Stephen Daly: Sculpture as Witness
by Michael Cochran
(originally published in October 2006 edition of Sculpture Magazine)
The Art of Giantfighting
by Marina Pastor
(originally published in catalogue accompanying Daly’s 2002 retrospective at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain)
by Susie Kalil
(originally published in catalogue accompanying Daly’s 1988 solo exhibition at McNay Art Museum in San Antonio)
The qualities of acerbic wit, formal precision and contrasting randomness and structure are also characteristic of the work on exhibit by Stephen Daly. Both drawings and sculptures, and some pieces that are a distinctive fusion of the two — “thick drawing” that joins two-dimensional markings on paper with three-dimensional cases and contours — are shown. Daly’s marks take a little from Kandinsky, a little from Miro and a little from Wiley. They are organic and geometric abstractions, often ruinic in nature, that have strong narrative potential. These markings create a private language that is intimate, but not completely idiosyncratic. Fields of this drawing, carefully balanced despite a seemingly aleatory impulse, are given weight and density by being encased in deep frames. These frames of black lacquered metal alter our sense of linear contour and are in turn altered by extensions that break into and out of that overall contour.
Excerpt from Probing Sculptural Boundaries
by Marcia Morse
Daly’s got his own visual language at work. And it’s plenty whimsical and eccentric. Written text — illegible, nonsensical — weaves and floats around the figures in Daly’s drawings, weaving together with the objects, figures and symbols, some of which hail from other cultures. Men and women talk at each other, their words literally missing each other and bouncing off each other. Daly employs a deliberately primitive style of rendering his figures to good effect: His work has a cartoonish hilarity that’s more than a little subversive in its tone. What to make of all this meaningless language and isolation? It’s a disturbing, but truthful look at human behavior.
Excerpt from Use of symbolism strengthens pairing
by Jeanne Claire van Ryzin
Rather than static objects of meditation, his sculptures place the viewer in situations that tug at the lower levels of the subconscious, tickling emotions dealing with sexuality, repressed anxieties and dehumanization. But these troubling emotions are balanced with a sense of humor and wonder at the harmony of nature.
… Daly’s sculptures are intended to work on different levels, pulling the viewer in with easily recognizable symbols, and then subtly triggering a wide range of emotional and intellectual reactions. Daly’s sculptures are a test of the viewer’s imagination, the ability to understand the many different relationships and patterns suggested by the artist’s symbols.
In his most disturbing sculptures, Daly brings together organic and mechanical shapes. ‘Tripod’ is a kind of robotic dog in a three-point stance, with some shapes suggesting sexual organs. ‘Glider’ is like some sort of military weapon melded with living parts. Just as a bomber has human pilots with human emotions and frailties, so ‘Glider’ seems to have some sort of feelings. Will this make it a more responsible weapon, or a more destructive being? In these works, Daly follows science’s rigid notions of a mechanistic universe to frightful conclusions.
Excerpts from ‘2001,’ Rome blend in sculpture
by Dan R. Goddard
San Antonio Express-News
Much of Daly’s imagery revolves around the human head, in stylized sculpture as well as two-dimensional profiles. Here he has added the third dimension to works on the wall, affixing cast aluminum and enameled steel objects to paintings and drawings to produce slightly off-kilter, even funny relationships. ‘Engineer’, for instance, pairs a man’s head with an oil derrick, while ‘Double Still Life’ shows an approximation of the same vase-on-table scene in flat and dimensional formats. And ‘Man in the Middle’ features a metal “mask” centered on a large-scale work loaded with the pieces of dreams, hopes and aspirations.
Excerpt from The symbolism’s getting thick
by Mary Voelz Chandler
Rocky Mountain News
Stephen Daly: Sculpture as Witness
This essay was originally published in the October 2006 edition of Sculpture magazine.
Stephen Daly: Sculpture as Witness
by Michael Cochran
Many of us are familiar with the Stage Manager, in Thornton Wilder’s Our Town, who observed and narrated the daily events in Grover’s Corners, New Hampshire. Historically, references to this concept of a “witness” or “observer” appear in ancient writings as far back as the Old Testament (Genesis 31: 51–52). But why is it that we rarely see a sculpture that assumes the role? To witness an event, it is necessary to be cognizant and aware of the activity being observed, which, of course, means to fully deploy one’s senses and intellect. Several 20th-century sculptors, including Ed and Nancy Kienholz, Marisol (Escobar), and George Segal, have successfully used the human figure to offer their observations and perspectives on social, political, and personal issues. But in the last two decades, no one has created new work that addresses these concerns as concretely and successfully as Stephen Daly.
For over 20 years, Daly has been creating an extensive body of work from his studio in rural Texas while teaching at the University of Texas in Austin. Though definitely not a reclusive person, he develops sculptures and drawings by living and working outside the mainstream art community. His early undergraduate training at San Jose State University in California and later graduate work at Cranbrook Academy of Art in Michigan provided a solid foundation for the highly crafted and intelligent work that he has consistently produced. The intellectual content of his nearly life-size bronze and aluminum sculptures and mixed-media drawings has always been carefully infused with a high level of paradox and an inescapably sardonic sense of humor.
