When taken altogether, Nathan Mabry’s sculptural installations function as Menippean satire, that ill-defined genre that appears parodic, rhapsodic, satiric, burlesque — a flexible term for works both humorous and grotesque, referential and irreverent. If we reflect on the variety of ways in which notable works and historical movements are now generally alluded to or played upon, such a classification ought to be more often considered. And his two works at the Nasher Sculpture Center, part of their “Sightings” series, show us enough to justify this designation.
Of the two installations, “B-E-A-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E,” from Mabry’s Process Art series, best illustrates his “crashed aesthetic.” This aesthetic sets up a collision of the formal or traditional with and against the common and everyday, which, when successful, resolves as a wonderfully absurd instantiation of the rift between so-called “high” and “low” culture, or perhaps “classical” and “popular.” The artist “crashes” two of these elements (maybe more, but he prefers dichotomies) and experimentally plays them toward a new absurdly parodic narrative, one neither divorced nor exclusively reliant upon recognizing or comprehending its allusions. In this instance, Rodin’s “The Burghers of Calais” (1894-95) collides with large mascot masks to resolve in gorgeous bronzes that provoke laughter and mild awe. Reading the installation through the optic of Menippean satire here becomes useful to understanding this response. The work is not mere satire or parody eliciting a cheap laugh, it’s doing much more: The work honors and de-centers its iconic classical imagery by the same step with which it formally elevates its popular imagery without any conceptual exaggeration. A new dialogue arises in which you — smilingly mesmerized by the beautifully grotesque figures before you — find your imagination set loose to discover from what strange story have these stranger creatures crept… Of course it helps if you recognize the Rodin replicas or the oversized masks upon their heads as mascots, but knowing either isn’t necessary to enjoying or “getting” the work, which only serves to demonstrate just how compelling these collisions can be.
The other work offered, “Two Vessels (Unpacked),” though no less a display of craftsmanship, falls short of what the Process Art series can accomplish alone. Here Mabry has a millennia old Jalisco figure encounter modern minimalism (with a nearly indiscernible nod to a painting by Realist Gustave Courbet). This sculpture references and reinterprets the Pre-Columbian artifact handsomely through a thick, smooth modernism. And though this work might be vital to his crashed aesthetic taken altogether (read as post-modern satire), it does not seem as powerful or relevant on its own. It lacks the creative-reflective eductive possibilities of his other collisions. The cultural, historic and archeological importance of such artifactual referents — such as the Jalisco figure — will, we can presume, remain ever intact. When explored and crashed toward the aim of Mabry’s burlesque pastiche of the high and the common, however, their individual aesthetic power within the interpretive horizon of western visual art falls short of the iconic resonance of something Greek or Italian, of something by Rodin or Remington merged with something cartoonish or outlandish or ghastly. Simply put, though you’ll certainly admire its various qualities, you won’t experience the fantastic admixture of the visceral, the intellectual and the vulgar when you see this one (or ones like it elsewhere). There’s no rift made manifest — it is, rather, museum culture merged with other museum culture.
Certainly Brancusi, Moore and others before and after them have been inspired by Pre-Columbian or African or Tahitian works — for such artists, that something is thought “primitive,” “exotic” and “pure” is essential to its power to enthuse. Accordingly, such works, whether archaic or contemporary, necessarily influenced the trajectory of twentieth century western art. Yet, given Mabry’s crashing interest, in order for his works to find their own footing they need some other element to refer to or make use of. For as competent as they are, and perhaps even more than any conceptual or philosophical critique might posit, it is the purely aesthetic consideration that clearly indicates the problem: What has been crashed together is too similar formally to create a dynamic tension. The minimal planes and smooth contours of the thing, resting upon a geometrically stark Tony Smith playground (though it could easily have been a Judd construction), only finds its fullest powers within the fragmented satire, in which it offers an alternative perspective within the “narrative,” characteristic of both Mabry’s eclectically merged allusions and Menippean satire’s dance through various styles and perspectives. Read this way, any given chapter or movement’s capacity to fully instantiate something that simultaneously resonates and alienates — as “B-E-A-G-R-E-S-S-I-V-E” does — rests easily upon ingrained socio-historic images and icons, ones high, low and somewhere in between; “Two Vessels (Unpacked),” on the other hand, does not accomplish this and is consequently less impressive if taken out of dialogue with the other work. As a result these two works crash together wonderfully, but removed from such a context there is no guarantee of equality.
—Andy Amato, PhD
Andy Amato is a Dallas-based artist, writer and teacher
(This originally appeared in Arts+Culture Magazine)