what was to become Yellowstone National Park. Colter was a trapper, guide, and member of the Lewis and Clark expedition, but he couldn't write. Consequently, secondhand accounts of his own explorations did not reach print until decades later. The region became known derisively, among disbelieving fellow trappers, as Colter's Hell, although the Indians had told Clark about "a place where the earth trembled and frequent noises like thunder were heard, a place where their children could not sleep, a region possessed of spirits averse to the approach of man."4
Fahlen's rendering of Colter's Hell is not quite so tumultuous, but reverie never really is, even when inspired by tumult. He mixes water and stone by distributing warmly pigmented castings of kitschy items and recreational detritus — everything from gnomic lawn ornaments to cycle helmets — around circular fountains cast in fiberglass. Although a definite scatter aesthetic pervades the work, Fahlen's penchant for geometric organization is immediately apprehensible as a structuring backbone. The circular water basins are arranged in a quadrant so that circles and squares become a dominant feature of the piece. A non-geometric formal element binding together the disparate forms is the color of the concrete castings. The colors are richly tonal; as each seems to contain some of the others within itself, a uniting atmospheric fog envelops them all.
The castings recall both the great fossil fish that Colter reported seeing on his journey and the hoodoos that the Indians believed were also possessed by spirits. There is something vaguely totemic about the castings, but life and intentionality flicker in Fahlen's forms in a different way than they might in a moonlit hoodoo, church gargoyle, or tribal totem. It is possible to find a washed-out, consumer-directed animism in the exaggerated winsomeness of the cartoon expressions worn by some of Fahlen's castings, or a body-active use value implied by those forms sprung from recreational tools.
These implications are categorical ghosts of the incantatory power of presence once invested in the natural and cultural forms they evoke. Fahlen's work is haunted not only by the ruins of landscape but also by the ruins of belief; perhaps they are in some way inextricable from each other. And yet, the ruins about us are always more pertinent, more vital as ruins than the unworkable or abandoned wholes they represent. Through their cultivated fragments, we reawaken to the power of forms to inspire reverie and the power of reverie to regenerate wonder.
The art of Dorothy Cross and Charles Fahlen might suggest a new definition for the term "site specific," which is properly used to identify art created for the particular location where it is exhibited or installed. For sculptors Cross and Fahlen, who currently have individual shows at the Institute of Contemporary Art (ICA), specific sites are the point of origination or inspiration. In fact, if you aren't somewhat familiar with the sites represented formally and conceptually by the artists, you will miss part of their otherwise dissimilar work.
People often describe Philadelphian Chuck Fahlen as a minimalist. His sculpture would seem to fit that classification: the simple geometrical shapes he uses are beautiful and satisfying without reference to representation. But Fahlen is, in fact, a sculptor of landscape subjects. He wants us to experience in his art specific references to the Western and Southwestern landscape which he visited frequently as a child.
From a strictly formal perspective, Betatakin, an inverted cone of rotating truncated pyramids balanced on a rounded cone of steel, is pretty exciting: squared angles are opposed to regular curves; spiraling motion is centered on a stable monolith; and softly rusted steel is contrasted with flat zinc plating.
But there's more. Stalagmites and stalactites are suggested, as is the kind of collapsible cup that campers use. The name Betatakin references a site of cliff dwellers' ruins, and the suave angled forms of the upper cone are evocative of those structures. In fact the whole work, if taken as a negative rather than a positive, could be viewed as a reverse image — almost a negative casting — of the canyon and cliffs of this ancient site.
In Half Dome, another reference to a landscape feature in Yosemite, Fahlen has suggested a solid rocky mass through an open silhouette. There's a touch of humor in the broken sheets of polished granite which are bolted onto a steel grid supported by curves. Those fragments of stone are mementos of the solid form; the sculpture is a ghost.
