Back to the Future

Sculptor Steven Thurston confronts issues of oppression by evoking the sins of the past.

Steven Thurston and Gary Wahl now on view at the Sculpture Center
"No. 5, Adamantine Series," by Steven Thurston, mixed media.
"No. 5, Adamantine Series," by Steven Thurston, mixed media.
Steven Thurston, the Ohio State University art professor whose compelling sculptures are now on view at the Sculpture Center, says that he is interested in exploring "the political ramifications of scale." By that, Thurston presumably means the tendency of totalitarian architecture to forget about human beings as it focuses on its task of glorifying the state.

Although small in number, Thurston's works dominate the show Steven Thurston and Gary Wahl. They are conceptually rich and visually provocative, and they bring up disturbing questions about architecture in totalitarian regimes.

In Nazi Germany, architects fashioned hypergrandiose buildings in front of which human beings looked like ants. This was by design. They wanted to pummel viewers into submission, to remind them that the state was powerful and they had better toe the line. Thurston re-creates this dynamic in his work so that we can confront these issues afresh. An oppressive government expresses itself not only in its laws and edicts, but also in its art. Indeed, as one views these meticulously constructed scale models, one shudders at the thought that such structures might one day be built. Thurston wants us to shudder. His creations are monumental, cleanly constructed, and totally devoid of feeling. Viewing them, one pictures Hitler in his Berlin bunker as the Russians approached, poring over scale models of the grandiose architectural projects that he hoped would be a part of the "Thousand-Year Reich."

As many observers of the contemporary art scene have discovered, those who touch on political themes in their art (whether implicitly, like Thurston, or explicitly like, say, Hans Haacke) are usually least effective when they paint with a broad brush. Hans Haacke's attack on Jesse Helms -- an oversized Marlboro cigarette box emblazoned not with the "Marlboro Country" tagline, but rather with one that reads "Jesse Helms Country" -- portrays the senator as a hypocritical buffoon. Social commentary aside, the piece is stale pop art with a political one-liner added. Art like this, which preaches to the converted, throws away an opportunity to persuade people to feel their way into a tough issue, to avoid a snap judgment, and in general, to step back for a moment and question what is going on.

Haacke is the antithesis of Thurston. Whereas Haacke will take current events and use them as the springboard for his art, Thurston is a historian who traces contemporary problems to their sources in the distant past. Thurston's chief influence in this show is, as he suggests in his statement, the output of 18th-century French architect Étienne-Louis L. Boullée. Boullée, a visionary who is known today for what historian Marvin Trachtenberg has termed his "unbuildable architectural visions," participated in the cultural housecleaning that took place just after the French Revolution. In place of the ornate late rococo style, architecture became stark, severe, and judiciously proportioned. All extravagance was gone, and new attention was paid to the most elementary shapes: cubes, cylinders, cones, and particularly the sphere. Boullée welcomed these new architectural priorities. Architecture stripped to its essences in this manner could, in his opinion, have a powerful effect on people's emotions. Since it transformed primary shapes that were familiar to every viewer, it would bypass a viewer's intellect and reach his emotions directly.

All the hallmarks of Boullée's style are found in the four Thurston pieces on display. Decoration is kept to a minimum. There is an emphasis on cylinders, cones, and spheres. Thurston arranges all these elements skillfully: Each of the constructions is airy and uncluttered. For example, in the piece from his "Adamantine Series," a sphere and a long rectangular base are the main features. It's a simple creation, and it is beautifully proportioned.

But the simplicity is just a veneer. Although there is something heroic about all this -- the precisely calibrated proportions, the absence of any decorative elaboration -- the work has its dark side and, for a 20th-century audience, this is what makes it immediately familiar. The dark mood comes from the liberties taken with scale. If these models were ever built, viewers would probably feel themselves dwarfed by the sheer size of these structures. That, one might argue, is true with any skyscraper. One feels like an ant standing at the base of the Sears Tower, for instance. There is a difference, though. The Sears Tower, for all its great height, is basically a functional structure that is an integral part of Chicago's downtown.

Thurston's structures, by contrast, would not serve any function even if they were built. Their purpose would be to intimidate rather than to facilitate the workings of a city. The exaggerations and distortions of classical tradition, which are interesting in theory, would become monstrous if put in practice. It's a paradox, but when leanness and asceticism are pursued to an extreme, as here, these qualities can take on a vulgar cast.

But there is also an optimism in this architectural style. Boullée strove in his creations to glorify the goals of the French Revolution. He probably would have been horrified if he knew that his designs would one day inspire architects in Nazi Germany. Here in the United States, the planners of the 1939 New York World's Fair looked to Boullée and his massive spheres and cones when they designed the Trylon and Perisphere sculptures. These works were meant to symbolize progress and faith in the future.

However, scholars such as Trachtenberg have argued that there was always something ominous about Boullée's plans, even at the time he created them. Says Trachtenberg, "Boullée's mood is so far from utopian as to be practically apocalyptic . . . It is no accident that the closest approximations of his dreams were projected (some begun) in the political horror of the Third Reich."

This is the realization to which Thurston returns us. Constructions such as the ones he has prepared for this show leave no room for the individual. In other words, one has a difficult time imagining them existing anywhere except on paper. If Thurston were to paraphrase the old Groucho Marx joke about not wanting to join any club that accepted him as a member, he might put it this way: "I wouldn't want to live in a society that named me as its chief architect." If these models were ever attempted on a gargantuan scale (the only scale appropriate to them), they might very well be effective for instilling fear and for inspiring awe. However, the way they take classical procedures to the breaking point and beyond gives the whole enterprise (even in this rough, rudimentary form) a cemetery chill.

A 20th-century artist who creates work in the style of an 18th-century artist puts himself in a tough spot. Unless there is a very good reason for his reliance on past models, he must understand that his work will appeal only to those anxious for a history lesson. Thurston does deliver a history lesson, but the issues that he explores continue to be relevant, and he deals with them with skill and insight.

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