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Bryce Kroll: In Opposition to Beauty

Bryce Kroll’s studio is in Bushwick, on a rough-and-tumble, nondescript street that feels like it was previously devoted to light industry. The site is a good setting for Kroll’s art, which usually tends toward industrial assemblage: metal parts of machines bought in auctions or found on the streets, put together in the roughest fashion. His work exists in implacable opposition to any esthetic that would fashion a deliberately beautiful object. Roughly thirty years old, Kroll is not without company in working this way: fellow Brooklyn sculptor Yasue Maetake and Newburgh sculptor Daniel Giordano, both friends of Kroll, pursue a demotic idiom like him. Indeed, generally speaking, it can be said that much art being made by younger people is devoted to the vernacular--a vision in rejection of art that would persuade by extensive craft or conscious gorgeousness. What are we to make of a sculpture that refuses to transcend its proletarian origins? Is such a style as Kroll’s a deliberate political stance, oriented toward a working-class employment of materials in solidarity with an American vision of Arte Povera? Kroll’s youth would exclude him from direct experience of the Italian movement when it first became known, but the logic and the attractions of the street evident in his work easily make him a fellow traveler of an art inspired by the rejection of affluence, and the embrace of the rude, rather than work made in an expensive loft downtown.


As powerful as the new esthetic is--and it is an esthetic that has replaced many practices using conscious craft--it can be argued that the work coming from this thinking is difficult and problematic. Why can such a criticism be made? Because traditionally art has been made to exemplify standards of beauty active at the time. Given these circumstances, we might well acknowledge Kroll’s point of view as demonstrative of a new understanding of the beautiful object. Our cities are rapidly decaying, and the old factories downtown, in their industrial zones, are moribund. This means that the modernist process, essentially an urban undertaking, needs to be renewed with an innovative outlook that would take our cities’ changes into consideration. In some ways, quite literally Kroll’s work is no different from the junk on the sidewalk outside his space. And his piecing together of disparate elements into one fragilely joined accumulation may authenticate a rebellion toward tradition even as it succumbs to a facile consideration of form. But his vision is strong enough to demand serious contemplation of art’s contemporary refusal to fit into the elegant work we see in the rooms of a public institution like the Museum of Modern Art, its polished wooden floor and tall, bright walls a whitewashed site for art that, in its time, was as determined to offend current taste as Kroll’s assemblages now are.


Thus, it is impossible to separate Kroll’s esthetic from a historical critique of modernism, no matter how hard he may try to evade the situation. It may be, as well, that Kroll sees his art as a continuation of modernism, no matter how distant the visual experience may be from that of work made a century ago. We remember Duchamp’s urinal or rack for drying glasses, presented as is, without having been touched, in a gallery. These were industrial objects that Duchamp likely saw as beautiful, in addition to being a deliberate affront to the imaginations of the esthetically conservative and the financially comfortable. Perhaps it is best to see Kroll’s art in light of this tradition, which goes back to the early part of the 20th century. The vision of the machine-made as something unusually beautiful, if impersonally made, must hover in the back of Kroll’s thinking. His art may be a rejection of the commercially viable, but it is also a continuation of certain tenets of the modern, in ways that support its pursuit of something memorably attractive. Kroll may want to evade such a reading of his work by remaining resolutely awkward in his production, but ungainliness in art has a precedent that surrounds his efforts, whether he recognizes it or not. In fact, one of the most interesting issues Kroll’s work brings to discussion is the determination whether something is beautiful. Part of art’s recent history has been the concerted attempt to have a general public see its objects as indicative of a new kind of beauty. Likely, Kroll’s art is part of this process.


Looking at the work itself, viewers find Kroll attempting an esthetic of machine parts; the several synthetic substances found in his “Resistance Adaptation” (2019) include plastic, silicone, antifreeze, tubing. Its rugged form is based on a low strip covered with a layer of blue antifreeze, on top of which we see several vertical spikes covered with an unknown substance, surely artificial in nature. Kroll, as he usually does, seems to give no thought to the esthetic experience; indeed, even his title, which might be read purely as an indication of industrial circumstances, can also be understood on a political level--something that the sculpture’s awkwardness does not openly imply but rather suggests in its appreciation of industrial design. I do not wish to force an excessively politicized reading on Kroll’s art, but I do want to pick up social suggestions when it looks like they exist. In a large sense, Kroll’s art is about resistance--to the machinations of our capital economy in addition to the esthetic that often accompanies it. Still, it is wise not to overemphasize politics in the face of an abstract sculpture. If Kroll really wanted to turn to social expression, the clearest path open to him would have been figuration, and he has not done this.