From his work in the early 1980s, particularly Looking (1982), to his recent tableau Controller(2003), Daly’s cast and fabricated metal sculptures and mixed-media works on paper have clearly presented his observations of personal, psycho-social, and cultural issues. In Looking, an abstracted kneeling figure gazes into a mirror whose surface supports tiny abstract metal forms that float above the non-reflective surface. The figure expects to see his reflection but discovers a physical reality completely unrelated to the world as he knows it. The black hat that he wears, similar to the brimmed hats worn by priests, is a re-appearing form that Daly introduced after his mid-1970s Prix de Rome fellowship and many subsequent visits to Italy. A unique aspect of this sculpture is his use of a façade when representing the polychromed figure. The color is created with pastel on paper, supported by a wood and steel easel-like frame whose functional structure is completely exposed on the reverse side. Each cross-member is revealed, which provides the viewer with an early example of Daly’s truth to materials and his fabrication process. The fabrication in this sculpture, as in all of Daly’s work, is meticulous but not obsessive. Unlike many other artists who hailed from California, Daly maintained his own sense of control of his materials and did not become part of the “Finish Fetish” group that was so dominant during the 1970s and 1980s on the West Coast.
Looking’s tripodal structure recurs in several of Daly’s sculptures, but what most dominates his aesthetic is a strong use of irony. In the case of Looking, we, the viewers, view the viewer trying to view himself. But what the figure sees is a mirror full of personal iconography that only he does or does not understand. The figure is formed by several triangles placed edge to edge. Head, torso, and legs together make up the “shaped drawing” as Daly refers to it.
Daly says that it was in Rome on the Prix de Rome fellowship from 1973 to 1975 that drawing really began to inform and assist him in shaping his sculpture. What makes his work unique is the intertwining of the two-dimensional and three-dimensional worlds. His drawings began to acquire three-dimensional elements floating out from the surface of the paper. In an early large-scale wall installation, Aquarium Wall (1983), the floating elements seem to dance rhythmically across the surface, some clustering in gregarious groups while others remain distant and isolated from the clusters. Susie Kalil, in her text from the catalogue of Daly’s 1988 exhibition at the Marion Koogler McNay Museum in San Antonio, referred to these works as “particle drawings.” She states that “their eccentric and often witty shapes comprise an idiosyncratic vocabulary from which emanate the organic and geometric imagery so prevalent in the tripods and heads.” As Daly’s drawings evolved, he began to explore a figurative image similar to his sculpture in order to develop a narrative within the picture plane. Occasionally, he has used a cross-gender dialogue in the imagery so that viewers can become witnesses to a personal interaction between the symbolic characters within the composition.
In The Hand (1992), Daly has positioned a silhouetted figure to witness and participate in the cacophony of visual “thought elements” that clutter the picture plane. Most of the forms are delineated in ink, but many are cast in aluminum and project from the drawing’s surface. The Wall (2001) places us in the position of voyeurs as we observe the unfolding of a psychological narrative between the obviously male and female characters.
The Hand, 1992
The tiny drawn forms that usually float randomly are now organized to portray words of interaction and communication between the figures. The marks and symbols in his two-dimensional work continue to move off the surface, along with the figures, to further Daly’s exploration of interaction, relationships, and the object as witness to its own world.
The large cast bronze Watchman(1988) observes the eight unique symbols that appear before him. Some of the symbols have obvious meanings — the mirror, the chair, the derrick, and the phallus — but others are more mysterious. Here, unlike in many of Daly’s other sculptures, we participate in isolating and controlling the witnessing experience of the figure. Each small form is attached to a large vertical wheel that, when rotated by the viewer/participant, places the symbol within the focus of the sculpture’s observer/figure. The figure, who wears the familiar brimmed hat, focuses his eyes myopically on the wheel to examine the symbol placed before him.
Female Head (1986) and Woman with Mirror (1988) are prime examples of Daly’s use of variation in content within a standardized structural format. The symbols and marks in Female Head seem to elude frontal vision, attached as they are to the back of the head. Cast in bronze and stained with an ochre-colored oil pigment, the head rests on a gray cylindrical pillar of sand-cast aluminum. The simple vertical form resembles an inverted Doric column as it thrusts upward from its square base. The contrast of the warm ochre and the cold gray seems to isolate this head in a world of its own, disconnected from reality. The figure in Woman with Mirror, on the other hand, appears to reflect on her existence. Here, instead of using contrast, Daly has created a synergy between the similarly shaped base and the head by covering the entire sculpture with the ochre-colored stain, giving it a sense of totality and unity.
In The Collector (1991), the marks and symbols have become larger and are secured to a platform that resembles a serving tray. The male figure sees only what is directly in front of him and apparently wants to give his possessions away, but they are permanently affixed to the tray. Daly clearly points to the obsession with collecting objects that plagues our materialistic culture. As much as we try, it seems that we cannot transcend this fixation on the accumulation of consumer goods.
Extrapolating from the content and format of The Collector, Daly made a leap forward in the development and complexity of his work with Controller(2003). A cast and fabricated bronze tableau that measures a formidable 49 by 100 by 42 inches, Controller synthesizes over 20 years of Daly’s work. The low height of the sculpture demands that the viewer lean forward to observe the many elements carefully placed on and under its surface.
There is a sense of movement in the forms, but they are all firmly attached and under the observation of a large male head positioned at one end of the table. All but several forms are either under or out of range of the observer’s peripheral vision. Daly’s figures are typically unable to govern their environment, and the head in Controller is no exception; it is confronted with a plethora of forms taken from totally different dimensions of our culture, from the spindle-like shape of a nuclear reactor cooling tower to Brancusi’sEndless Column. Opposite the head, on the other side of this “cultural playing field,” a handrail-like form on an extension could enable a participant to escape and perhaps return to the environment, if so desired. Moving around the sculpture is a fascinating experience that enables the viewer to observe this paradoxical world from different perspectives.