Colter's Hell reminds us in a more confrontational way that the natural beauties of our land — once inaccessible legends — are now public entertainments. The effect of tourism on the landscape is infinitely more profound and destructive than that of erosion. Colter's Hell is the largest work in the ICA show and the only one created especially for it. Unlike Fahlen's typical individual sculpture, this installation is crudely fabricated and aggressive. Colter was a member of the Lewis and Clark expedition and had seen the geysers of Yosemite. He was unable to write; so, like the Native Americans who described the region, his tales were not believed and the name "Colter's Hell" was bestowed on his myth.
Fahlen has made five "geysers": large fiberglass pools containing fountains on timers, which froth violently from time to time. The visitor may be slightly misted with the spray from an eruption. Fahlen has surrounded the fountains with chunks of colored "stone" cast from any object which might be suitable: rubber boots, watering cans, bleach bottles, garden gnome moulds, plastic garbage cans and washtubs. These lumpy objects suggest a rocky landscape, but they also suggest a landfill. The presence and sound of water is inevitably soothing in the cool concrete chamber of the gallery; but the scene which Fahlen has created is harsh and disturbing. It's like one of those facile engraved portraits of a pretty woman which suddenly reveals itself as a skull. What have we made of the landscape?
Chuck Fahlen's thoughtfully considered sculptures are constructed around recurrent sets of key formal and conceptual oppositions. In his terse quasi-geometric abstractions, subtle structural distortions and deliberate awkwardness are always coupled with extreme material refinement. The works function as self-contained entities that are also loci upon which converge a multitude of connotations and references from the vernacular to the sublime. Fahlen's art principally expresses a quintessentially American involvement with, even longing for, the monumental in nature and the heroic in art as it attempts to undermine their mystique and acknowledge their seemingly irrevocable loss. Such issues coalesce and expand in these new, thin-skinned and gleaming metal and wood structures. They are isolate, laconic presences of roughly human scale that appear primarily as fragments of architectural fantasies and follies or abstracted meditations on the landscape, particularly that of the Southwest, and the resultant ironies of its collision with man and his culture.
Much of Fahlen's formal vocabulary is initially predicated upon the natural world, but nature's irregularities have been submitted to the generalizing impulse of the mechanical and then further mediated by a metallic casing. Elephant's Feet, for example, in which a taller, open armature of mild steel houses a smaller version of the identical form sheathed in a skin of green patinated copper, is based upon the famous topographical formations of the same name in Monument Valley. Fahlen's stylized variant, however, also pays homage to George Herriman's Krazy Kat cartoons in which these same rocks make numerous caricatured appearances and recalls Claes Oldenburg's truncated London Knees of 1966-1968. A single work thus brings this artist's long-standing interest in both natural and man-made monuments into compact alignment. The sculpture's configuration also suggests some small, clumsy creature trapped in a zoo cage; its conical shapes likewise evoke the somewhat ominous silhouette of nuclear cooling towers. Such a confluence of associations prompts an inevitable interpretation of the work as a metaphor for nature miniaturized, tamed, and contained, imprisoned by the relentless encroachment of the technological. Elephant's Feet resonates with the melancholy of a built ruin.
Fahlen's somberness however is generally counter-balanced by a kind of wry visual wit. The animate Bozo typifies the playful side of his formal explorations as it embodies an increasingly confident sophistication in juxtaposing different materials within a single piece. (Fahlen is a connoisseur of the exquisite but he wants to move elegance towards parody, even perversity.) Here, a lead over aluminum ball is balanced upon an inverted stainless steel cone supported by a crenelated, four-tiered brass underskirt of tapering width. Such a work reverses sculpture's conventional figure/base relationship with the supporting structure assuming an exaggerated, almost mannerist importance in comparison to the object supported. This transposition of expectation has been another of Fahlen's consistent formal preoccupations. Bozo also presents the viewer with a representation of the world perched atop a pedestal, but the global reference is overtaken by more humorous similarities to a birthday party-hat or those standing punching bags which spring resolutely upright again following each blow. Is this a portrait of the artist as clown or a comment upon the artist's need for tenacity in the face of all obstacles?
