Looking at Art

Pop Goes Minimalism

From gift bows to gold chains, Piper Brett's blown-up sculptures are elegant and over the top.

Piper Brett's steel sculpture Big Bow, 2009.


Piper Brett’s stark but voluptuous sculptures infuse hard-edged Minimalism with personal experience and dark humor. Her bright-red steel replicas of commercial gift bows, blown up to immense scale, might be logical extensions of Pop art, but, taken as a whole, Brett’s work—which includes larger-than-life chain links and lightbulb and neon pieces—suggests more of an affinity with Tracey Emin and Richard Prince. My First Name (In Lights), 2009, a piece that spells out “PIPER” in stainless-steel letters dotted with vanity bulbs, expresses narcissism, self-doubt, and modern signage in one fell swoop. Large Gold Chain, an unfinished chain-link sculpture that weighs 200 pounds and will soon be plated in 24-karat gold, brings to mind fashion, jailbirds, Russian oligarchs, kept women, and junkyard dogs. Brett recently joined Vox Populi Gallery in Philadelphia, which will feature her new work—priced at up to $10,000—in a show this October.

A native of Tulsa, Oklahoma, Brett, now 36, says she would not have become an artist if her mother, who started a successful publishing business, had not died unexpectedly of an aneurysm when Brett was 16, leaving her to be raised by her architect father. Life, Brett discovered, could suddenly be cut short. “Before that, I was just having fun,” she recalls. “I was a rebellious kid with no thought for the future. I knew that I would have to create a life for myself that would be more meaningful than just waking up and going to work and going out and spending the paycheck,” she says. “Making art seemed like a meaningful rebellion.”

After studies at the Pilchuck Glass School in Stanwood, Washington, Brett drove east to attend the Massachusetts College of Art and Design, earning a B.F.A. in glass in 2004. But glass was not to be her medium. “With glass, you can really only go so big,” she says. “Fabrication and construction became the most obvious, easy way to get my ideas into a tangible state.” After graduating from MassArt (which recently commissioned one of her big red gift bows), she moved to Philadelphia and eventually bought a large row house built in 1890, on the city’s north side, where she assembles her sculptures.

When she’s not making her own work, Brett does welding, metal fabrication, and on-site installation for the Philadelphia-based sculptor Ray King. Asked whose art she admires most, she mentions Emin and Prince, as well as Eva Hesse, Urs Fischer, Anish Kapoor, Marina Abramovic´, Mike Kelley, and Gordon Matta-Clark. Still, she adds, “I don’t really care what it’s made of or who makes it as long as the person is putting themselves out there in some way: physically, emotionally, politically, or even just to be funny.”

Edith Newhall is an art critic for the Philadelphia Inquirer and the Philadelphia correspondent for ARTnews.

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