NEW HAVEN — Has COVID-19 altered the direction of contemporary sculpture? Perhaps that’s a grandiose question. But all the works in Next Day Soup, Yale’s 2022 Sculpture Graduate Thesis Show, exude an enticing tactility. They are begging to be touched. After all the Zoom fatigue, social isolation, no-hugging rules, and gripping fears that have overshadowed the students’ MFA journeys, the comforting act of physical contact, and the relation between sculpture and touch, took on new resonances in the exhibition.
A massive peanut-shaped sculpture dominates one room in Yale’s Art Department building. Pap Souleye Fall named the work “The Reckoning — Fleet DP AA TR” (2022). The list of materials used to create the mega-peanut reads almost like a beat poem: “brown paper bag, clamps, wood, cement bag, plasteline clay, foam, matches, books, cfa, speaker, paper, Nerds candy, lemon, wood glue, flame retardant, shoes.” Actual peanut shells are strewn across the floor. A warning on the gallery door alerts individuals with nut allergies. The work invites viewers into the artistic game of mimicking a peanut shell’s uneven grooves with found objects and entices us to run our hands along the surface of this colossus. It’s a jolt of contrarian whimsy against the sleek, smooth digital aesthetic that dominates screen time.
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Cristóbal Gracia bends copper pipes into labyrinthine sculptures that cast intricate shadows. The jagged pipes that compose “Fragment of Baroque Totality” (2022) showcase hardware that typically remains hidden inside walls. Welding these pipes at high heat to contort them into hard geometric angles demanded a Herculean hands-on effort by the sculptor. The title refers to Mexico’s “ultrabaroque” style. In the colonial period, indigenous artists hybridized the intricate patterns of the Aztec tradition with the European baroque sensibility to create a visual culture of complex textures and elaborate patterns that lives outside the box of Eurocentrism.
On one of the gallery’s mezzanines, Riley Duncan recreates objects from public squares. They include a defunct thermometer from The Sun, a 19th-century New York City newspaper, an iron water pump from the 1854 cholera outbreak in South London, and a nylon rendering of a box truck’s roll gate. Duncan brings out the contradictions of these once-public things.
None of them live up to their democratic aspirations. The water pump was supposed to provide potable well water to poor Londoners, but instead became a vector for infecting them with cholera. The roll gate is the key piece of equipment used in farmers’ markets to deliver crates of fresh fruit and vegetables. But when a crazed driver is behind the wheel, it can be, and has been, weaponized during a collision to kill a protesting pedestrian in a public square. In the 1940s, The Sun sought to turn public opinion against FDR’s new deal and unions. Its egalitarian motto, “the Sun shines for all,” signified by the thermometer’s light, is lip service. Duncan’s mezzanine display isn’t about answers. It’s about these messy contradictions embedded in the objects.
Erik Nilson also explores contradictions in “When lighting struck the primordial soup and sparked all life” (2022). In this ironic allusion to the moment of creation, Nilson offers up a sludge that beckons us to dip our hand in it. This goo contains plant materials and sediment, dipped repeatedly in tar, imitating petrochemicals that humans misuse to harm the planet. A neon light fizzes with bubbles that interfere with its light, suggesting that some kind of alchemical process is underway. Not enough sculpture plays with sludge as form and concept. This allegorical sculpture draws attention to that sludge from which we are all said to originate, inviting viewers in with its tactility and confronting us with our dire ecological conditions. (Nilson’s other works on view are rich with visual puns as well.)
Pivoting from creation to apocalypse, Lucas Yasunaga creates a swarm of bugs from outdated logic chips, which he affixes to chainmail. Each day of this short show, he equipped the armor to reposition the chip-bugs, as well as his other sculptures. Computer chips underlie many of today’s threats — state surveillance, corporate data harvesting, identity theft, and hacking. Yasunaga ironically makes the bugs so look cute that you may almost want to pet them. A wicked sense of humor comes across in this sculptor’s work.
In Madame Bovary, Gustav Flaubert warns readers “Never touch your idols. The gilding will stick to your fingers.” This metaphor indicts Emma Bovary’s impulse to perceive others as idealized types, which inevitably lets her down when she discovers the imperfect personality behind her projections. Looking at this MFA show, there is a similar tension at play with sculptures that are begging to be touched but are not actually designed to be. The sensation of touching isn’t the point. It’s the yearning — heightened during quarantines — that lives on in these sculptures.
Next Day Soup, Yale’s 2022 MFA Sculpture Thesis Exhibition was on view at Yale School of Art Galleries (1156 Chapel Street, New Haven, Connecticut) from March 28-April 5.