Back to Babel.
Text by Dion Kliner
In the clear, hot, dry Egyptian mornings the light is bright and adamantine. When the last of the Great Pyramids was built the reflection off their smooth limestone facing would have been a blinding white. Long after this facing was lost, turn of the century travelers recorded the mesmerizing effect of sunlight on these and other architectural antiquities in stark black and white photographs. Black and white (the color of plaster and shadow) rather than Technicolor is the true color of epics. Light may reveal objects, but shadow defines them, "to model shadows is to create thoughts."1
Robin Peck is a sculptor's sculptor and a writer's writer. Before accepting the task of writing about his sculpture I felt that no one but Peck could do it justice, and that he as a writer (ostensibly about other people's work) had surreptitiously been doing just that for seventeen years. Like any good writer,Peck's writing is always about himself. Read it and you learn a lot about his sculpture.
Many of the recurrent themes of his writings (the Ancient World, Architecture, Crystals, the Crystalline, Early Modernism, Sculpture, Whiteness, Travel, Fragment, Plaster, Space, Scale, and Distance) coalesce into his stepped Pyramids and Ziggurats. As forms and images we have lived with them our entire lives. We know them from Ur and Marduk, Giza and Saqqarah. They rise out of the sand of legend and imagination, a staple of movies and novels. In their whiteness they are somewhat like mirages, "themselves but half-real, half material."2
Peck isn't building pyramids or ziggurats. Really they're not sculptures of pyramids and ziggurats at all, they're sculptures like pyramids and ziggurats. Rather than being representational in a superficial, illustrative way (i.e. as a sculpture of the Step Pyramid at Saqqarah such as one might buy as a cheap souvenir), they are representations of their own internal structure, they reflect themselves and their making. Rather than the solid stone blocks of the Egyptians or the mud brick of the Sumerians, Peck uses empty cardboard boxes to build his Ziggurats. Rather than a gleaming face of polished limestone that clad the pyramids of the Giza plateau or the burnt bricks and bitumen of the ziggurat at Ur, Peck has
covered his in burlap and plaster, applied and textured by hand, without tool marks. The construction is straightforward, each sculpture so similar to the next and yet so subtly different ("...and at the point of difference [the point of "invention" according to Richard Serra]... emerges a language that allows the next work to be made."3 ), three stories, three boxes. The structure is blunt, but also elegant, musical;
1-2-3, 1-2-3, it's a waltz and a haiku. There is an echo of Henry Miller, "Why do I talk ruins and destruction? Because there is fascination in them. Because, if one is sensitive and nostalgic, they make poems."4 There are no passageways, no Pharaonic burial chambers deep in the bowels of Peck's Pyramids. In the place of magnificent sarcophagi and the gold and jeweled effects of royal life, Peck has buried the ordinary containers of everyday life: cereal, Kraft dinner, pasta, tampons, cigarettes, computer, television, toaster, tissues, shoes, etc. In the case of Peck's plaster sculptures of Gypsum Crystals, an infinite regression or reflection is established as sculpture reflects material reflects sculpture.
There is a sense of projection here, of seeing a world beneath another world. On the surface, plaster occludes, crystal reveals. Often used provisionally or experimentally, as a step to another material or in the development of a model or study, there is an amorphousness to plaster. Yet at the microscopic level, it has a crystalline integrity which is as rigid and unyielding as the stylistic conventions of ancient Egypt.
"Recent" is something of a misnomer in describing the sculpture Peck is showing. In 1971 Peck
constructed a horizontal sculpture twenty feet long composed entirely of books arranged not by importance, relevance or subject, but simply by size. Decreasing through numerous texts, the whole was bookended by Bibles, one giant, one tiny. Stood on end, the books form a ziggurat, and each story architecturally is a story literally. If you could hear a murmur from all these books, a babel would arise that would be as deafening as it was meaningless. This is the Biblical Tower of Babel. By the mid-seventies the stacks had developed into plaster covered Pyramids and Ziggurats similar to the new work. Shortly after this Peck began the first carvings of Gypsum Crystals. In the mid-Eighties Peck produced complex constructions made from the empty cardboard boxes that were the detritus of two months of consumption. Painted a thin, flat gray and referred to collectively as Factory Model, these sculptures were closer to the Suprematist architecture of Malevich, and Lissitzky's Prouns, than Imhotep's pyramids. Though both the Ziggurats and the Crystals have been periodic constants in Peck's career forwards, they have much more to do with regression. To movement back in time, not only in Peck's personal history, but further, to a time of epic, biblical history, and beyond that to the geologic history in which crystals are embedded. The regression is to something fundamental, a distant but still vital precursor or event which can dwarf the present.