The notion of grandeur occupies an ambivalent position in Fahlen's sculpture — in his work the toy-like will often reside within the monumental and the monumental will in turn be secreted within the toy. Dirty Devil, for example, named for a river that winds through Colorado into the Grand Canyon, was inspired by the telescoping form of a small collapsible metal drinking cup, only here enlarged and sliced through at an angle. The shining and precipitous enclosure — a schematized gorge — formed by this piece's smoothly curved contours and dangerous looking edges threatens to enfold the spectator in the sharp embrace of a stainless steel sarcophagus. Another fragmented structure, Dirty Devil positions itself as a reformulation of the Minimalist object that seeks to question its status and sculpture's relationship to a compromised tradition of formalist autonomy. While remaining cognizant of its allure, Fahlen works consistently to challenge the authoritarianism of strict geometry.
Fahlen has recently undertaken a series of wall pieces — celestial topographies in which space is formalized via the stylization of motion. In such works aerial grids alluding to longitudinal and latitudinal lines are intercepted by spherical masses seemingly arrested at ambiguous but dramatic instants of stasis. In Voyager, a stained poplar orb has impacted upon the center of an elongated, ovoid steel lattice. The globe appears transfixed at either a point of inward collision or as it is about to catapult outward again into space — two possibilities of movement are implied at once within a paradoxically still composition. Voyager's radial formation also provokes comparisons to a stylized flower or an abstracted eye. As is generally the cue with Fahlen's sculpture, numerous possibilities for meaning are concealed within the sparest of structures; this work could be read as conflating nature, the body, and the realm of the ethereal.
Ultimately, Voyager's title might stand as a symbolic encapsulation of Fahlen's overall enterprise and his concept of the artist's role as restless visionary. Akin to the early North American explorers or contemporary space shuttle astronauts, the artist travels, carefully observant, along a solitary, often uncharted route, pathfinder at the frontier of creativity. The modernist dream persists.
Lawrence Oliver Gallery
1617 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, Pennsylvania 10103
Chuck Fahlen's recent show offered a chance to see the more personal work of a prominent Philadelphia artist who has recently undertaken a number of public commissions. At the same time, this work exhibits the characteristics that have been factors in his success in the arena of public art: a neutral, self-effacing tone and look, bigness without pretension.
The seven large sculptures, comprising open gridded forms, orbs, cones, and cone sections, gleamed in a variety of metals well-suited to Fahlen's cool sensibility. As always, his work tugs in two directions: toward a sweeping grandeur, a scope beyond the personal; and toward a quiet, even private whimsy that seems aimed to cut the grandeur down to size. Here the two impulses began to separate into two distinct bodies of work.
In the first group, Fahlen reaches explicitly toward the heavens. Works titled Phobus, Deimos, and Voyager have been lifted off the floor to the walls. In each, an open, hemispheric grid, like a celestial map, supports a number of smooth, planetoid spheres. In Voyager, (1989) a single wood sphere pushes back into an ellipse-shaped stainless steel grid, like a ball into a tennis racket at the moment before its forceful propulsion outward. These works feel like artifacts of the Age of Reason, with its impassive Clockmaker in the sky who sets the stars and planets on their intricate paths.
This cool visual punning has long been a counterpoint to Fahlen's increasingly confident formal exploration. Although it may be intended as an invitation to complicity in an antiheroic reading of potentially monumental work, it often falls into private joking, the original emotion deflected and inaccessible. In contrast, the skyward-looking wall pieces, liberated from that undercutting element, feel stronger and promise new expansion in Fahlen's work.
New sculptures by Chuck Fahlen continue the artist's preoccupation with intentionally awkward sculptural form. First recognized in the early 70s for multi-textured soft sculptures whose humor derived from a lack of compositional logic, in recent years Fahlen has become a prominent figure in the public-art arena. With works like Major (1983), a 23-foot-high sculpture located in Philadelphia, he proved that shifts in scale, scope and locale are no obstacles to the potential for whimsy. In this work, a rising sequence of three interlocked gate formations, each a separate color and diminishing in scale upward, Fahlen memorably mocks the traditional triumphal arch.
