Veteran sculptor Chester Old’s new body of work, on view at Mason Murer Fine Art through this weekend, has generated considerable buzz for understandable reasons. Outdoing much of the adjacent work by purportedly edgy younger artists, Old’s installation of perversely dysfunctional shovels, hammers and mousetraps looks like a room in some impossible ethnological museum, documenting every fetish known to Freud and a fair number that haven’t been categorized yet.
These variously wrapped objects are beautiful and repellent in almost equal measure. There are mousetraps, hammerheads and shovel blades rendered useless by enclosure in everything from felt to feathers, and, in the case of user-unfriendly hammer handles, studs, staples, nails and extremely rough-textured materials.
Old doesn’t imply that someone would want to use these tools. The point is that no one would want to do anything with them except arrange them in a display box just as they currently appear. They are there to be looked at, and it’s as difficult to look away from them as it is to look closely.
There are three oblong boxes of hammers, nine hammers per elegantly constructed wall box. The mousetraps come 19 to each of their three glass-fronted boxes, with the larger traps in two boxed groups of five. Nine unboxed shovels in a row line one wall.
That’s 103 individual objects, if I’ve counted correctly, and while there are repetitions of material among the tightly bound cords, fluffs of cotton and wraps of variously textured fabrics, this is an astonishing assortment of ways to render functional objects completely purposeless.
Converted into toys for the imagination, these sets of potently titled “Traps,” “Hammers” and “Shovels” can be interpreted as everything from codes for the most deeply inexpressible of human wishes to allegories for the ways of power relations in history. Their deliberately indefinite relationship to fundamental pain and pleasure makes them remarkably open vehicles for whatever interpretation the viewer feels like forcing upon them . . . and yet they aren’t really reducible to any of the sexual or symbolic associations the viewer may bring to them.
Viewed from the center of the room, they’re simply an extraordinarily beautiful, restrained and geometric arrangement of repeated shapes. The potentially disturbing details vanish into an old-fashioned formal elegance of the sort that Old has been most noted for accomplishing brilliantly.