The centerpiece, conceptually and physically, of Aaron Stephan's show at Whitney Art Works is "Flat World/Round Map," a cast-iron sphere about six feet in diameter. While not exactly the largest ( "18 Columns" covers more ground and "The Burden Crates" is taller) it creates a center of gravity around itself.
Stephan likes to make works that have multiple layers of literal meaning. They are not quite visual or conceptual puns, but any one aspect of them can make several references, some of which can invoke the same word used different ways ("gravity" in the paragraph above is a case in point).
"Flat World/Round Map" is a globe made up of spherical equilateral triangles with thick flanges at their edges that are bolted together to form the sphere. The earth's continents are marked out in low relief in the areas between the flanges. If these triangles were removed from the sphere and flattened out they would form Buckminster Fuller's Dymaxion projection method for solving the problem of representing spherical geographic features on a flat map. Jasper Johns used that mapping method for some paintings in the 1970s.
The thick flanges make the assembly appear prepared to withstand high pressure, rather like Beebe's bathysphere deep-diving vessel of the 1930s. It also looks heavy but isn't, weighing about as much as a Mini Cooper. The apparent weight gives the piece a visceral presence similar to a Serra sculpture or a large boulder.
These are overt references. Stephan is using his piece as an interwoven set of commentaries on art, on perception, and, by extension, on language. We are given a context, or a series of contexts, and invited to consider them through the medium of his piece.
"18 Columns" is a group of plaster reproductions of Doric columns about eight feet long that are carefully stacked with their top ends on one another and their bottom ends laid out in a long arc, like the blades of an Oriental fan. Here again we encounter layered references (another pun — the top ends are in an actual layer). We have ancient Greek architectural elements arranged in a way that recalls the stacked elements of the Post-minimal sculpture of the late 1960s.
This is not accidental. "18 Columns," "Flat World/Round Map," and all rest of the pieces in this show are carefully made and show the effects of long hours spent in the studio. Projects of this scale aren't undertaken lightly, and Stephan has clearly thought carefully about what he is after and how to get there.
"The Burden Crates" in the back room are two large wooden structures that are made the same way crates are made to transport artworks, with plywood and furring strips nailed together. The crates are roughly in human form, but larger, as if they were made with plenty of room to pack a human for safe shipping.
One of the crates is in a posture to fire a rifle at the other, a reference to Chris Burden's 1971 performance piece in which he had himself shot in the arm by an assistant. Stephan complicates the dual meanings of "burden" by imagining the crate it would take to ship Burden and his assistant as if they themselves were works of art and could be shipped like a Ming vase.
Stephan extends his engagement with art history to the 17th century with his series of drawings of Vermeer's "Girl with a Pearl Earring." Small drawings of this figure are shown as if it were folded, bent, repeated, and falling. Stephan is treating the picture as a contemporary icon, which it has become since the popularity of Tracy Chevalier's unfortunate book of the same name.
This is a well-wrought show. Stephan has clearly acquired the technical ability to realize his current artistic ambitions. It will be interesting to see where he takes this ability and drive in the future.
Ken Greenleaf can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
"TAKEN OUT OF CONTEXT" | sculpture by Aaron Stephan | through June 27 | at Whitney Art Works, 492 Congress St, Portland | 207.774.7011