On ViewBelow Grand
February 18–March 25, 2023
Justin Cloud’s show Crude is a striking instance of patience, guts, and visionary thinking. His willingness to boldly tinker is on full display, which signals a departure from his previous body of work, The Garden, that focused on more obviously organic forms. Those were mostly animals and flowers, in various shades of purple, silver, and black, with the occasional green thrown in. By contrast, Cloud’s new work stays close to the natural color of polished copper.
The method used to make the work is called “repoussé.” It involves the ancient process of decorating metals that achieved widespread popularity in Europe in the sixteenth century, most commonly as a technique to decorate armor. A simplified explanation of the process is that one places a piece of metal in a chunk of wax and pounds designs into it with embossing tools. Occasionally heat is applied to soften the metal or adjust its place in the wax, but otherwise the chisels are sufficient to make the material do what one wishes. Like most medieval practices, it’s kept alive today by a vibrant community of enthusiastic nerds.
An ironic consequence of doing something well is that it can easily slip from focus. This is the case with the quiet mastery of the frames and the fabric that lines them, accentuating the rainbow coloration of the copper. They’re well considered and worth mentioning here if only so they’re not lost in the strangeness of the subject matter. I see dragons, flowers, and skeletons. Some resemble H.R. Giger’s xenomorphs, others look like a child’s drawing of a garden. Cloud is clearly in control of the material, but the roughness of the depictions is disarming. It has an “engineers—they’re just like us!” quality about it.
Elf (all works 2023) is a mixture of drawing and sculpture. A spindly form made of segmented parts sprawls out across the surface. Not obviously organic or inorganic, one arm begins to stretch out to the right, as if it’s going to whip the flagella attached to its bony appendage out of the frame and strike the wall. It could be defensive or offensive, but the potential energy is felt and effective.
Rot pervades the show. Its presence is both literal and metaphorical in Augustus. The surface of the work is mostly a dark ultramarine blue. This is broken up by what appears to be an embossed representation of a rodent. The preserved remains are the result of some alien process that took place over the course of centuries underground. The form’s proximity to a fossil is reinforced by the chemical process of oxidation. As bone turns to stone over millennia, so copper’s warm brassy sheen turns to the rich dull blue in front of us.
Human manipulation stands alongside decay as a theme in the show, most obviously in a piece like Sink For a Bleeding Heart. This street-facing installation dominates the space afforded to it, sometimes spilling out into the sidewalk. Three spouts softly spit water out of the middle of a giant copper heart into an industrial sized steel enclosure. There are two drains. One is to collect and recycle the water back into the installation, the other has a small Baby’s Breath sprouting from it. The latter feels like Cloud putting a hat on a hat; the recycled water is enough of a metaphor for rebirth, so why include the flowers? As is often the case, the most interesting part of the piece is the result of an artist setting something up that leaves their control. In the few days that have elapsed between the installation and my visit, the steel that makes up the sink began to rust. The feebleness of the Baby’s Breath stands bravely in the face of metal beginning to break down, creating a lopsided tension that feels poetic.
Cloud’s work brings the ebb and flow of civilizations into my thoughts. It reminds me that our current world is built on the remains of the last, and theirs on the world before theirs, and so on. This lends the show a subtle, apocalyptic air. As I consider the stacked nature of our world, my mind wonders about the future. What will the artists repurpose from our time? What’s worth preserving? It takes courage to look past the end of our world towards the beginning of the next. Cloud does so with a quiet bravery that stands as an example to apocalyptic visionaries everywhere.