Miami sculptor's handiwork transforms everyday objects into surreal metal marvels
November 2011 - This past summer, the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago hosted four larger-than-life metal sculptures by Mark Handforth, a Miami-based artist whose works cleverly reflect the surrounding urban landscape. His ability to extract objects from everyday life—lampposts, coat hangers, traffic cones—and manipulate amplified versions into contemporary icons imparts a fresh perspective on metal sculpting.
Handforth works with materials both metallic and non-metallic, depending on the display environment. "I often use metal in the larger outdoor works because it's the most natural material for the setting," he says. "The qualities of strength and malleability and durability that make it useful to me physically in the construction of the sculpture also work poetically in terms of the common material language of things around us on the street."
Blackbird, one of the four works, is a teeming, 30-foot coat hanger made from aluminum pipe that Handforth hand-bent. A smaller-scale hanger for a show in New York is made of brass, which is a nod to the cheap wire of the original hanger from which the sculpture is modeled, he says. "For Chicago, though, I wanted this very large hanger to read as a drawing in space, so the line of the sculpture would be black and flat and definite." Blackbird's surface is painted, which mutes the metal and accents the graphic line.
Twisted steel pipes make up LamppostSnake, for which a curled street lamp resembles a serpent's body; the the lamp as the head. The other two pieces have a very direct, raw metal quality to them that echoes the process by which they were made, he says. PhoneBone, which appears to be a giant femur standing on end, clutched by a bright yellow phone handset, "is sand box cast aluminum and carries all the marks of its making—mold lines, sprue holes, heat scorching and weld seams are all left visible and readable," he says, referring to sand casting.
BeatProp, the smallest of the four pieces, is cast from stainless steel and takes the form of a crumpled traffic cone. "It's a very small sculpture abandoned on this large sidewalk so the stainless acts as a kind of armor against the harassments of the street," Handforth says.
Artists young and old are drawn to metal, whether it's steel, aluminum or bronze, says Michael Darling, chief curator at the Museum of Contemporary Art Chicago."Some of them use traditional materials like bronze just to make a commentary on older art traditions and then try to push against that in a new way," he says, adding metals can be expensive, which keeps some artists from using it as a medium. "One needs funding and space to really pursue these methods and materials," he says.
Heavy to handle
Although elegantly placed outside the MCA's main entrance, the art can be difficult to move. Darling says cranes and flatbed trucks were needed for installation. "Some welding and painting on site was also necessary."
Even while creating the sculptures at his Miami studio, the process wasn't always easy, Handforth says. "Creating the big steel pipes for LamppostSnake proved to be really hard work," he says, noting he used hydraulic presses and pipe benders to kink the pipes. "It was also tricky getting the balance right on Blackbird at such a height. I worked from the roof of my house, but it sits very well in the end."
The Crucible Foundry in Norman, Okla., cast PhoneBone, which required welding 24 separate sand box cast aluminum pieces. "I wanted a very specific quality from the cast aluminum, and we were able to achieve incredibly rich detail and a lucidity in the metal through their sand process," Handforth says.
He works with metal shops in Miami that specialize in sheet metal folding, and welding as well as a boatyard to help with painting the massive sculptures.
The exuberance of Handforth's sculptures provided a contrast against the MCA's stark building, Darling says. "There is a bravery and sophistication to what he does that sets him apart, and that is what drew us to him," he says.
While the sculptures are made mainly from virgin material, Handforth says he will do whatever it takes to get a beautiful piece of twisted scrap. "There are some twists that you just can't fabricate, that only come through collapse and decay," he says. "And they're often the best." MM