Even the dumbbell-like form suspended below the plateau and out of sight from the head takes on additional significance by hanging like a scrotum containing potential life. There is definite structure to these forms, which are carefully but randomly placed on the field. Like the forms in the earlier “particle drawings,” these cultural and personal symbols seem to be moving about erratically as the “controller” witnesses but remains powerless to affect their positions. Again, metaphors abound. And, at a time in the evolution of our culture when nuclear energy and high technology are developing more rapidly than the creation of public sculpture, Daly’s “playing field” becomes a Shakespearean stage where “we strut and fret our hour.”
In 2004, Daly returned to pedestal-size works, similar to several pieces from the mid- 1990s, in order to develop a series of bronze portrait busts. As inFortress (1994), these recent figural works combine the familiar square base with an upright stele-like column and ovoid head given simple facial features reminiscent of ancient Cycladic sculpture. His newer heads, such as Gridman(2004) and Funnel Hat (2004), seem to be caught up in a technological overload. The backs of the characters’ skulls support extensive protrusions of coils and shapes that reflect the thoughts ruminating through their “implied” minds. And these are characters, with features that evoke feelings of empathy and even pity. In Hermit (2004), the figure appears to escape into the internal world of audio technology, a closed-off, defensive, “sound barrier” world that every viewer has sought or encountered, in which communication is frustrated or denied.
In February 2006, the Polytechnic University of Valencia (UPV), Spain, installed Daly’s 18-foot-tall bronze sculpture, Mentoring. The work was enlarged at UPV under the guidance of Pablo Sedeno and Carmen Marcos, both university faculty, following a one-third scale maquette created in Daly’s Texas studio in 2003. It was then cast in Madrid at Studio 6 Foundry under the supervision of Sedeno, who was the overall project director.
Mentoring is an optimistic form that bears witness to the constructive nature of the learning process and recognizes those who give intellectual and emotional support to others. It’s a complex sculpture with a myriad of protruding shapes that seem to emanate primarily from the right rear area of the skull, which is considered to be the creative side of the brain. The shapes are similar to Daly’s familiar cones and vessels, but in this sculpture there is an additional figure. A tiny head resting on a small platform by the figure’s left ear is quietly informing the student/apprentice. The large figure stares straight ahead while assimilating the information. The academic context is perfect for this work, and it will be a powerful presence in the university’s extensive sculpture garden.
Scale plays an important role in Daly’s work, and his smaller sculptures and drawings allow a more intimate interaction. Human-scaled works become mirrors for our own introspection and contemplation, projecting a self-reflection not as apparent in the large-scale work. People in all cultures strive to be independent, to witness their own personal and cultural experiences. This process enables all of us to better understand our environment and our lives. Daly’s work provides us with the opportunity to do just that, quietly, eloquently, and profoundly.
The Art of Giantfighting
Download Exhibition Catalogue (PDF, 6.0MB)
This essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Daly’s 2002 retrospective at the Polytechnic University of Valencia, Spain.
The Art of Giantfighting
by Marina Pastor (in Spanish)
English translation by Karen Stothart
Art frequently offers us the possibility of slipping toward a vision of ourselves which produces sarcasm, which supports and even provokes smiles, and, precisely for this reason, art, with its ability to involve us personally, takes up in a profound way the ideas that it addresses. This is the case with the works of Stephen Daly that are on view in the Exposition Hall of the Polytechnic University of Valencia.
In these art works, everything seems to originate from some sort of permutation, emanate from some change in position with respect to the everyday logic followed by forms, beings and objects. Everything seems to have been moved, shifted to another course; perhaps because fundamentally these things concern us, we are drawn into a deviation with respect to our own position, with respect to the role we are responsible for, our role as spectators. These mutations are not due only to an innovation in the visual resources that Daly applies in this work, since this does not belong to the category of retinal symbols. The transformations originate from the arousal of an expanded perception, of an awkward conscience of our spatial being thanks to movement in gestation. On the one hand, the artist causes us to begin a physical trip through a territorial geography delineated by the effusive character of his works; and on the other, he develops an agile semantic current, a subtle conceptual displacement facilitated, in many cases, by his invocation of irony, a resource that operates in two ways, either by a brief change of reference, a change of cadence, or by bringing into relief evidence that in this review translates as the fundamental condition of contemporary human beings, evidence that makes us feel concerned, implicated, and represented in these works and that, after all, provokes a slight smile from the person who recognizes himself as he contemplates the work, and who, in some imperceptible manner, is changed.
In this way, Daly’s works show how irony is developed in the tense ambivalence and permutability of reality, and his synthetic image, between subject and object, between concept and its physicality, all [of these] terms structured and determined in accordance with three essential tensions that are transformed into the protagonists of Daly’s work. These are worked out in terms of three ideas: (1) between reality and its own image we find a new conception of the space-time binomial; (2) between subject and object is produced a revolution in our role as spectators; and (3) between the palpable and the intelligible we find a sense of language. We will analyze these three movements one by one.
