Something doesn't have to be big to make an impact. Such is the case with "Wire. Paper. Steel," a new exhibition opening Monday at Gallery 221 on the Dale Mabry campus of Hillsborough Community College.
Dominique Labauvie has an international reputation, showing in museums and major galleries, including our own Tampa Museum of Art. His spare sculptures are often (and best) accompanied by his lyrical drawings or prints he creates with his wife, Erika Greenberg-Schneider, an acclaimed master printer who owns the atelier Bleu Acier.
Gallery 221 is a small space next to the library, not a high-profile venue, and director Katherine Gibson said she was honestly surprised when Labauvie agreed to the show. He said he liked the feel of the space and that it was on a small college campus with lots of students.
She didn't crowd the room. A single free-standing sculpture is centered in the middle of the room, bracketed by two large drawings pinned to opposite walls.
Labauvie's art explores occupation, how it defines and changes a space through void and volume, and, yes, it is unapologetically cerebral. It asks for your time, and fortunately, the gallery has benches that allow you to settle in and contemplate.
The sculpture, while abstract, has a grounded context. It's made from discarded pieces of the historic Columbus Drive Bridge in Tampa, which has been renovated. Built in the 1920s, it was one of only a handful of swing bridges in Florida, pivoting horizontally to allow tall boats to pass through rather than using the more common drawbridge method. Much of the original metal, manufactured by Carnegie Steel, was replaced, and Labauvie was able to obtain some of the old parts.
He typically uses salvaged metal, but the specific provenance of this metal appealed to him. The sculpture isn't about the bridge. It's about the bridge's material that for decades was used for a pragmatic and hard-working purpose, now repurposed and allowed to relax into its new role as a piece of art.
Labauvie uses metaphors and allusions when describing his art, and the sculptures do have suggestive elements. The vertical supports, made from a heavy construction material, are as near invisible as possible, delicate, precarious arms lifting and balancing the ring of riveted metal. They seem to sway and, if you walk through or around the sculpture, you can get a small kinetic response from it.
The black and white drawings are done in charcoal and white pastels tinged with blue and yellow for contrast. White rectangles and trapezoids connected by black diamonds float and tumble, levitate or descend depending on how you look at them.
The big surprise of this show is revealed when you walk to the gallery windows, which are blocked by three free-standing panels that are blank on the sides facing the gallery. Walk around to the sides facing the windows and you'll find a collection of tiny wire sculptures, also by Labauvie. I have been to many of his shows and have visited his studio often but have never seen them because he considers them a private pastime.
They're fresh, whimsical and remind me of Alexander Calder's work, without the color. To Labauvie, they are the equivalent of doodles, made when he's relaxing and not thinking about much of anything. But he's usually drinking a glass of Champagne, because each is made from the wire that's wrapped around the bubbly's cork. More than 10 years ago, he began playing with the wire each time he uncorked a bottle and thus began this collection, which numbers more than 40. They aren't as serious as his "real" art, but they have great charm.
Lennie Bennett can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or (727) 893-8293.