Cyprien Gaillard: Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens

9 November – 1 February 2014, Gladstone Gallery, New York

By David Everitt Howe

Cyprien Gaillard, Installation view (Gladstone Gallery, New York). Photo: David Regen © the artist. Courtesy Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels Cyprien Gaillard, A City Learns to Smile Again, 2013. © the artist. Courtesy Sprueth Magers Berlin London and Gladstone Gallery, New York and Brussels

Cyprien Gaillard’s Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens shares with Richard Serra’s swooping metal passageways down the street at Gagosian a kind of uncompromising, brutal masculinity that, in its minimalist simplicity and scale, seems curiously old-guard, as if monumental sculpture from the 1970s was suddenly in vogue again.

Taking the excavator heads off those mammoth machines that scoop earth out of the ground, Gaillard has arranged them at eye level around the perimeter of the gallery. They don’t look very big from afar, but while they’re all different sizes here, the biggest ones can be monstrous up close. They’re arranged like rows of open jaws, replete with heavy teeth pressing down into the floor. Washed and waxed, they reveal some stunning detail – note the hash marks on the maw of Cuban Gallinule (all works 2013), which look like they could’ve been drawn on instead of etched in metal. Lord Howe Stubtail is streaked in a brilliant orange – rust?

For each, Gaillard has inserted slim onyx and calcite cylinders into the holes through which the gaping buckets are usually attached to their excavators, as if to tame or balance their raw industrialism. Sourced from Iran and Utah, the cylinders add a gentle, geopolitical frisson to the mix. Beautifully refracted on the inside, like layers of compressed, cloudy gems, these exquisitely delicate minerals don’t so much contrast as complement their boorish counterparts, which actually, on the surface at least, display equal detailing. Bathed in light from a bizarre lightboxlike ceiling constructed specially for this show, the sculptures are breathtakingly otherworldly.

It’s fittingly ironic that the exhibition’s title is taken from a slogan on a construction site’s mural in chichi Beverly Hills. Gaillard thought it strange that the site’s bright future was compared to Dickens – a sad, dystopian invocation if ever there was one. Lifting the contents of some godforsaken construction pit and placing it, rather ceremoniously, in one of Barbara Gladstone’s two pristine Chelsea spaces, Gaillard has buffed and polished what is literally the most workaday machinery into beautiful totems of ‘progress’ wrapped in scare quotes.

What is the promise of new development after all? More luxury condos? More tacky people who live in them? Equally tacky artworks to go on their walls? There’s a welcome undertone of pessimism to Today Diggers, Tomorrow Dickens, in which the tools we use to build our cities are left decidedly sinister, even animalistic, as if the minimalist sculpture of yesteryear had turned into something that might actually eat you.

Less interesting are the slight sculptures upstairs, which are kept tidily in display cases. Made of National Geographic magazines, where a few of each issue’s pages have been curled back to form something like an elongated blossom, each work juxtaposes the images inside to reveal the environmental impact of human activity, such as the automotive industry in Detroit Outgrows Its Past. Surprisingly, these works seem heavy-handed compared to the monsters downstairs, which say a lot about who we are by doing very little – they simply sit there and scare us, because they are us.

This article was first published in the March 2014 issue.