Art: Between Reality and Its Image
The works of Stephen Daly make up a series of way stations on the route between the two-dimensional and three-dimensional. They are drawn sculptures, and not just drawings from which material might jut out, an inversion that is achieved thanks to the employment of an expansive force that makes his elements explode from all possible angles, into all possible spaces, with a fluid and organic movement, but also mechanical — an explosion by which the artist produces an integration of the enclosed space and the intermediate spaces in which we, the spectators, also feel ourselves involved. The movement is aerial, physical, and psychic, but also conceptual.
The spreading and enlarging of space makes the borders of the works disappear, perhaps invalidating the correlation between the volume [of the piece] and the emptiness around it, and almost immediately we are drawn in: we are included as parts of space and time, we are an effect of the [work’s] context. Since we ourselves are part of its totality, our perception is not mediated by the measurement of some [separating] distance, which, in a strictly visual way, might have obliged us to find an exact point from which to try to correctly appreciate the work.
In this way, Daly’s drawings are sculptures which import their power from the realm of the three-dimensional. For this reason, as we move through the space of the gallery, we cannot avoid the sensation that in the emptiness we can find elements which have been expelled from the work by centrifugal forces, and that the supports [of the pieces] have become practically invisible since they do not uphold any figure-background gestalt. Daly’s works produce, throughout, an atmosphere, an extension of the context thanks to which the gallery or exhibition space, far from being a white or neutral cube, becomes a space generated by the pieces, convincing us that we belong to this way of being, that we are an element in the context: we feel ourselves as one more component that has been expelled from the pieces, one more part of their framework. In this way, the space finds, in a strange psychic geometry, its own vocabulary put into motion, finds its own place in time.
Still, as Daly’s works unfurl in space, they attract space to themselves and concentrate it; they enclose us and convert us into moments in almost primordial time, into a gesture from that time. Its formal correctness all comes down to a reduction of inscrutability to its common denominator: that we humans constitute a space-time enigma. In this enigma the sculptures-turned-drawings, almost newborn, join together in as a kind of ironic response to the metric spirit of time. The power of the images is iconic here. Their presence is absorbing. They move between eternity and the fleetingness of the quotidian event, because, through them [these images] the art develops like some creation of symbols that furnish an order that goes beyond the dichotomy between the permanent and the provisional — because these images take their places on the very line that is the tension between both elements. Tension is constructed as instability, and as temporal instability. Daly’s works seem to possess eternal features that characterize any icon, but they are tugged by their behavior [poses/attitutdes/postures] and by objects which belong to the ephemeral and to temporal instability. This articulation is achieved excellently through the active character of his pieces.
Sculpture is, in Daly’s case, the union and concentration of space as action-space, where something seems to be happening continuously. The pieces are expanding in every direction, their characteristics are seen to be reinforced by the expressive properties of the materials used by the sculptor, and they are altered, sometimes, by coloration, and by marking different degrees of intensity in one’s perception. The phallic precedence of verticality in some cases induces an apparent elevation that leaves the pieces unconnected to the soil. The elements pushed to the fore unfasten the works from the walls and nullify their bases [supports]. The bulbous perforations make us penetrate the walls, pry into the hidden aspects of the pieces. Every activity is generated in this transmission of signals from one space to another, like choreographic action in the womb of emptiness that allows the movement that fills it, that changes it in time, that gives it continuity and, at the same time, inaugurates the presence of an opposite sign, since, in the face of evanescence of the instant, time is offered the possibility to manifest itself, to be transformed into something permanent by virtue of this materialization.
By expansion, spatial vitality, temporal coagulation, Daly’s works manifest a particular treatment of the gravitational properties of a universe woven of energy, space where both the microcosm and macrocosm are found to be implicated in a kind of metaphysical or unified field theory in which both exchange their respective values.
Art: Between Subject and Object
The sensuality and eroticism implicit in many of Daly’s works are framed in a stately or priestly manner: the images of his subjects remain static, almost impassive, while they set in motion the entire surrounding space. Thus, the figures are not archetypes, despite their almost totemic appearance, rather they are marks that subtly record every individual complex of psychic traits based on our tendency to develop processes of identification.
Between abstract simplification and a characterization overflowing with detail, Daly’s figures are concentrated within each other’s gaze: spatial, almost palpable, lost at the disappearing point — which forces us to look in the direction that their eyes indicate. Sometimes that gaze catches us, sometimes it seems to bump against itself, but always it is measured with respect to some kind of horizon that we do not seem to be able to manage to perceive, something invisible. Those gazes, almost tangible in space radically transform the vision theorized in traditional perspective drawing, since it puts us into perspective, as if we were one more of these objects that surround the figures or which belong to them, that are found absolutely integrated with them. Because of this fact, Daly’s works manifest all their power, showing that, at the same time, they are fragile and vulnerable, just as we are. To relieve ourselves of the position of being those who are observed, we tend to move, but with this we do little more than slip toward the strategy that the figures themselves have adopted.
The subjects of Daly’s art works are oscillating spatial entities who poetry is disassociated from any rough or serious tone, without subtracting conceptual profundity from the pieces. The appeal is the contact with the subtle shifts that produce irony. Perhaps because of this, the figures possess a mysterious enchantment and the magic of fetishes, and they manifest, all at once, a tension that is not exerted by explicitly stated violence caused by the rupture of harmony. The figures do not devour each other by means of spatial condensation, and neither do they have an influence on the idea of some three-dimensional volumetric form, but rather they affirm their existence by their isolation, by an autonomy whose power is extracted from their integration and involvement in external space, an autonomy that discovers its limit in the action of another piece. In this way, the figures appear to be radically isolated, alone, incapable of communication in the middle of the era of global communication. This loneliness bestows upon them a kind of phantasmagoric character.
