In “Hard Work,” Benjamin Sabatier (b. 1977) continued his exploration of the myriad confluences between the creative process and tried-and-true manual drudgery. Fashioned from familiar industrial materials-concrete, aluminum (in the form of beer cans), bricks, clamps, metal stanchions and barrels, paint containers-his 19 freestanding sculptures and wall pieces embody what he terms the “esthetics of labor.”
The exhibition’s title derived from Sabatier’s piece Hard Work (DIY 914), 2012, a Fluxus-inspired, do-it-yourself kit featuring a pattern, user’s manual, DVD, hammer and nails, all housed in a cardboard box. When driven into the wall according to the instructions, the nails define the contours of the letters in the phrase “hard work.” Glossing the legendary claim of Marcel Duchamp that the viewer completes the creative act, Sabatier requires the purchaser of this IBK (an acronym for International Benjamin’s Kit, which is what he calls such assemblages) to execute the artwork, expending physical energy in order to obtain visual gratification.
The three new series of sculptures on display were equally arresting in their concomitant valorization of process and product, calling to mind the work of Nouveaux Réalistes, such as Yves Klein, who used the letters IKB for his own International Klein Blue. “Cans” consists of stacks of raw concrete blocks, each layer balanced atop crushed beer cans, suggesting those that construction workers bury in foundations and walls on building sites as traces of their presence. In “Struts,” adjustable metal poles ascend to the ceiling from bases in the form of one or more 20-liter paint buckets. The power of the poles appears to have exploded the seams of the buckets, causing their colorful contents to drip and pool on the floor. While these creations conjure César’s “Compression” pieces as well as Niki de Saint Phalle’s gunshot paintings, they also literalize the formula for calculating work in physics, i.e., force multiplied by the distance through which it acts. Finally, for “Bases,” Sabatier positioned large or small paint pots between a concrete block and a pedestal. Again, the weight of the cubes seems to have burst the canisters open, their liquids staining each pedestal and collecting around it. Such spectral streams and puddles imbue the artist’s otherwise brute, minimalist objects with an expressiveness that underscores the dynamism with which he has assembled their utterly basic elements.
Unlike its cohorts, Bricks II (2012) embraces the notion of construction rather than destruction. With nothing more than bricks fastened together at various angles with metal clamps, Sabatier erected a delicately poised geometric structure resembling an architectural model that zigzags upward. In its economy of industrial means, formal clarity and absence of decorative flourishes, the sculpture echoed Mies van der Rohe. Bricks II also suggested Tatlin’s Tower, and in so doing resuscitated one of the questions central to Russian Constructivism: what separates art from work?
In staging physical encounters between his various building blocks, Sabatier diligently labored in “Hard Work” to surprising effect, while never belying the old adage “what you see is what you get.”
Photo: Benjamin Sabatier: Base V, 2012, concrete, polystyrene, metal and mixed mediums, 43¼ by 27½ by 29½ inches; at Jérôme de Noirmont.