Sean Slemon’s solo exhibition The Sun Stands Still, timed to coincide with the northern winter solstice, when the earth’s axial tilt is farthest away from the sun, comprised three sculptural elements accompanied by photographic prints and delicate line drawings: cast shadows, deconstructed trees and a work that re-imagines lumber in its original natural form.
Shadow is a counterpoint to light, and referencing earlier work that captured shafts of light in three dimensions, the series of shadow sculptures infers both absence and presence. Slemon has traced his own fleeting, elusive shadow and extended these projections into solidified, permanent sculptural form. Shadow, Sleeper, Rising and Reach are ghostly, white, polished monoliths of polymer gypsum, foam and steel. Shadows are an ethereal extension of our visceral bodies, and curator Manon Slome draws a delightful parallel with Peter Pan, who “was so in love with his shadow that he wanted to sew it on so it would always be with him and Wendy, through the magic of fairy tales and art was able to comply.”1 Similarly, Slemon draws and then sculpts his own shadow, setting in time a moment in the sun. He is fascinated with the (im)possibility of making the ephemeral tangible and these sculptures are redolent with futility, loss and an appreciation of the fundamental irony of romantic desire. An additional element, the arterial Branch, cast out of the same material as the shadows, captures the negative space of a tree limb and establishes a connection between Slemon’s body and a tree.Amidst the shadow series, Public Property: Elm Tree displays the residual detritus of a tree in a vertical glass case, the dimensions of which are derived from the artist’s body, suggesting coffin and vitrine. The work is in dialogue with Public Property: Video Stills, a series of prints in which the process of dissection is reversed, so that the tree appears resurrected, flourishing verdantly as if in spring. Public Property forms part of Slemon’s ongoing exploration of the cities and infrastructures that he lives in. He examines trees as commodity and resource and introduces an ethical undercurrent, stating: “When I started working with this idea of the tree, I wanted it to be read as something that was for all, for the public.” Slemon’s utopian vision quietly motivates for the necessity of rebalancing our relationship to nature in order to ensure that society continues to have access to natural resources vital to public life.Goods For Me is a meticulous physical deconstruction of a peach tree that fell over one morning in the artist’s backyard. It is a simultaneously intimate and dispassionate investigation of the materiality of the tree. Slemon’s process began with removing the leaves one by one, systematically breaking the tree into components, separating them by size and type, and then rearticulating the tree in glass cases, quantified, stacked in layers to form a horizontal wall of organic matter in the gallery. In that rarified context, this repository of ephemera has an interesting instability. The cases are not completely sealed and the work is intended to slowly devolve as roots, leaves, branches soil and trunk decompose through contact with air, oxygen, moisture and insects.Slemon is continually breaking things down and building things up, following traditional reductive and constructive sculptural processes that speak of a desire to control and understand what eludes him: “I take things apart so that they can be quantified.” The Sun Stands Still oscillates between enthusiasm and irony. Pine Tree recycles construction lumber back into a tree trunk, conflating natural tree lines and urban construction materials and methods. The work imagines the wood in its original form in what Slemon reflects is “a completely useless and impossible process, which is both a comment on art-making, but more importantly a desire to have nature be more successful.” The imposing log is covered with a seductive layer of gold leaf and ribbons, a veneer of perceived material value. Ultimately Slemon’s artistic gesture is to reassert nature’s value. The exhibition invites viewers to pause momentarily between light and shadow, to stand as still as a tree, and contemplate their position in relation to the sun.1. Manon Slome, essay for the exhibition catalogue, 2011.2. This and other quotes by Slemon are from email correspondence with the author, 24 December 2011.Jenah Barry is an artist and a partner in Xylem & Phloem, a creative agency in New York facilitating and creating interdisciplinary dialogue around arts and the environment.