Stephen Coles’ “B+ (new work and investigations)” Gives Itself a Generous Grade

by Liz Allen
Friday + Saturday editor

The whole of the wooden tripods holding clamped arced pieces of purple insulation loom over photo 2 (4)6 feet tall from the Lewis Art Gallery in the third floor of the AC. “The insulation boards are much thinner down here than in New York,” Stephen Coles mused about the installation at the gallery talk Friday, Nov. 14. “I intended them to be rigid and straight, but the humidity here does interesting things.” Coles was not disappointed by the unforeseen alteration, but bemused, which gets at the essence of his work—he is interested in the material itself. For the Lewis Gallery installation, Coles uses common construction materials, purchased at the local Home Depot.

Contemporary artists in this vein come from the minimalist tradition in modern art, characterized by artists such as Donald Judd in the 1960s. They are also known as process artists, a category into which Coles easily fits, evident in the images on the gallery walls that constitute the rest of the show. Fire features most prominently in the pictures—which, upon closer examination, show people, in thick padded clothing and gloves and masks operating a metal contraption.

In the talk, Coles explains that these images, taken by new art department faculty Kristen Tordella-Williams, document a conference on iron casting attended in Latvia over the summer, where he and a team performed mobile iron pours as performance. The contraption turns out to be a furnace, based on England’s traditional coal-fired furnaces from its industrial 18th century past. The team experimented with the iron—which can reach temperatures of 2,800 degrees—pouring into different materials for reactions: oil, a traditional Latvian cheese, and a traditional beer. The pours are not done to create a product, though. They are about the process of pouring, an investigation into the materials, and a performance. Coles uses recycled metal—found in thrown away items such as old radiators—for his pours, and his studio in England creates iron cast 4 (4)

“I’m more interested in art that responds to itself rather than to a larger narrative,” Coles says. This means art uninterested in expressing a deeper meaning, a truth about the human experience, to make a point even. However, the lack of a narrative also manifested itself in his presentation and in the set-up of the show—he showed videos with no introduction, jumped to different projects without a uniting theme. Likewise, the show itself has no explanatory writing or descriptions for the insulation structures or the pictures to assist gallery visitors, making his work inaccessible.

Coles ended his lecture by chuckling that, since he was given the gallery space, he decided to experiment and play around with some ideas, ultimately giving himself the grade of B+. Given the cavalier attitude towards the space, lack of accessibility or explanation, and lack of meaning, I’d say this grade was generous.

“B+ (new works and investigations),” like much of material/process art, garners the reaction, “well that’s cool,” and not much else.

The show runs from Nov. 5 to Dec. 17 in the Lewis Art Gallery on the third floor of the Academic 2 (4)