Architecture as a source for sculpture is well founded. Gordon Matta Clarke went straight to actual buildings as a sculpture material in his famous Cuttings. For Peck's Ziggurats the greatest similarity is to monumental religious and funerary architecture, but also to the stepped form of modern skyscrapers, the architecture of commerce. Pyramids and ziggurats are the precursors of skyscrapers, early architectural attempts to rise far off the ground, as Imhotep, the architect of the Step Pyramid complex of Djoser, is the precursor of visionary builders and sculptors. These same structures formed the basis of comparison in Ultramoderne, an essay that helped define the developing sculptural aesthetic of Minimalism, in which Robert Smithson distinguished parallels between thirties architecture in New York City (skyscrapers) and the timeless monumental art of every major period (including Ancient Egyptian). Common to the thinking of Peck and Smithson is what Smithson recognized as "primes", or what otherwise might be called Ur forms (those from which all others flow, irreducible, the beginnings of originality) that "establish enigmas not explanations"5 and which reoccur throughout history.
Even before Ultramoderne, Minimal sculpture was crystalline, the forms and serial construction often paralleling the forms and serial growth patterns of crystal systems. Still trying to get loose of the grip of Abstract Expressionism, Minimal sculptors avoided the look of the hand and adopted the machine made. Peck returns to the hand and to texture as an index of time. Crystals form a matrix, pyramids and ziggurats are part of a complex, but Peck's sculptures, as much as they may seem otherwise, are fragments. Each is a gesture which is self-sufficient, simple, and profound without its usual surrounding context. Like the early modernist sculptor Gaudier-Brzeska and later sculptors like Donald Judd and Richard Serra, Peck's sculpture gets its effect "from a very simple composition of lines and planes ."6
The crystalline is obvious in the Gypsum Crystals, but is too in the similarity of his architecture to monoclinic crystal systems. The Old Testament story of Solomon's Great Temple is the basis for the crystal metaphor in architecture. For the crystalline architectural fantasies of the German Expressionists, for Smithson in Ultramoderne, and for Peck this is an Ur text.
As it was in the beginning, is, and will be in the future according to a popular futuristic television show, space is the final frontier. Sculptors have always known this. The builders of the pyramids and ziggurats knew it, Rodin knew it, Giacometti knew it, and Peck knows it. Space gives scale, scale distance, distance perspective. Peck has made the Ziggurats and Crystals a similar scale, reducing one and increasing the other. Both are viewed from above. The perspective given is that of the maker's, privileged and ideal. The Crystals are up close, in the hand, magnified beyond ordinary vision. The new sculptures give the long view, the epic view. We stand alongside Peck squinting into the past, or into the future, as seen from a great distance.
1 Albert Elsen, Rodin, quoting Auguste Rodin.
2 Robin Peck The Time Machine quoting Walter Pater, Marius the Epicurean .
3 Robin Peck, communication to author.
4 Henry Miller, On Turning Eighty.
5 Robert Smithson, Ultramoderne.
6 Robin Peck, The Sculptor and the Mauser quoting "Vortex Gaudier-Brzeska".
Dion Kliner is an artist and writer living in New York defending a style of writing about art that remembers that both are supposed to be interesting.
Robin Peck has been producing work within Canada since 1971. He recieved both his BFA and MFA from the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design in the mid seventies. He has taught classes and lectured from coast to coast. In addition to being a practicing artist, Robin has been celebrated and published both nationally and internationally for his art criticism. Robin Peck was recently awarded a Canada Council Criticism A Grant. He is an artist who lives in rural Alberta.