Fahlen's recent exhibition placed him back in the gallery context. His ventures into public art have enabled him to expand and polish a repertoire that now includes steel, brass, copper and aluminum in a variety of surface treatments. In Natural Arch (1984), a work structurally related to Major, Fahlen achieves subtle distinctions of color between copper and steel, resulting in a downplay of irony in favor of grace. In this gigantic arch, composed of five metal slabs organized into a three-tier scheme, the top-heaviness of the uppermost unit goes almost unnoticed, overshadowed by lyrical color shifts and sensuously curving contours. The work is invitingly participatory, just tall enough for a person of average height to walk underneath it. As fine an example of formalist sculpture as exists today, Natural Arch was the exhibition's oddball piece, devoid of absurdities.
More typical of Fahlen's work are Magellan's Route (1985), Cook's Tour (1987), and Buster (1987). Contorted in form and metaphoric in content, these works are charmingly funny. Magellan's Route, a playful homage to the Portuguese explorer, is a linear, seemingly weightless sculpture, in which the legs of a topless table are incongruously hugged by a series of arcs. The latter, each a fragment of a globe's circumference and green in color, point in several directions, connoting the movement of the ocean as much as the course of a confused navigator. In Cook's Tour, also a tribute to a famed explorer, Fahlen parodies historical art forms. A giant ellipse shaped like the Constructivist heads of Gabor and Pevsner leans Praxitelean-style, on a pillar, dwarfing it.
However, it is Buster, (1987) the work least dependent upon iconographic literalness that succeeds as the most hilarious in the show. Both formally teasing and richly evocative of several possible storylines, this figural hybrid of the sculptures of Scott Burton and Joel Shapiro is caught between two vertical beams that are attached to a base, like the rabbit ears of a TV antenna. Although the figure is tightly compressed by the beams, the angular zig-zagging of its body suggests movement, as if it is squirming to escape its predicament. In Fahlen's hands, a rigid geometric form is made convincingly anthropomorphic.
Overall, Fahlen is most successful when working with two materials at a time, which permits him to capitalize on the interaction of contrasting colors and textures. Attempts to polarize shapes in works such as Balzac, (1985), and Hoodoo (1987), were thwarted by the pieces' monochrome, uniform surfaces.
Sculpture Evokes Landscape Forms,
Marian Locks Gallery, 1984
Philadelphia Inquirer, April 14, 1984
Review by Victoria Donohoe, Inquirer Art Critic
The success of Charles Fahlen as an artist stems from the fact that his style is perfectly attuned to his preoccupation for the topographical.
Often in his show at Marian Locks Gallery, 1524 Walnut Street, Fahlen seems preoccupied with those aspects of the man-made or natural landscape that are named after something they vaguely resemble. Thus his Turk's Head; though it suggests a turban-clad Turk, may also refer to a bay of that name. His Mexican Hat; with its flat, skewed, red shape atop an industrial tower suggests to me the apparatuses that are always alight with sky-high flames at the Marcus Hook oil refineries. Always there is an underlying sense of emotional ambiguity.
Even though the artist does not make his intentions clear, the pieces do have a mysterious beauty suggesting a private language quality.
Here Fahlen demonstrates more convincingly than ever before the viability of making objects that have meaning outside their own properties of color and texture. Gradually his abstract work is generating a larger number of references to things in our everyday world while managing to stay elusive and interesting. Fahlen cares very much, too, about the nature of meterials, and often combines unlikely ones for good use here such as steel, aluminum and paint.
When Fahlen went totally his own way as an artist, he chose to evolve an idiom corresponding in its form with the wry good humor and dogged enterprise with which he pursues his role as an artist-provocateur. This show, which runs to April 28, reinforces Fahlen's deserved reputation as a solid sculptor capable of a significant body of work.
