Carol Bove

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The Magic of Fall Fashion at the Venice Biennale

Photo by Mario Sorrenti for The Wall Street Journal Magazine

The city of Venice has acted as a catalyst for artists for centuries, energizing an array of talents—from Titian to Henry James, Palladio to Luchino Visconti—and resulting in some of their most enduring work. Here they discovered inspiration in the winding alleys of the floating city and in the glow of gothic palazzi washed in sunlight. That vibrant tradition of imagination is nowhere more evident than at the Venice Biennale, whose 57th edition runs through November, gathering artists and visionaries from around the world to share their unique practices and ideas. Here, the leading lights of today’s artistic firmament open up about their careers, in La Serenissima and beyond, as we get swept away by the romanticism of the city—the perfect backdrop for fall’s most daring looks.

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Sculpture's Woman of Steel, Carol Bove

Photo by Tony Cenicola

A visit to the sculptor Carol Bove's studio in a former brick factory near the Brooklyn waterfront does not exactly make Rimbaud's advice for the true artist—to engage in a "boundless and systematized disorganization of all the senses"—leap to mind. A huge manufacturing floor dominated by an overhead gantry that looks as if it could hoist a subway car, the place instead evokes distinctly unpoetic phrases like "productivity gains" and "customer fulfillment strategies."

But Ms. Bove, 45, whose pieces have become widely celebrated in recent years, collected by the Museum of Modern Art and shown at the Venice Biennale, is also known to keep a small trampoline in the studio, one of her esoteric strategies for "dissolving my sense of separateness from the world," as she describes the prison of habitual, or even rational, thinking. In an essay she wrote last year for younger artists, she added that over the years, she has also tried out "Ayurvedic principles, philosophy, Feldenkrais technique, anthropology, astrology, the physiology of perception, contemplating life as a cave man, health-food regimens, psychedelic experiences, reading self-help books, eBay, falling in love, practicing magical rites" and "the scientific tradition," among other freeing approaches from a deep therapeutic grab bag.

"I don't want my work to be reduced to my personality," she said in a recent interview. "I want it to be my self, which I think of as something much larger."

The most recent work to emerge from these inquiries—which goes on view on Saturday in Ms. Bove's first New York solo show at the David Zwirner gallery—seems to channel spirits from the pantheon of heavy-metal 20th-century sculptors, a he-man group (it is almost exclusively male) that includes John Chamberlain, Tony Smith, Alexander Liberman and Anthony Caro.

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In the Studio with Carol Bove, The Sculptor Who Bends Steel as if It Were Plastic

Photo by Andreas Laszlo Konrath

"Here's a good purse hanger," said the artist Carol Bove on a recent morning in Brooklyn, resting her hand fondly on the handle of an industrial hydraulic press. She still wasn't sure of its intended use, but she's found it to be especially handy as both a handbag tree and for coercing giant tubes of steel to her artistic will.

A sculptor who specializes in "big, heavy, but fragile" works, as she described them, Bove was born in Geneva—it was announced this week that she will represent Switzerland in next year's Venice Biennale–but she grew up primarily in Berkeley, California, a culture that has long informed her work. But in the last 10 years, another place has affected her art: Bove was one of the first of the wave of artists to move to Red Hook, a somewhat removed part of Brooklyn that's since become home to an Ikea, a Fairway, and spaces like Pioneer Works, but was better known as a yard for feral, wild dogs when Bove was first getting settled. (There wasn't a grocery store for miles.)

Not that she minded. It only meant more room to spread, which she's done consistently over the last decade, from her nearby home to a handful of indoor and outdoor studios. Her latest addition—the vaulted former glass fabrication factory we stood in that morning—has enough space not just for the comparatively tiny hydraulic press, but for Bove's tallest and largest works to date: combinations of found, manipulated, and fabricated steel that clock in at up to 1,500 pounds, and which have since been transported to two of David Zwirner's galleries in Chelsea for "Polka Dots," her show opening on Saturday.

These new assemblages, which she's dubbed "collage sculptures," are without question Bove's most ambitious works yet, putting her in the realm of heavyweight, overwhelmingly male sculptor forebears like John Chamberlain. Previously, she'd been working almost exclusively with found objects like paperbacks, driftwood, and peacock feather, which she'd then reframe with brass and steel—"tasteful" installations that, around a year and a half ago, Bove decided had arrived at a point of diminishing returns.

"I was sick of them," Bove said of her past constructions, some of which were at the center of a much raved about 2013 installation at MoMA. "I wanted to see something that's actually kind of garish and tacky, and the stuff I was doing was tending much more toward this kind of romantic, elegant set of registers. I wanted to open it up."

