It’s been almost a decade since we’ve heard much from sculptor John Bisbee. He’s shown up at other artists’ openings and appeared as a subject in other artists’ art. But we haven’t seen much of his own work since a mid-career retrospective at the Portland Museum of Art in 2008.
This summer, the Center for Maine Contemporary Art features Bisbee’s latest manipulations of the bright common spike in an exhibition titled “John Bisbee | American Steel.” It opens June 30 in Rockland, and for the first time, Bisbee is using his art to talk about politics. The title of the exhibition is a metaphor for larger conversations about economics, culture and America’s uncertain place in the world.
Bisbee forges and welds and transforms the common nail’s simple form into complex sculptures. For more than 30 years, he’s found new ways to tease the nail into a surprising range of forms, from one-ton abstract mounds to a display of wallmounted, perfectly legible cursive that almost feels delicate.
Back in 2010, he told the Maine Sunday Telegram, “What fascinates me about art is what one person can do with a single idea.”
Bisbee, who lives in Brunswick, has embodied that notion throughout his career and does so still today in this latest body of work that CMCA will show this summer.
For the first time in his career, he’s embraced the narrative, something that’s entirely new. And it’s been many years since he’s made figurative objects, said CMCA director Suzette McAvoy.
“‘American Steel’ is an American story,” she said. “It’s John’s response as an artist to the current social and political situation, framing it in a way that reveals the historical threads of our contemporary condition.”
Bisbee has always said that he intends to impose every iteration of his idea until he has exhausted all possibilities. “American Steel” shows that he’s still very engaged in that process and driven by his obsession, twisting, bending and pounding nails into recognizable forms like bathtubs and three-legged stools, a pair of oars and length of chain. He’s also making handguns and arrows. The new work is large and small, rugged and refined. Some pieces hang on the walls.
Others rest on the floor.
He’ll install several individual pieces in a single room at CMCA, creating a narrative about America, President Trump and tribalism. As much as anything, “American Steel” is a statement about the state of America, told against a backdrop of the changing landscape of American manufacturing and the mechanization of labor.
Writing in the exhibition catalog, Glenn Adamson, former director of the Museum of Arts and Design in New York and a senior scholar at the Yale Center for British Art, suggests that the pieces in “American Steel” were “made in a spirit of solidarity with workers of all kinds; each nail expresses the idea of things joined together.”
In his artist statement, Bisbee says he’s never allowed politics to enter his work “because I was so sealed in my own abstract juices, that the world was never able to penetrate. Well that bubble’s been burst. I did not see any of this coming, but I couldn’t escape the gravity of this national moment. It has made me dwell intensely on our past, while clinging even tighter to a shiny, true future,” he writes. “The only hope is empathy and love, and above all, we need to strengthen and maintain our unwavering faith in the Almighty Bright Common Spike.”
Staff Writer Bob Keyes can be contacted at (207) 791-6457 or firstname.lastname@example.org Twitter: pphbkeyes