The Slow Boom by Juliana Kreinik

 

Arranged to evoke the dynamics of a city under construction, Galpin’s crawlers feature the materials of post-industrial London. The artist assembled his works from lengths of pre-fabricated, mass-produced steel drywall channel, which is normally used to construct a building’s interior walls or ceilings. Galpin cut and coated these steel segments with paint that he selected from the RAL System, a standard industrial color chart used in Europe for architecture, construction, and road safety painting projects. Red, green, and ivory are the dominant colors, which the artist selected to match the cranes located in a work site behind his home. The artist references London’s recent building boom, which has resulted in a scarcity of scaffolding. Workers from different firms install, dismantle, and reinstall their equipment at a rapid pace to keep up with demand. To signify the assembly of scaffolding and to represent this swift process of physical and economic exchange, Galpin gives the short segments a mottled effect, eliciting the sensation of a scaffold in motion at different points in time.

The materials and structures of New Build architectural projects are, for Galpin, a source of fascination. He resides in Elephant & Castle, a booming area for both residential and commercial development. Even when deserted at night, enormous cranes extend above construction sites as towering reminders of daily activity. Galpin’s crawlers reflect this constant presence, suggest the tension of movements not yet made, and evoke the strength and grace of dancers waiting for a cue. He links the pieces to human activity through his choice of titles. Many of the pieces are named after signals used to direct the actions of crane operators, such as Up Easy (meaning to lift the crane’s boom slowly); Travel To Me / Travel From Me (move the load toward, or away from, the signalman); Jib Up (raise the upper arm of the jib); and Dog Everything (pause action in place). These formal and symbolic symmetries inform Galpin’s art, which in turn amplifies visual and conceptual correspondences between the forms and motions of the human body and machinery.

The crawlers can be configured in a number of possible variations, just like the interchangeable parts from which they are made and the modular structures they represent. By isolating the basic materials of the construction industry and employing them as an abstracted aesthetic vocabulary, Galpin directs the viewers’ attention to broader, underlying ideas of urban growth, the dynamics of human labor and mechanical movement, and the seemingly endless cycles of building and demolishing. For Galpin, deconstruction is inherent to the lives of cities and intrinsic to his artistic goals. In this sense, his process and approach to art-making emulate the economics of urban architectural construction, which relies on cyclical forces of destruction and renewal to enable creation.

Themes of regeneration and construction have been central to Galpin’s long-term project. In previous works like Reconstruction Series (2003), the artist used a scalpel blade to purge nearly all the content from his photographs of construction sites; delicate gridded frameworks of scaffolding tubes are all that remains. In more recent peeled photographs like Brace VI (Bastion) and Brace II (City Gate), both from 2011, he dissected colossal cityscapes, revealing networks of colored steel beams that intersect and extend across the surface of the pictorial plane. The interplay of light and color in these pieces seems to vibrate, reflecting the city’s dynamism and constant metamorphosis. In Galpin's site-specific work Viewing Station, installed on the High Line in New York City from 2010-2011, the artist offered an intervention that called attention to the neighborhood’s ongoing architectural expansions that in many ways anticipated the crawlers. Visitors peered through a viewing box aligned with a metal screen to see Chelsea’s cityscape splintered into an abstract composition of signage, brick, cement, wood, glass, steel, and sky. Galpin modified this urban panorama with his precise realignment of the viewer’s perspective. Staged on this exemplary site of post-industrial New York City, Viewing Station produced a dynamic of active perception, rather than passive consumption. The artist’s visual and physical disruption of the surrounding environment cultivated an awareness of the forces—environmental, economic, artistic, cultural, sociological, or other—that create periods of urban expansion and contraction.

Galpin’s larger body of work consciously evokes the formal language of early twentieth century artists who sought new ways to express and represent social and cultural transformations wrought by war, political revolution, industry, and technology. His influences include British Vorticists like David Bomberg and Edward Wadsworth, who represented the modern urban environment of World War I-era England. They rendered kaleidoscopic scenes of dockworkers and shipyards, with rhythms and actions of industrial labor and warfare contoured into angular facets. Blast, the title and contents of Vorticism’s manifesto and journal published in June 1914, encapsulates the movement’s ethos and debt to Futurism. The “Slow Boom” of Galpin’s crawlers, however, emanates not from explosive power, as with Futurist and Vorticist explosions of line and color. With segments spread like extended limbs, his works suggest a measured, rhythmic transformation that develops with the calculated precision and tension of a dramatic performance on stage. This arrangement reflects his interest in German Bauhaus artist Oskar Schlemmer, whose kinetic works of the 1920s merged theater, dance, and geometric abstract art. Schlemmer explored the ways in which the body’s movement orchestrates formal transformations. He envisioned the human figure not represented within the space of the stage, but instead as “the perfect engineer,” directing the action from within, an idea that Galpin’s crawlers reiterate.1

A fascination with material (facture) and structural architecture (tectonics) also connects Galpin to a history of art rooted in Constructivism. The crawlers shift between two and three dimensions, simultaneously appearing as relief objects and pictorial representations. An illusion of depth arises from their physical intersections, and an image emerges the longer one looks at the arrangements of forms in space. This spatial tension created by formal structure calls forth the work of El Lissitzky, one of the key figures of Russian Constructivism, whose groundbreaking artistic experiments helped develop the language of abstract art in the early 20th century. Invested in the revolutionary possibilities of artistic representation, and with a background in architecture, engineering, and design, Lissitzky created numerous non-objective artworks that often took on the appearance of blueprints or schematic drawings. One of his most radical works was the site-specific installation Proun Room, housed in the Lehrter Bahnhof (now Berlin’s main train station) in 1923. In explaining the Proun Room as “the station for change from painting to architecture,” Lissitzky used this architectonic arrangement to extend his formal investigations to a space defined by potential movement and change.2 Almost a century later, Galpin's own environmental abstractions echo not only the forms of Lissitzky's earlier work, but its conceptual preoccupations as well.

The crawlers draw upon the technologies and materials of architecture to consider constructions sites as scenes of transformation. Using the walls of the gallery as a theatrical space, Galpin’s work is an abstraction of urban vertical sprawl and a metamorphosis of machinery and movement—the crane operator and the artist, both perfect engineers. The city, Galpin seems to say, is a living organism. Its growth and decay are necessary foes, both integral to the dynamic structures and agents of expansion that define the contemporary urban ecosystem.

1 Oskar Schlemmer, “Man and Art Figure,” in The Theatre of the Bauhaus, edited by Walter Gropius, trans. Arthur S. Wensinger (Middletown, Connecticut, 1961), p. 22.

2 El Lissitzky and Hans Arp, Die Kunstismen/Les Ismes De L’Art/The Isms of Art: 1914-1924, Erlenbach-Zürich/Munich/Leipzig: Eugen Rentsch, 1925.

© 2017 Richard Galpin