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Carol Bove's seductive sculptures force us to confront our inner animal

Using everything from 30-million-year-old trees to white loop the loops, Bove's easy-on-the-eye artworks could easily be plopped down in a corporate plaza. But they're so much more intriguing than that

A 30-million-year-old petrified tree trunk is bolted to a vertical steel I-beam. It's a brown thing climbing another brown thing, standing on the wooden floor at David Zwirner gallery in Mayfair. Nearby, a white steel tube does a loop the loop. This is called Noodle. My eye sucks it up like spaghetti.

Carol Bove calls these immaculate white sculptures Glyphs, and they look a bit like a child's first rounded attempts at joined-up writing, redone in fetish-finish fabricated steel. Their easy-on-the-eye abstraction also recalls the kind of upbeat art that gets plopped down in public squares and corporate plazas, as much a logo for art as art itself. They have all the meaning of an uncoiled spring, and could almost go anywhere. Bove is aware of this.

The American artist currently has two shows in the UK. The other, at the Henry Moore Institute in Leeds, pairs Bove with the Venetian modernist architect, designer and artist Carlo Scarpa (1906-78). Juxtaposing Scarpa's artworks and utilitarian design objects with her own art, and incorporating his work with hers, Bove both honours a predecessor and takes him on a journey. Bove's is an art of constant returns and repetitions. Going from room to room, and gallery to gallery, I'm stricken by a growing sense of déjà vu. There's another Glyph, and a second totemic tree-trunk and I-beam looming in Leeds.

One large concrete sculpture stands on the downstairs floor at Zwirner, while a different version hangs around in the Henry Moore Institute's lobby, as though waiting to be let in. Each of them could easily take centre stage and fill a room on its own. Instead, Bove places them in such a way that downplays their monumentality, until we get up close. Both sculptures consist of two boxy concrete cuboids, one atop the other. The upper concrete section breaks up into smaller blocks, steps and elevations, like some kind of fantasy architecture hewn from a mountain. Walking round them, we're surprised by groups of little bolted-together open brass cubes or cells, climbing around the concrete ledges. They seem to proliferate as we look.

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New York-based sculptor Carol Bove makes work that slips effortlessly between the natural and industrial, the found and made, order and chaos. She tells us about experiencing art, bringing colour into her palette, and her love of crushing things

What do you want the viewer to experience in this show?
'In staging the works throughout the space, I want there to be surprises in the way that things unfold: how you're always looking at one thing through another. There are particular routes suggested and choreographed around the galleries because I want people to think about being in the space. It's intentional that one of the galleries feels as if you’re barred from entering because it's kind of crammed with too much work. And I'm completely immersed in thinking about what a sculpture does on and off the plinth. Whatever display strategy you use as an artist will change the perception of the work.'

Why four works in each of the four galleries?
'That wasn't something I set out to do but it's not a coincidence, it's how things gelled. Four seems elemental and is a cardinal number, but it's also symmetrical, so it gives the works an awkwardness.'

Is the exhibition designed especially for London?
'When I started working on the show over three years ago, I thought: what does London need? It needs a forest! Then I thought you should be able to go into the forest and touch it and it will have some sort of sexuality.'

So we can touch the sculptures?
'That’s where it gets complicated. It's actually really okay to touch 'Blindsight' (2014). It's made from petrified wood, which is confusing because it looks exactly like wood but it's stone. There's this cognitive dissonance to it. Also, you can't fathom its age: it’s 30 million years old and that pulls you into a different kind of space, to think about something that prefigures humans and history. It's like a witness in the gallery space.'

But you've bolted an I-beam to it!
'Yeah, I love I-beams. There is something very elegant and awkward about them.'

The works vary from raw to slick textures. Is variety important to you?
'I want to have a variety of different feeling tones, that's part of the use of materials. Rusty metal, for example, is really substantial, which is partly about romance and violence. Sometimes, though, it’s totally a slick finish fetish.'

In previous shows you've referred to or worked with other creative figures. Why go it alone here?
'This is an unusual exhibition for me because there's no other artist or author in it. One of the shaping principals in making this show was not to have any other direct reference points. It partly addresses referentiality in art, which is a habit of our time. When we look at artworks, we have a tendency to see the constitute elements, do a DNA analysis, and say: "It's part Brancusi and Jeff Koons". There is a reductionism that happens with that, whereas I'm trying to make things that suggest a different type of viewing that solicits certain types of referential readings, but then frustrates them so they never sit comfortably and get resolved.'

Some of the steel works are colourful. Is that a new development?
'I wanted to have colour in the show. Sometimes everything is so brown and tasteful, and I wanted something that is tacky and harsher. They also look like what they are, but in a way they don't. I think they look very spontaneous, soft, and as if they've been made in an easy way, which is true. But they're not soft, they're pretty thick steel. I have a hydraulic press in the studio that you can just put them into and crank on it to manipulate the form.'

That sounds satisfying.
'At a certain point last year I thought I wanna start crushing things. Crushing things is really fun!'