Between the real, imagination and fantasy, beyond any combinations involving reality, Daly’s sculptures develop a satirical philosophy of impotence in which his beings are found trapped between sexuality and collapse, between serenity and the innocence of decadence. While they manifest an ordinary longing for life, they show a metaphysical anguish caused by isolation, like a person who seems to be condemned to life as a prisoner. His figures are shown so isolated that they don’t seem to be even joined to themselves, or with themselves, because they are not even spatial concentrations, rather each is an expanding scatter of spatial values. Individuality here is as ambiguous and uncertain as we, on a daily basis, feel our lives to be. Because of it, Daly’s works operate between analysis and synthetic schematization in the heart of a destabilizing discourse — not by being public statements of criticism, but more by showing a serene and almost invisible threat: that which allows us to see what is behind our backs as we contemplate our images in the mirror. Each one of his figures reveals a specific character granted by his original nature, but, at the same time, each is generalized so that it permits us to be able to find some points of identification within the hidden corners of our psyches. Our encounters with these figures are characterized by intimacy: shameless, they hint to us attitudes that unmask the condition of contemporary man and woman. Thus, Daly’s work is not created with the idea of changing the world, but it does manage to provoke in us a small dislocation — and we are the parties responsible for including or not including variants in the constellations of reality. Therefore, in his sculpture we find vestiges of things human, vestiges that find, between our modern society with many modes of communications and the tribal and primitive, a core held strangely in common. Perhaps because of this commonality, Daly’s works seem to be like an ethnographic collection: they reveal to us an essential man with his material culture, but seen from another perspective that ends of being closer to how we absorb our memory than to a random sample of things drawn from any memory bank. For this reason Daly breaks away from a merely historical point of view and from one structured by linear time, thus giving his pieces a sense of vital contemporaneity.
Man and his objects. In Daly’s works object and subject are found to be strangely fused with a structured simplicity whose most complex features are interwoven in a taste for details, in the diversity of material elements, in the presence of the ordinary in the heart of the abstract outlining of the figures. The tension between subject and object finds its resolution by rejecting eclectic anecdotalism in order to address itself to an essentiality that makes the figures timeless, and at the same time contemporary. Daly’s figures are like body structures whose tectonics is similar to that of the objective universe which appears next to them and which belongs to them physically and in daily life. As hybrids of object-mechanics and animal nature, Daly’s men and women do not annex themselves to the objects in the manner of prostheses, but rather by continuity with them.
If, as affirmed by Bischof, the order of perceived space is based in systems of spatial motor orientation and if it cannot be understood without these, Daly’s work shows, with all it richness, our ability to question the simple retinal image in order to thrust ourselves into the perception of more complex signs; it does not content itself with just filling our vision. In this way, it is impossible for us to passively consume images, and we begin to experience the reactivation of all our senses, perhaps caused by the operation of synesthesia.
To the extent that the sculptures touch us, vie with us, look at us, they compel us to find our own response, to work with them to formulate the questions that they are based on, asking for explanations of our daily experience, breaking our habitual routines and challenging our perception. Their space, becomes more real than our own, confirms for us our image and causes us to reevaluate our acquired habits of perception. After all, we finish up looking at ourselves, in a task as illusory as some of Daly’s sculptures, but with an ironic tinge and even with that narcissistic gaze which shifts our role as passive observer and allows us to become the one who feels he is being observed and analyzed, causing a reaction, a reactivation (more profound than apparent) of our feelings, since in this we gamble with our own individual psyche, our identity.
Art: Language, Languages
Daly’s sculptures awaken us from the sleepiness of ordinary communication. Not only the isolation to which we have already alluded, but also his invented typographies which are structured like chaotic manifestos that are expelled as if by a puff of air, typographies that plunge us into a sea of silences and of questions concerning the possibility of any exchange of meanings by means of speech and sound. In these sculptures the world is not presented as rigorously regulated by some form of spatio-temporal measuring, but there are instead combinations of elements with linguistic remittances which present us that enigma capable of awakening emotions and contradictions in the spectator. These elements are like visual epigrams that open into a complex and personal labyrinth full of associative references made up of symbols that are resistant to any form of linear reading. Let us imagine a three-dimensional reading, not composed of letters, but with the same kind of abstraction as these, that could be followed in any direction and whose meaning was not conferred beforehand. We are speaking about a proto-language or a post-language, composed of an iconography both strange and precise — such are Daly’s symbols.
All the power of these symbols is manifest in the heart of those blurred constellations that prevent the eye from resting in space, in those overflowing fountains of meanings and diagrams, a metaphor for our own world, sensory and lively, disorderly and chaotic. Because of this, the “words” in Daly’s sculptures are a riddle in the form of a puzzle-object. We are the ones responsible for putting together the reality of the discourse in the puzzle by means of a lexicon in which the tension between the equivocal and the utterly precise, far from disappearing, is brought into play until it yields to a new linguistic origin whose foundation is solipsistic, it is built on the transitory condition of the human being, a being that dissolves in language.
In this way, Daly’s iconography does not designate a field of action beyond reality, but rather it rests upon a kind of reality in an almost embryonic state, a universe still infested by imagination within the womb of a general critique of knowledge, of the categorization of the world we create from language and which generates nonexistent things. Furthermore, this iconography deals with a preference for the flow of attitudes, of associations more metonymical than metaphoric, projections that reveal the movability of time beyond linear sequencing, beyond the straight and from left to right directionality of our writing and of our own reading process. For this reason, the language in the sculptures of Daly becomes independent of its typographic form and it sounds and transforms itself into a live element, in the embryo of other possible worlds.
