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Scott Kip / Marginal Utility

Artist-led gallery Marginal Utility is an awkward, windowless, L-shaped space divided into three sections, each a little larger and darker than the last. Scott Kip skillfully responded to this challenging space in Illuminated Structures [June 1-July 29, 2012], presenting three groups of carefully lit, handmade objects that progress in formal and metaphorical complexity from room to room. Each arrangement comprises three rangy, wooden towers, titled Past, Present, and Future (all 2012) announcing Kip’s continuing project to spatialize human experiences of time. Vaguely resembling billboard supports, the sculptures lined up along one long plinth, connected by a narrow strip of rails. In the first two instances, red threads ran horizontally and vertically through each trio like crosshairs, marking potential sightlines. Three pendant lamps hung above each group. The exhibition’s only light sources, they cast intricate shadow lattices and created the illusion that the works floated in the dim space.

Installed discreetly in the final, darkest room’s two end sculptures were compact mirrors angled to reflect tiny, concealed, wooden labyrinths, evoking further mystery. Leaning forward for a closer look, the viewer’s body blocked the light, obscuring the display. A pinprick of light illuminated the middle work, passing down its shaft and casting the shadow of a ticking clockwork mechanism onto a thin, white platform at the structure’s horizontal and vertical center point. Thus, the most complex element of each piece was visible only through a mediating system of surfaces. These enigmatic symbols, and their secondhand viewing method, hint at our limited ability to comprehend abstractions such as time–a contemporary model of looking “through a glass, darkly.”

The printed exhibition text described Kip’s works as “scale-model structures.” Their primary materials refer to model-making and restoration–for example, thin plywood, thread, and old-fashioned milk paint–and their slender supports bring to mind architectural mock-ups. However, the sculptures do not function as replicas of specific buildings or objects; instead each vertical arrangement is a cadavre exquis, a stacked, abstracted composite of North American industrial, commercial, and agricultural construction–the type one would observe when driving on a Pennsylvania highway. Black cages of narrow legs and crossbeams resemble derricks used in oil and natural gas drilling, or the recently demolished cooling towers that were located near the artist’s studio. Boxy forms like miniature fragments of white-painted, clapboard barns perch near the top of some frameworks, as if anxiously preempting a flood.

Kip traces his longstanding concern with time to his engagement with T.S. Eliot’s poem “Burnt Norton,” (1936) a meditation on the fraught relationship between the past, the future, and the present moment. A poem composed of fragments cut from other writings and structured around earlier works, it provides a model for Kip’s process of developing sculptures configured in the manner of previously exhibited pieces. Prior to this show, he made flat, vertical frameworks based on billboard shells and in Illuminated Structures each successive room contains larger, elaborated versions of the preceding forms. Kip also appears to have absorbed Eliot’s commitment to recording details of regional life, observable in Kip’s borrowing from specifically American architectural patterns.

Like Alberto Giacometti’s surreal, spatial drawing The Palace at 4am (1932), made with wood, glass, wire and string, Kip’s architectural structures are modest, fragile and open, reminders of human frailty. Equally, they bring to mind Louise Bourgeois’s Femme Maison series of paintings (1945-47), in which dwelling, body and psychological experience are brutally interrelated. If, as Kip intends, his structures allow us to metaphorically step outside of (an abstract model of) time, they do so within strict parameters, acting as reminders of our physical finitude and cultural constraints.

Published in Art Papers, September/October 2012