Jonathan Prince at Sculpture Garden in New York City by Edward Rubin of Artes Magazine
The work of Massachusetts-based artist, Jonathan Prince, is currently on view until November 18th, at the Sculpture Garden in the atrium of the old IBM building, in New York City. Shown under the title Torn Steel, the work like the artist, himself, who resembles Julian Schnabel—is big, bold and undeniably ambitious. But underneath the swagger of the man and his work— observations based on an in-depth studio visit, a couple of wide-ranging conversations of the inquiring kind and, of course, the four, eye- to-mind grabbing sculptures on view—lives a sensitive soul, albeit on top of a simmering volcano. His innards seem to house an acute and restless intellect that appears to know no bounds. Though relatively new, as a full-time practitioner to the art world, that is, Prince has only been sculpting 24/7 for the past eight years, a somewhat unbelievable fact given the sure-footedness of his work. As a young boy he was drafted into the world of art through a series of visits with his father to the studio of artist, Jacques Lipchitz. It was here that he was first exposed to contemporary art, to Lipchitz’s extensive collection of pre-Columbian sculpture, and where he experienced, first hand— with a few demonstrations by the master himself—what it meant to be an artist.
As a teenager, still smitten with the lessons of Lipchitz, Prince turned both hands to sculpting in stone and clay, as well as plaster. As fate would have it—like a good son who would follow in his father’s footsteps—his career trajectory led him to the art of dentistry and maxillofacial surgery. After three years in this highly precise eye-to-hand occupation, Prince turned to directing and producing films and computer animated special-effects projects. After successfully pursuing the art and science of filmmaking for a number of decades, he returned (an argument could be made that he never left) to his first love, sculpting. In Torn Steel, his newest series, Prince, known primarily for his work in black granite, stone, and marble, each harboring traces of Noguchi, Brancusi and Arp, uses steel, oxidized and stainless steel to implement his vision. “Steel is less tight than stone. It gives me the opportunity to cut something or to weld it back,” he told one interviewer. “What I’m hoping to create is the intersection between chaos theory and refined geometry.” True to his word, the artist’s four geometrically-shaped works in Torn Steel, set down among the Sculpture Center
atrium’s elegant stand of bamboo trees—the cellular softness of nature embracing
our industrial civilization—does just that.
At first glance, Prince’s monumental sculptures appear to be nothing more than simple geometric forms: a square with a broken edge: a column with its top gouged; a couple of circular sculptural riffs, one resembling a large distressed pill set on edge, the other a partially eaten donut doing a clever balancing act. On closer examination, the lively quartette begins to take on an otherworldly, if not quasireligious, cast. Refraining from the impulse to begin praying, we ask ourselves: are these objects relics of worship from a lost civilization; artifacts left behind by a race that has died off; a Hollywood studio prop leftover from a long-forgotten Roman epic; or are they really post-modern sculptures waiting to be transported to some city plaza?
Each sculpture, though massive in appearance is, in actuality, deceptively hollow. The naturally-oxidized appearance that weathered steel effortlessly acquires is, in the case of Prince’s work, a labor-intensive process that is anything but random. It all begins with Prince sketching out a concept. After refining it on computer, he creates a urethane foam model, along with a series of engineering drawings, enabling him to order the necessary materials for fabrication. Once the full geometrically shaped work is constructed, the artist marks the sections to be
“torn” out of the sculpture with a powerful plasma torch. Then the stainless steel plates are shaped, welded into the form, the patterns are overlaid onto the plates with a MIG welder in stainless steel, and all areas smoothed and blended with a TIG welder. Finally, the stainless steel areas are smoothed and polished with various abrasives.
The most satisfying and easily digestible of the four sculptures on view—also the most challenging in its simplicity—is Vestigial Block, Prince’s six-foot square cube. It is here at the steel cubiform, unfettered and uncomplicated by the edgy and visually jagged cuts and molten steel plating found at the top of Totem and at either end of Torus—making them a bit too fussy for my taste—that Prince’s technique of exposing the seemingly soft molten innards buried within the sculpture’s hard outer shell is at its most natural and pleasantly poignant. It is also at this stop, while basking gently in the light of this daringly modest sculpture, that our mind is gently seduced into conjuring up images of the earth’s fiery center, overflowing lava, and thoughts of the human body housing an active soul.