These “letter” bodies, these body-objects are like a spatial and chaotic spider web used to organize new cosmoses to suit the fancy of every one, of free association, with the connotative dominating the denotative, with a referential promiscuity which allows Daly to produce a radical shift in the nervous system of planetary communications with but a tiny change of course, with a plastic modification whose manifestation seeks to generate a different man, a man who shows the need of new modes of communication for an altered society, one more open to creativity.
All in all, the spectator, we the spectators, can be neither passive nor impartial in the face of Daly’s works, beginning the very moment in which we find ourselves dislocated or in which we are trapped in some form of ineffability. Incapable of proffering coherent symbols, we convert ourselves, by means of space-time change, into the narration of Daly’s signs, into that which they recount, since they depend on our free association, but also we become the creators of their referents, and of our own world.
Between space and time, between reality and its image, between text and hypertext, and beyond the subject and its submission to language, we find the construction of the individual as a constant which, in an explicit way (although ineffable in many aspects), surpasses any possible syntax. This is a question of the creation of ourselves. Iconography, iconology, lexical text. Far from the associative properties of the signifier, the meaning itself, and the referent, and in order to mark the semiotic charge [load] in the emergence of a new sensibility, Daly’s works make us distrust any deployment of our instrumental reason. These sculptures, based in the qualitative, reject giantfighting about numbers, resist any numerical measuring.
In this era of revolution in communication technology, we, who are more isolated than ever, we who are the probable producers of all possible forms of solipsism, may need art more than ever in order to open a kind of communication for daily life that is more tactile, more frank and free, and more deeply creative. In comparison, language, our language, that which structures this text, may be no more than a simple babble. That new kind of communication is made explicit in this show.
This essay was originally published in the catalogue accompanying Daly’s 1988 solo exhibition at the McNay Art Museum in San Antonio.
by Susie Kalil
In an age when painting has sent forth enough seismic waves to move land masses, sculpture’s less awe-inspiring shifts have engendered more curatorial contempt than investigation. Hard to ship, difficult to install, sculpture retrospectives have been few and far between. The paucity has been the brunt of many a facetious art joke as well. That sculpture is something you bump into as you back away from a painting is an adage that reflects just how much the medium has been shortchanged over the years. But when considering the work of Stephen Daly, such indifference is merely the tip of the iceberg. Upon examination of his highly idiosyncratic and intellectually forceful work, which spans over two decades, one immediately wonders why it has taken this long for the art world to place him in the top rank of American sculptors, in the vanguard of Texas art, and most important, in a class all by himself. Indeed, Daly has never adhered to current stylistic trends. Uncompromising, assertive, and sagacious, he encapsulates in his bronze and aluminum sculptures and mixed media drawings such deeply felt “human” themes as anxiety, pain and isolation on the one hand; nature, harmony, and protection on the other. His is a rigorously sexual art that explores communication and relationships — between the spectator and work, the individual and the group, between forms and their context, component parts and their union. Humorous, elegant, seductive, disturbing and fiercely psychological, his art encompasses feelings hard enough to put into words — let alone represent visually.
Whether Daly intends it or not, his work causes very complicated emotions in viewers. Resisting any single-leveled interpretation or response, the heads, tripods and drawings provoke questions more than they elicit answers. Paradox is rooted in Daly’s art and is strengthened by such dualities as chaos and structure, dependence and independence, aggression and vulnerability. The disturbing attraction of many of his fluid, erotic formations is, in fact, heightened by their extreme machine style and by their being made from otherwise resistant materials. In the series of heads and tripods, of which there are variations in cast bronze, porcelain, aluminum, and plastic laminate — sexual imagery and bizarre anthropomorphic forms are contiguous with their geometric counterparts. Even as the heads reduce human form to its most elemental terms, there is a great variety of mood and gesture within that embodiment. The startlingly life-size, figural personages are isolated individuals whose rigid stances exude a strange physical presence. Most have a distinct human personality, characterized as they are by eyes, nose, mouth and arms. Some even wear jewelry or don a “padre” hat. All of them are fully absorbed in their respective activities. The narrative titles — Man Talking,Narcissus, Watchman, and the like, help cue the viewer to a condition or circumstance which can be simultaneously sensed as humorous, fragile, impressive, tenuous, powerful, even brutal. Admittedly, Daly’s sculptures give viewers a queasy uneasiness, an agitation that is enhanced by the contrast of baroque flamboyance and delicacy of form. At any rate, the longer we look at their peculiarities the more attractive and repulsive they become. Corkscrew and needlelike forms protrude from their eye sockets; bulbous, pod-like shapes, spirals, and gangling tentacles seemingly jut from their scalps. Despite a figure’s stasis, component parts take on a strange and wild internal energy. Things come out of things, pushing and nudging their other parts. In the tripods, for example, atrophied organs, innards, breasts, and phalluses hang from their protective armatures.