Interestingly enough, despite himself, Kroll cannot evade beauty entirely. In “Poisonous Defense” (2019), he makes use of such materials as engine splash shields, vinyl, and ultrasound gel to create a jaggedly branched dark sculpture, its forms not entirely different from the jaggedness we see in a Clyfford Still painting, resting against the wall, supported by white rock-like forms. It works beautifully, and very originally, as an abstract work of art. By recycling the discards of government industry, Kroll is introducing an ecology of his own. It becomes clear that he is offering his own version of a synthetic environment, if not in competition with nature, then as an alternative to it. This is dangerous because nature trumps all attempts at a parallel universe, being the universe itself. But, in a way, Kroll is right--his art asserts the rise of artificial materials, which may well be considered tragic but which is also inevitable. It is a brave new world, of course. Still, the sculptor’s success is inevitably read in light of traditional terms such as form and color and scale and coherence of composition. That Kroll would relegate these elements completely to a world of artificial substance and design means he is convinced of the unnatural environment we have come to inherit. Instead of imbuing his art with a nostalgia for the past, when plastic bags were not found deep in forests, he embraces our difficult present, in which the artificial has taken precedence and thus must be transformed--if not as a material, then as a formal element in an art that repudiates the romanticism of an untouched nature.


This makes perfect sense as a ploy for a new, even visionary, kind of art, but the problem is that we are unable, on some basic level, to transcend the import of the materials we use. Materials inevitably carry a profound weight in their own right, by themselves; and this is something Kroll may, or may not, be consciously aware of. My guess is that he is deeply cognizant of the implications of his materials. Still, we can worry that his use of artificial elements extensively in his sculpture undermines rather than supports his understanding of what makes sculpture what it is. One need not be overly idealistic to question the role of materials that come from the detritus of manufacturing processes, in the hands of a government not so very interested in preserving the environment. The comment just made may be tangential to Kroll’s working process, but it is not unfair to wonder. Maybe it is best to comment on the tension between past and present beauties, as adumbrated by natural and artificial materials, respectively. I don’t think that Kroll worries about this so much as he is interested in joining opposites of form with elements that are foreign to nature. Certainly, he is not the first to do this. But the work raises intellectual problems of ethical use in a time when we are moving in the direction of greater and greater ecological awareness in art--look at the now established ecological sculptural movement, primarily active in rural and semi-rural areas, outside of the cities.


But the movement away from the city--more than a few artists are leaving expensive New York for a cheaper upstate--does not absolve the artist in urban surroundings from covering over his or her work with the embellishments of a now distant nature. City artists are just that: Kroll remains a sculptor in the midst of asphalt and concrete, modernizing his environment to include the synthetic, now a constant part of contemporary life. In “Downhill Creep” (2020), he includes fax machine enclosures, synthetic fur, and epoxy is his slightly quixotic effort to bring about an esthetic based on the manmade alone. The piece is vertical, attached to the wall, with a white element on top, two black plastic squares with a hole in the middle (protective guards of a ground cultivator), and a white rough tube-like form, a thin section cut from the fax machine enclosure, connecting the components. It is hard to think of a more arbitrary placement of objects that avoid any lyric mood, yet strangely enough, the gestalt of “Downhill Creep” is somehow satisfying in an esthetic manner. One might ask, why would he produce so rough an art in a way that also satisfies a more conservative audience? Yet Kroll satisfies his own needs as an artist even as his work, at times, appears formally oriented. It is impossible to look askance at work that is innovatory because it puts out, in part, questions about form and motive which are up to the minute--and thus address more established questions about why a sculpture is successful.


So what can we say, then, about Kroll’s work, if its imaginative lift moves it beyond the debased materials and displaced objects it makes use of? This is assemblage art of unusual intelligence; even should we be forced to maintain a distance from traditional esthetics in appreciating it. Is art meant to be appreciated, or is it intended to be experienced without prejudice for form? The two approaches are not the same. As Kroll enters into full adulthood as an artist, it will be fair to ask him to clarify these questions, necessarily in art, perhaps in articles (Kroll is also a writer). We need now, more than ever, an art that is distinguished by both intellectual and materials honesty. Kroll’s unflinchingly rough process underscores the way urban sculptors can use the castoff, the road debris, in light of a visionary rejection of traditional art. In this sense, the artist is ahead of his time.


But it can also be said that Kroll is taking a risk--fine art cannot easily sustain an extended investigation into disrepair without falling into disrepair itself. Kroll is an intelligent young man, and surely is aware of the risks he is taking. It will be up to him to discover ongoing ways of keeping his esthetic alive, at a time when the use of industrial elements is heavy, nearly to the point of becoming a cliché--even though it is meant as an assault on convention. It may be that the deliberate avoidance of the attractive object will become itself a middling usage, so that artists, even good ones like Kroll, may be boxing themselves in. And we must remember that his work does participate in art history and the questions that belong to art history. In the long run, Kroll is too smart, and strangely too formal, simply to deny the well-made. We will wait for his new work with high expectation.


Jonathan Goodman

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