Going With the Flow
Jen Renzi -- Interior Design, 3/1/2005 12:00:00 AM
Sculptor Keith Edmier's abiding interest in history and temporality has often led him to mine his personal background for inspiration. Previous subject matter has included his mother, whose likeness can be found in the permanent collection at London's Tate Modern museum, and Farrah Fawcett, his teenage crush whom he sculpted in bronze and marble for a 2002 exhibition at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art.
For his most recent series, Cycas orogeny, Edmier reaches farther back in time. Last fall's show at New York's Friedrich Petzel Gallery centered on a pair of 7-foot-tall cycad trees, among the world's oldest seed-bearing plants. The polyurethane forms, cast from a living specimen, sprout from inky pools of volcanic basalt, itself the underpinning of all life forms. "It references prehuman history, utilizing geologic material from millions of years ago," Edmier explains. Unlike their primordial counterparts, the forms themselves were fabricated in 16 months—a veritable New York minute considering they were cast in two cities in some 200 pieces by a crew of dozens, and required 3 tons of granular basalt.
The monumental work is rooted in Edmier's long-running fascination with molten lava. A visit to Hawaii further piqued his interest, as did his subsequent discovery of a 1980's public television piece featuring artists casting crude sculptures from lava flows. His search for more accessible (and less flammable) raw materials turned up an intriguing find: basalt. Used for cobblestones in Europe at the turn of the last century, basalt is still used in the manufacture of high-end commercial floor tiles. But to obtain workable material for his art, Edmier would have had to crush the raw basalt with specialized machinery, a laborious and time-consuming activity. Edmier eventually located a quarry in Oregon that supplied granular basalt, which, when melted, is similar to the type of volcanic rock he'd seen in Hawaii.
Though Joseph Beuys had experimented with basalt in the 1980's, there was no true artistic precedent for sculpting the material in the manner Edmier envisioned. For technical assistance, he turned to Graphicstudio, an art-research institute affiliated with the University of South Florida, Tampa. Director Margaret Miller oversaw the process, from securing financing to assembling a team of specialists that included sculpture supervisor Erik Vontillius, ceramicist Chuck McGee, and members of the university's geology department.
After casting the polyurethane-resin cycads in Tampa, Edmier relocated to the Walla Walla Foundry in Washington to fabricate the bases. Working 18-hour days and dressed in space-age, fire-retardant garments straight out of a Stanley Kubrick film, the crew cast the bases in 36 pieces over the course of six weeks. The process was daunting. The basalt was first heated by a gas furnace in a silicon-carbide crucible for six hours; then the molten liquid was poured over a steel armature lined by clay dams. The crew had a slim 6- to 8-minute window in which to pour and shape the plates, which were then doused with sawdust to help create a metallic patina. To prevent cracking, the plates were cooled for 48 hours under ceramic-fiber blankets. Given the tight turnaround time, Edmier didn't even have a chance to fit the plates together until just before the gallery installation.
With all the technical issues hashed out, Edmier is eager to continue working with basalt. "It's the origin of all life forms, where we all came from," he says. "My ultimate interest in the material was to go back to our beginnings." It seems everything comes full circle eventually.