Both series of works invite private encounters that engender responses on visceral and imaginary levels. They stir up unacknowledged feelings and force exploration of unfamiliar psychological terrain in ways that may or may not be pleasant. For all this, Daly subverts viewer perception with surprisingly simple means. Specifically, sexual imagery, organic, and machine-like forms are not clinically rendered. Neither are they garish or horrifying. Rather, the constructed shapes are manipulated clearly and outright, albeit with a sense of the absurd. That Daly’s work can be simultaneously experienced as humorous, alluring, and unsettling, in addition to imparting certain dualities in regard to tension and freedom, the representational and the abstract, chaos and order is a measure of the seriousness that is so central to his art.
Though Daly hopes that his works “increase personal awareness and make a small change in people’s attitudes,” it’s obvious they do much more in their visual and psychological equivocalness. Most certainly, the power from which the distinctive forms derive their strength evolves from the artist’s conscious desire to engage the viewer. Such a response is not, as Daly well knows, simply a matter of how the mind receives visual material and observes it. Above all else, Daly aims to evoke the mysterious link between the viewer and object, even going so far as to manipulate the viewer into a position of voyeur. Indeed, the most salient aspects of Daly’s art can be related to an obsessive fascination with the idea of engagement for its own sake. To this end, his art brings to bear a profound identification between the artist and his materials and a strong visceral identification between the artist’s and the viewer’s bodies. Yet the viewer is never so carried away by effect that he is disinclined to seriously analyze Daly’s formal intentions. To all appearances, the artist’s obsessive inner directedness is matched by methods of commensurate intensity.
As is the case with many artists working today, Daly toes the line between developing a visual language accessible to the public and creating the kind of deep personal imagery related to his life. The dialectic of the two percepts has been embedded in his art from the outset. Much of the artist’s predilection for contrast and eccentricity springs from his undergraduate training at San Jose State University during the early sixties. Physically and psychically removed from the New York art world, California artists, especially those in the Bay Area, felt little restrained by the East Cost hierarchical definitions of fine art. Subject matter from the banal to the fantastic broadened art expression beyond the conventional expectations of painting and sculpture. The assemblagists, an active aspect of San Francisco’s Beat-period art scene literally incorporated objects from everyday experience into their art with distinctly Surrealist overtones. Moreover, the non-utilitarian expressionist use of clay at that time presented a voluntary revolutionary attitude in American art. Although Daly was on the periphery of the wide-ranging creative inquiries postulated by such artists as Bruce Conner, Edward Keinholz, Robert Arneson, and Peter Voulkos, he was attracted to their non-conformist stance and compulsive attitude toward materials, technique and humor. Emotive, eccentric or erotic alternatives to a solemn and deadset Minimalism which still retained the clarity of that notion were concerns that informed Daly’s graduate work at Cranbrook Academy as well. At that point, Daly’s inspirations ranged from Lee Bontecou’s overtly sexual membranes, Eva Hesse’s obsessively layered latex and rope sculptures that mix organic and geometric form to Bruce Nauman’s body cast molds and Eduardo Paolozzi’s metaphorical hybrids that combine the abstract, the figurative, and the classical. Their examples — the predilection for change, the use of multiple parts that work together in a collective group, the ardor to push materials — enabled Daly to synthesize in his sculptures the seemingly divergent paths of Modernist and anti-formalist theory.
Daly views his work in terms of historical lineage. Even so, try to pin a label on his art and it will slip right through your fingers. Attempts to bring a coolly evolutionary order to the work, or see it in the context of one art group or another prove more or less irrelevant upon close examination of his oeuvre. Although Daly reflects mainly on the dialectic of natural and mechanical forms, his art is not as coherent as one might expect; shapes appear, disappear, and reappear sometimes intact, sometimes transformed. Daly’s art is best examined, I believe, as a totality, as variations on a theme rather than as succinct chronological developments. What distinguishes the work is an inner consistency, the unfailing “essence” that emerges upon viewer confrontation. Daly’s art can be seen in terms of a continuing perceptual investigation in which steady thematic development and formal disclosures are deftly balanced. None of the works are formulated according to a particular syntax. Rather, they represent the development of a highly personal lexicon that has undergone years of synthesis. Daly’s early training as a classical musician, for example, facilitated the structural components of his sculpture in terms of musical form: the fugue; opposing rhythms; counterpoint; or areas of passivity juxtaposed with extreme activity. Moreover, a Prix de Rome during the mid-seventies and subsequent visits to Italy have afforded Daly the opportunity to scan the country’s “bone yards” for images of visual attraction. Roman portrait busts, Janus figures, hermes, obelisks, ancient walls and buildings and fragments of broken sculpture have all been assimilated over the years in some form or fashion. But even those associations and relationships can be made in retrospect. The sense of time and historical significance such imagery procures is reinforced by the innate properties of bronze itself — longevity; a tensile strength; romantic, if heroic grandeur; the distinction of being both classically and contemporaneously referential. Not only does Daly’s brand of historicism permit the adaptation of past practices to contemporary themes, it aims to somehow push the linkage into the future.
All in all, the disparateness demonstrates the fertility of Daly’s imagination. Nowhere is this more evident than in the particle drawings, tripods and heads produced over the past decade. While the drawings are perhaps the least known in Daly’s oeuvre, they are no less affecting. Their eccentric and often witty shapes comprise an idiosyncratic vocabulary from which emanate the organic and geometric imagery so prevalent in the tripods and heads. While some of the images look a bit ominous, others are more humorous in their surreal overtones and formal complexities.
