Chuck Fahlen’s thoughtfully considered sculptures are constructed around recurrent sets of key formal and conceptual oppositions. In his terse, quasi-geometric abstractions, subtle structural distortions and deliberate awkwardness are always coupled with extreme material refinement. The works function as self-contained entities that are also loci upon which converge a multitude of connotations and references from the vernacular to the sublime. Fahlen’s art principally expresses a quintessentially American involvement with, even longing for, the monumentally in nature and the heroic in art as it attempts to undermine their mystique and acknowledge their seemingly irrevocable loss. Such issues coalesce and expand in these new, thin-skinned and gleaming metal and wood structures. They are isolate, laconic presences of roughly human scale that appear primarily as fragments of architectural fantasies and follies or abstracted meditations on the landscape, particularly that of the Southwest, and the resultant ironies of its collision with man and his culture.
Much of Fahlen’s formal vocabulary is initially predicated upon the natural world, but nature’s irregularities have been submitted to the generalizing impulse of the mechanical and then further mediated by a metallic casing. Elephant’s Feet, for example, in which a taller, open armature of mild steel houses a smaller version of the identical form sheathed in a skin of green patinated copper, is based upon the famous topographical formations of the same name in Monument Valley. Fahlen’s stylized variant, however, also pays homage to George Herriman’s Krazy Kat cartoons in which these same rocks make numerous caricatured appearances and recalls Claes Oldenburg’s truncated London Knees of 1966-68. A single work thus brings this artist’s longstanding interest in both natural and manmade monuments into compact alignment. The sculpture’s configuration also suggests some small, clumsy creature trapped in a zoo cage; its conical shapes likewise evoke the somewhat ominous silhouette of nuclear cooling towers. Such a confluence of associations prompts an inevitable interpretation of the work as a metaphor for nature miniaturized, tamed, and contained, imprisoned by the relentless encroachment of the technological. Elephant’s Feet resonates with the melancholy of a built ruin.
Fahlen’s somberness however is generally counterbalanced by a kind of wry visual wit. The animate Bozo typifies the playful side of his formal explorations as it embodies an increasingly confident sophistication in juxtaposing different materials within a single piece. (Fahlen is a connoisseur of the exquisite but he wants to move elegance towards parody, even perversity.) Here, a lead over aluminum ball is balanced upon an inverted stainless steel cone supported by a crenulated, four-tiered brass underskirt of tapering width. Such a work reverses sculpture’s conventional figure/base relationship with the supporting structure assuming an exaggerated, almost mannerist importance in comparison to the object supported. This transposition of expectation has been another of Fahlen’s consistent formal preoccupations. Bozo also presents the viewer with a representation of the world perched atop a pedestal, but the global reference is overtaken by more humorous similarities to a birthday party-hat or those standing punching bags which spring resolutely upright again following each blow. Is this a portrait of the artist as clown or a comment upon the artist’s need for tenacity in the face of all obstacles?
The notion of grandeur occupies an ambivalent position in Fahlen’s sculpture-in his work the toylike will often reside within the monumental and the monumental will in turn be secreted within the toy. Dirty Devil, for example, named for a river that winds through Colorado into the Grand Canyon, was inspired by the telescoping form of a small, collapsible metal drinking cup, only here enlarged and sliced through at an angle. The shining and precipitous enclosure-a schematized gorge-formed by this piece’s smoothly curved contours and dangerous looking edges threatens to enfold the spectator in the sharp embrace of a stainless steel sarcophagus. Another fragmented structure, Dirty Devil positions itself as a reformulation of the Minimalist object that seeks to question its status and sculpture’s relationship to a compromised tradition of formalist autonomy. While remaining cognizant of its allure, Fahlen works consistently to challenge the authoritarianism of strict geometry.
Fahlen has recently undertaken a series of wall pieces- celestial topographies in which space is formalized via the stylization of motion. In such works aerial grids alluding to longitudinal and latitudinal lines are intercepted by spherical masses seemingly arrested at ambiguous but dramatic instants of stasis. In Voyager, a stained poplar orb has impacted upon the center of an elongated, ovoid steel lattice. The globe appears transfixed at either a point of inward collision or as it is about to catapult outward again into space-two possibilities of movement are implied at once within a paradoxically still composition. Voyager’s radial formation also provokes comparisons to a stylized flower or an abstracted eye. As is generally the case with Fahlen’s sculpture, numerous possibilities for meaning are concealed within the sparest of structures; this work could be read as conflating nature, the body, and the realm of the ethereal.
Ultimately, Voyager’s title might stand as a symbolic encapsulation of Fahlen’s overall enterprise and his concept of the artist’s role as restless visionary. Akin to the early North American explorers or contemporary space shuttle astronauts, the artist travels, carefully observant, along a solitary, often uncharted route, pathfinder at the frontier of creativity. The modernist dream persists.