American artists tend to love communal things, shared things, simple things. Charles Fahlen is one of those who loves these everyday things, or least he has been for the three years I have been aware of his work. His art combines an idiosyncratic formal characteristics (especially the skins of his sculptures) and a developing iconography. Formally, Fahlen goes for combinations of three — such as triangles or three-part works. In general, he employs whatever is symmetric, whether it be shape, positioning, or number. He is also intrigued with toys and dogs (he does have kids) but very simple, ordinary and common ones. No F.A.O. Schwarz or Bedlington terriers for him, but rather Tinker Toy amusements and mutts. For a recently awarded, outdoor commission for the Postal Workers' Building here, Fahlen will soon install Major, a 22-foot interlocking, triangular tower based on an old toy classic, Bill Ding.
Rovers is a two-part, two-thirds scale model of works executed for a month-long installation during April at Dag Hammarskjold Plaza in New York. The two dogs crouch on either side of the main entrance to the building, protecting and guarding. I wonder why dogs have been prevalent in contemporary art lately. Maybe they offer reassurance, stability, fond memories, or scintillating fears, and they are certainly communal.
Fahlen also offered a glimpse of his most recent development of content. He has arrived at another characteristically American theme, the "natural monument." Three large sculptures formed a group of them: Volcano Monument (Mt. St. Helens?), Whirlpool Monument, and River Monument. These are actually mock-ups of commissionable works which, Fahlen suggests, might be "situated in a private garden such as is typically found behind a Philadelphia row house."
Like so many other urbanites fascinated by the American landscape, Fahlen travels cross-country on the road back to his native California. And like so many others who are unimpressed by a 45-story apartment building but are awed by a mesa, Fahlen brings these impressions, though abstracted, back to his Philadelphia studio. His use of the word "monument" indicates his intention to venerate and preserve natural phenomena. This, too, seems quite American — sort of like Joni Mitchell's tree museum.
Charles Fahlen showed three types of works: drawings, wall pieces, and floor sculptures. The wall-mounted structures continued Fahlen’s themes from the early 70’s; visually they parallel cabinets, lattice works, decorative screens, and wall sconces without mimicking them. Many of these new works veer perilously close to decoupage in the impious decorativeness of their surfaces. However, this lushness of surface does not seem facetious in comparison to the work of Pattern and Decoration artist, whose vernacular sources are similar to Fahlen’s.
Fahlen’s drawings were from his Armstrong series. Collages of pigmented rhoplex, assembled into asphalt tile-size squares, they resemble jigsaw puzzles, composition board, tiles, as well as overall paintings, such as Dubuffet’s Texturologies.
The newest works are anti-monuments of animal imagery; they are either free-standing, with eccentric bases, or sliced in half vertically and positioned flush to the wall. The animals are bison, steers, horses — agrarian beasts of burden whose physical power is humorously underplayed by their diminutive size. The horses look like equestrian statues without leaders, work animals without plows. Time in these sculptures moves bi-directionally, back to a nostalgic simpler era and forward to the ambivalent anti-heroic present. The over-articulation of the bases satirizes the anti-base stance of recent sculpture and the towering plinths of city square monuments. The materials in these floor pieces are earthen-like bulk building materials. This architectural allusion contrasts with the plastic-y ambiance of the wall pieces. The two sculpture groups felt as different as a harrowed field and a formica table. Fahlen’s innate strength is his ability to deal with experiences as transient as a trophy and as timeless as a mastaba. His references are ambitious though ambiguous and open, capable of being read on various piecemeal levels like Barthes’ “readerly text.”