A consideration of a sculptor’s drawings is often problematic because of the inherent tension in the transition between two and three dimensions. It seems contradictory to visualize a tangible three-dimensional object by initiating it on a two-dimensional surface through illusionistic devices. Yet this seemingly divergent process releases the sculptor from the constraints of his materials. More important, formal considerations like edge, process, gesture, and the activity of mark making serve as reference points to expand the traditional role of drawing into a mode reflecting the concerns of sculpture. Can the figure be separated from the ground and vice versa? How does the sculptor sustain and exchange these functions? In Looking, Daly forces the viewer to make perceptual and aesthetic choices by questioning the difference between image and object, drawing and sculpture. Put simply, Daly presents a sculpture looking at a drawing. Significantly, the “mirror” which the figure holds is a conduit of spirals, doodles, and hairpin shapes. Does the drawing generate the shape? Or does the form come from the drawing? Aquariumtackles the various ways of perceiving space, scale, and image by distributing similar quirky but recognizable liner symbols — arrows, ziggurats, forked combs, spirals, and dots. On close inspection, the pale blue, yellow and black particles look like amoebae or pollywog shapes, bugs and other floaty creatures that simultaneously repel and attract one another as if subject to some sort of electromagnetic force. Strewn across a wall, the forms become societal — particles generate other particles, move into specific territories and assume individuating roles. Some particles are strugglers, some are hiders and still others are dominators. Looking a bit like linguistic code, the collective evokes the apparent random dispersal of hieroglyphic forms found on Egyptian obelisks as well as the directional organization of American Indian sand paintings. Though individual images may remain as simple, commonplace forms, their associative context is altered when brought together as a group. Just as mechanical configurations are transmuted into biological shapes, so does their plenary union activate a continuous interplay between chaos and structure, form and expression.
The notion of the particle as progenitor of life finds new meaning in Daly’s series of tripods and heads. The former’s dexterous convergence of organic and geometric modes spawns three-legged machine animals with protective shells and pendant organs that are evocative of some extraterrestrial being or post-nuclear hybrid. Indeed, their visceral vulnerability is disturbing, if not nightmarish. The entrails and profiles suggest intestines, guts, the mammary glands of a pregnant dog, us crouching to protect ourselves. In these, Daly seems to say that if the tripods embody an anthropomorphic source of power, they do so with coexistent sensuality and aggression. Glider suggests a creeping aircraft or jet fighter armed with bombs and guns. However, its exact nature may be equivocal inasmuch as the piece’s bulbous ovals and phallus shapes exude the robust sexuality of both genders. At times Daly appears obsessed with the idea of vulnerability. Yet the sensual aggression implied by his art never seems to go much beyond the elements of metaphorical or material transformation. All in all, Daly tempers visual paradox by subverting our traditional notions of space and form. Rather than rise, lump-like, from a base, as is the tendency of much Modernist sculpture, Daly’s tripods seemingly float in an implied, nonexistent space. Indeed, the tripods beckon us to crouch down, duck underneath, and carefully inspect their exposed masses and voids. Like the tripods and particle drawings, Daly’s series of heads strike a balance between organic form language and severe machine style by challenging the illusory aspects of bronze and aluminum. Whereas the tripods combine the metals in an attempt to get the sculpture off the ground, the heads utilize the material to isolate areas of interest and further qualify a viewer’s sense of time and space. Interestingly enough, the majestic bronze heads are not weighted down by their industrial, tube-shaped aluminum bases. Rather, the fluted component becomes a machine metaphor for the body, thereby facilitating viewer engagement. What we discover upon initial contact are psychologically insidious activities that remind us of the enduring strength of Daly’s forms and thematic concerns. Though plainly rooted in Surrealist imagery, this series seems more poignant, if not repellant, in its directness. Particularly striking is Barrier, in which a male head observes the spectator through a plate of glass. Whether or not the glass is a barrier ultimately rests with the viewer. You can see through it, but obviously you can’t pass through it. Moreover, the figure is static, so the idea of a barrier can’t be actively demonstrated. Rather, the glass functions concurrently as membrane and wall.
By engaging and disengaging the viewer, Daly thwarts the customary perception of an object. Indeed, Daly’s ongoing dialogue with form and space depends on a witty sort of gamesmanship that intentionally keeps us at arm’s length from reaching any solution. For the most part, the artist’s decisions are rational ones that have been taken to the extreme. In Hybrid, for example, both the figure and the derrick-like plant it holds are in a state of transformation; they are somehow changeable and immutable.
If Daly’s art has been modified in recent years, perhaps it has become more reductive, possibly more cerebral in its potentiality to distill and cultivate quantified information. Just how we accumulate knowledge and acquire facts is a primary concern of Watchman, a multi-component piece that features a figure transfixed before a large rotating wheel composed of a variety of objects, including the derrick form, a chair, a box with a phallic symbol, a mirror, a miniature female and male head. All of these configurations are items possessed by the figure; they are part of his territory. As he seemingly observes his inventory, the viewer chooses the image of contemplation simply by turning the wheel and clicking the object into position. Doing so not only arrests the flow of time but activates a complicated perceptual exercise that sequentially swings between viewer, object and figure.
Daly’s art purposefully leaves the viewer with more questions than answers. Does the work provide an encounter, or is it an object to contemplate? Most likely the viewer contemplates the circumstances of the work rather than its objectness. If so, then the meditation only lasts long enough for the viewer to grasp the basic premise, whereupon the contemplation is no longer pleasurable, no longer an easy “ride”, so to speak. At that point in time the work becomes an encounter and an engagement. If that moment occurs, then Daly has been successful in his efforts.