Stepping into artist Chris Lawrence’s studio is like entering a giant game of “I spy” sponsored by Home Depot. Cinder blocks, battery canisters, five-gallon buckets, extension cords and clamp lights crowd every cranny. “Most of this stuff is from past exhibitions,” says Lawrence, stroking his red beard and gesturing at electric fans and spark plugs. “I like to reuse my materials.”
His latest piece—a large-scale installation at the Airspace gallery in West Philly—is no exception to his economical rule.
When I visited, both the in-progress sculpture at the room’s center and the homemade shelving units around its periphery featured the same wooden beams that have frequented Lawrence’s work of the past few years.
His new piece is still in its early stages, but is already intriguing. Beams stretch their splintered ends from an orderly stack of bolted slats, flinging themselves boldly away from the sculpture’s center. As with pieces such as his “Ultracoital Oasis” and “Apparition/Outpost,” which featured taut cables sunk into discrete outcroppings of viscous putty, Lawrence says this work will also be sustained by a primordial goo, the yin to the installation’s structural yang. A cross between swirled frosting and C4, the inscrutable sludge has the consistency of softened wax and, at least for Lawrence, bears a close connection to bees. “I have been fixated on ideas around pollen,” says Lawrence, 34, who sees the goo as a loosely generative muck that powers and sustains the rest of the installation.
Often mixed into big buckets or spread thinly across sheets of Plexi, this substance has become increasingly central to Lawrence’s work. Crowned—for now—with a KitchenAid mixer, Lawrence envisions the nexus of boards and bolts he’s assembling as the nucleus of the eventual installation; a kitchen where the cream hits the cookie in a big bang that sends the rest of the sculptural elements on a slow sail through space.
As with any genesis, there’s no telling exactly how the proverbial cookie will crumble. That’s just fine with Lawrence, who received his MFA from Penn last year: “I have a loose plan, but I don’t like to nail things down in advance,” he says. Instead, he builds up to an exhibition by creating smaller, modular components, saving decisions about operatic sweeps of cable and scintillating lighting for when he’s actually in the gallery.
Despite its al fresco intimation, the Airspace gallery lacks both air and space. “At first, I hated the gallery space,” says the artist, who’s finishing up his yearlong residency at Airspace (officially titled the 40th Street Artist-in-Residence Program). And it’s not hard to see why. We entered through a dingy passage plagued with tired carpeting and a forlorn drop-ceiling. The gallery itself continues the modest vibe with low ceilings and fluorescent lights.
But while the gallery may not be flashy, Airspace does a marvelous job with its studios—a tribute to its artist-centered mission. (Founded in 2003, Airspace addresses the need for artists’ studios in West Philadelphia by awarding five, yearlong residencies to West Philadelphia artists, in exchange for an exhibition in the gallery and a project out in the community.) After all, who would complain about rooftop access, vaulted ceilings and a shop for power tools? Certainly not Lawrence. He’s obviously fond of his studio and has even come around to embracing the challenges of the gallery: “There are 16 outlets in this space, but I’m not going to use any of them!” he trumpets.
His distaste for walls and his desire to tinker prod him to avoid the obvious. To this end, knowing the space is a huge advantage. He’s had a year to ponder its dimensions, and you’ll have one month to enjoy the fruits of his prodigious labors.
Opening reception Sat., June 25, 6-9pm; Exhibition through July 16. Airspace, 4007 Chestnut St. 40streetair.blogspot.com
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