Plush Gallery, Dallas
Through May 5
by Andy Amato
Nick Barbee might be a geometer at heart. Possibly a pre-Socratic philosopher. His show at Plush Gallery, Proclamation, plays upon geometry and questions the notion of foundation. The work—mainly minimal cement and plaster sculptures—smartly signals the connection between this science of measurement and the notion of ground (“ground” here meant in both a material and conceptual sense). It does so in a deceptively direct way.
While this show offers up some handsome two-dimensional renderings of geometric shapes, they seem to serve mainly an auxiliary function. It is the sculptural works that leave the biggest impression. They come largely in two varieties: polyhedrons and feet. And Barbee succeeds with both forms. Still, you find yourself asking, to what end? What do geometric shapes and amputated, freestanding feet have in common?
The answer is standing.
We do not often think about how things stand or what is means to stand. A phenomenology of “standing” would be helpful here, but out of place. If we consider geometry, however, most basically as the measurement of space, of surfaces and bodies, and we think of standing as erect positioning or even as abiding, we might begin to question the elemental link Barbee seems to be intuiting. That is, what is geometry grounded on? Concurrently, what do humans need to stand? These are as much practical questions as theoretical ones.
Many people do not realize that the word existence literally means, “to stand forth.” The ancients were fascinated with how things came into appearance, how they came to stand out. And geometry is a way of measuring those things that come to stand, be they naturally appearing or manufactured. By this art humans can comprehend the shape of the world, the various dimensions of being. And what is it based on? Mathematical logic.
Barbee’s polyhedra and severed feet socked in assorted colors connect and contrast these two senses of ground and standing. His Enneadecahedron and Chevron distills these senses. The first of this two-part work, Enneadecahedron, is a diminutive and delicate basswood structure that reminds you of a thoughtful model or a careful experiment. In fact, at some point a science or art teacher probably required that you make a simpler and cruder cousin to it. The other, Chevron, made of waxed cement, is a small, smooth and ashen-surfaced polyhedron with ten sides. Again, nostalgically, you will think you have handled an object like this before. In fact, save the complexities of their respective geometry, both pieces appear somewhat modest, like everyday artifacts made of wood or stone that once lived on this or that shelf. Yet, side-by-side they say much more.
The ten-sided Chevron (a pentagonal trapezohedron) has corresponding faces and edges so that it can rest on any face. An enneadecahedron, however, is a nineteen-faced polyhedron that can only stand on one face (thus it is “monostatic,” or single-standing). This means that for all its dimension and surfaces it can only stand one way. Feet bespeak the same. For all the ways in which humans experience the world and manifest their own being, it takes feet to stand, as well as some foundation or ground upon which to stand. But in this case the bodies are gone, so what exactly is standing?
For the geometric work we have mathematical logic for ground: initial notions, proofs, axioms. For the feet we have materiality: dirt, carpet, a gallery floor or shelf. Both sets of shapes signal standing and foundation, yet they play against and upon one another in both a smart and amusing way. And so Barbee’s proclamation seems twofold.
If you do not smile at this work you are probably taking it too seriously, and if you are not thinking about it after you leave you are probably not taking it seriously enough.
Andy Amato is a Dallas-based artist, writer and teacher.