Materiality and objectness are the issues in the shaped collage wall reliefs of Charles Fahlen. the works seem to be closer to painting than they are to sculpture, insisting as they do on planes and silhouettes. In their play on the actual shape of the whole and the shape within, they resemble Stella's shaped canvases of the mid-to-late Sixties, and their eccentric geometric patterns are also closely related to abstract painting of the Sixties. All Together has a jigsaw grid something like Johns' flagstone paintings. Shapes are butted together, overlapped, or set one within the other, defining edges and solidarity of form. The main material is wood: natural wood, striped paneling, cracked wood board. Surface textures and patterns abound. The walls of the gallery become a panorama of floating, geometric form, intent on transmitting ideas of formal painting elements.
724 5th Avenue
New York City, New York
Art News, November 1978
Review by Barbara Zucker, New York Reviews
Fahlen's work deals with geometric segments meeting at curious, disquieting angles. The five large, well-made wall pieces in the main gallery are highly textural and explore the use of many materials: pegboard, masonite, pigment-impregnated composition board, as well as clear resin, formica, fake wood grain, plywood, felt and caulking. One of the circular forms has a hinged and opened door; the colored resin sections of All Together look like linoleum tiles; and the painted white masonite in another piece looks just like plaster. The odd thing is that few of the forms look like what they are — they seem to allude to something other than themselves, but it is difficult to know exactly to what. In sections of caulking and finished plywood the sensation is of a slate or bluestone patio, but the piece is on the wall, and it isn't slate even though it relates to surfaces associated with the ground.
In the second gallery space, Fahlen shows a menagerie of freestanding animals: chubby bulls, horses, a bison and a few rams — toys, actually, which have been fiberglassed over and unified with their eccentric bases to form individual monochromatic sculptures. The disjunction here is not between pure forms and eclectic textures (as in the abstract works), but between the small, realistic component of the animals and the tall, complex geometric forms on which they stand. However, these latter pieces seem less evolved and unconvincing in comparison to the wall pieces.
Charles Fahlen Exhibition,
Marian Locks Gallery, 1976
Catalogue Introduction by Marian Locks
If an aesthetic reflects the cultural environment from which it is derived, then I can deduce that an authentic work of art derives directly from the individual who makes it.
Chuck Fahlen is his art — his very physiognomy is tensile and yet unbending — his thinking is obtuse yet direct — his mentor cryptic yet naïve. His work is a blend of primitive and sophisticated materials so simple as to be disarming. He creates naked forms stripped of all pretension that permit light and shadow in creating a truly new and individual sculpture.
I am proud to be exhibiting his work and to have an infinitesimal share in his genius.
Marian Locks Gallery
1524 Walnut Street
Philadelphia, PA 19106
Charles Fahlen Exhibition,
Marian Locks Gallery, 1976
From a review in DOMUS, September 1975
Catalogue Introduction by Gregory Babcock
Fahlen’s sculptures reveal a judicious balance between contradiction and level-headedness. The artist manipulates geometric, minimalist shapes and surfaces that prove so awkward and unexpected that they seem almost embarrassing. The textures of his clumsy (at the same time strangely graceful) surfaces are overdone with glue, varnish and, in some cases, underdone to the point where they consist solely of chicken wire.
Fahlen has replaced the matter-of-factness of minimalist sculpture theory with a self-consciousness that turns into a provocative aesthetic energy. The jaded terms and elements of Fahlen’s design lexicon are daring because they are so hack. To find these flat, angular surfaces and objects-oriented, geoponic, designed things boldly declaring a naïve, almost primitive visual dialectic, is quite astonishing. In striking terms Fahlen has moved back to the earth, as it were. He is in the pre-steam era when nature commanded man and man dared not challenge nature. The work informs, in one way or another, that technology is doomed, that the landscape will bury the machine and human construction is far superior to the cybernetic one. His art is entirely in keeping with recent theory and philosophy of visual thought, yet it is so completely reactionary that it stands apart from mainstream, post-minimalist art.
Charles Fahlen Exhibition,
Marian Locks Gallery, 1976
(Excerpted from an unpublished essay)
Catalogue Introduction by Michael Findlay and Marian Locks
The sculptor Charles Fahlen revives the potent spirit of an expiring colloquial tongue, like James Joyce. His materials (papier-maché, galvanized wire, resin, fiberglass, roof cement, nuts and bolts, steel, wood, aluminum, cloth, cardboard, homosote, paint and felt) in themselves command little respect. They deserve his attention only by virtue of their easy availability as raw home craft and light industrial building materials found along the Delaware River waterfront in Philadelphia where he lives and works.
Fahlen's triangles, pyramids and spirals are redolent of minimal sculpture (and may indeed be the quite legitimate offspring) but they appear to have been subjected to a rather violent redefinition. Skinned alive and pared to the bare bones, these primary structures have been caustically revamped with all wounds bared. In an almost cubist manner we see at one time what the form has been, how it has changed and an indication of its predictable metamorphosis.
The latent ceremonial aspects of the work are strengthened by the appearance of forms not primordial perhaps but certainly archetypal. In 1974, the artist stated: "The problem is to build up from a floor or to build out from a wall or sometimes to build down to a floor or back to a wall. To construct fragments to close or part to mix with a wall or a floor by layering or embedding or suspending or balancing…" This he accomplishes in a group of recent works that assault the senses with, above all, their unerring fixity.
Fahlen does not gather nor add nor specify nor subtract. He builds. When Fahlen allows form and function to court each other he does it as a carpenter might, without fanfare, deprecatingly. Thus we see not only at but into and around the works and our reaction to them is unclouded by the witting devices (so often found in art today) that proclaim the artist's mastery of terms and paucity of imagination. His work addresses the environment in the summary fashion, albeit ciphered with sheer inklings and hatched innuendo. He is bracingly familiar with both the tangible and intangible substances of his daily and lifelong concerns. The potentially arcane personality of the work is deliberately redressed by the most commonplace acts of fabrication.
Charles Fahlen likes to collect objects. At his studio or in his home, you'll find bleeding hearts, icons, plastic animals and airplanes, and bottles of holy water. Also colored snakeskins, a dried hummingbird, a fetal pig in formaldehyde, and bones.
If you try to scrape away all your feelings about the objects — which range from the religious to the repulsive, from the beautiful to the ugly — and just contemplate the forms and textures, you fail. Somehow, the objects removed from life-uses still elicit very definite responses.
At the Peale Galleries, 1811 Chestnut Street, where Fahlen's sculpture, prints and drawings are on view through May 6th, there is a brochure by Fahlen describing the territory his work covers:
"Objects as fantasy, objects in the process of making, manufacturing, objects as an entity speaking of their own presence."
Fahlen's sculpture, all untitled, is intentionally crude or exquisitely crafted from anonymous, utilitarian materials such as vinyl, leather resin, tin plates, wire, cloth, latex, aluminum. But his work is really not about utility — or is it?
His objects are stripped to bare essentials. They survive because of their spareness. They need no frills, no decoration. Scaled to human (or furniture) sized, they confront the viewer and force him to move to or away from them — to examine the inside, the outside, the front and the back even when there is no back or inside.
His work, like the objects in his studio, are riddled with the contradictions and absurdities — as is life — that are at once humorous and serious, repulsive and entreating.
A flimsy vinyl sheet coated with latex, and perhaps backed by wires, looks gossamer but holds its shape and feels like leather.
An aluminum trap-like structure looks passive and safe like a cave but has the potential to trap and suffocate.
A rack-like object with pelt-like hangings leans against a wall sturdily, yet one push and it can come crashing down.
A cool material looks warm, a warm material looks cool. Wood turns to bone and resin becomes skin.
Fahlen's use of repetition and processes he uses in changing and manipulating materials builds up a visual foil between the way the object looks to the naked eye and they way it behaves or pretends to behave in its life span.
Fahlen, who is an assistant professor at Moore College of Art; is a very talented artist worth watching.
1811 Chestnut Street