Like the classic notion of beauty, traditions of craftsmanship were often rejected by modern art. For much of the last century, artists felt a need to make works that were not only ugly by conventional standards, but crude. Many still do, but clearly Dan Toone is not one of them. It’s true that his sculpture, titled “Dancing Steel,” one of eighteen currently on the main floor of Phillips Gallery, is attached to its base by four quite visible machine screws, but they, like its two contrasting varieties of steel, one of which spirals around the the other the way Gene Kelly swings around the lamppost in Singing in the Rain, demonstrates not only consummate skill in crafting, but a deliberate choice to make manufactured metal parts into a vocabulary of artistic expression.
The restless way Toone moves from one style of sculpting to another here shows his need to constantly take the measure of his medium. At one end of the spectrum he has raw steel, an entirely industrial material, which is theoretically a malleable compound, but is most likely to be found in raw forms like sheets, rods, and beams. On the other, there are what he calls in his statement the “smooth, unrestrained flowing lines, shapes, and forms” that he enjoys drawing forth from that obdurate matter. Then there are the patinas: surface treatments that transform the colors of metal into rainbows of color while exploiting its unique optical qualities. Toone regards the results as the “personalities” of the metals he works with, and speaks of them the way portrait makers might marvel at the expressive potential they find in the features and figures of their subjects.
Three separate works at Phillips collaborate to make Toone’s material point and, as they do, simultaneously display his versatility. In “Perpend III,” which hangs on the wall, four separated semi-circles and their parent shape present pure geometry, all the while able to invoke graceful figures found in nature and the garden. On an adjacent pedestal, “Segments,” an incomplete set of pie-shapes with nary a curve among them, conspires with the viewer’s willing eye to produce circles, including the one through air that bridges the gap of missing pieces to complete itself, giving us a helpful reminder that the worlds inside and outside our minds are each infinitely rich, but in no way the same. Completing their triad, “Sentinel II” stands on the floor and dominates the room, a twenty-first century Stonehenge monolith into which Toone has inserted the all-seeing eye of HAL, Stanley Kubrick’s ruthless computer from 2001, A Space Odyssey. Of course it’s not necessary to agree on what feelings these three objects evoke, but it is clear that with them Toone demonstrates the same fluid versatility and artistic freedom as found in any other first-rate artistic medium.
For the most part, Toone leaves behind the mechanical roots of his practice when he enters the studio, but from time to time he shows it’s still there and still at work, like a composer who incorporates scales into a coloratura aria. In “Holding Together” he invisibly unites seventeen hex-headed machine bolts into a gesture that’s part stop-motion photo, part question mark, and all flourish. Apparently he couldn’t decide how much of the prompt to include in the title: the attached card presents an alternate, and arguably stronger title: “You can either focus on what’s tearing you apart or what’s holding you together.” Beneath every other question of the day, there is this universal dilemma, and we can suss out (and agree with) the artist’s answer for ourselves.
Aside from occasional iron, copper, aluminum, and their various adulterants, there are universal components in sculpture: balance, internal and external space, energy, and so on. But most of all, there’s gravity. Toone invokes its pull most specifically in two pieces, both titled “All Our Yesterdays.” Each suggests a hanging drop of water, which the title’s suggestion of nostalgia may liken to a teardrop. But he mostly brings up gravity to defy it, as anyone who works with such heavy materials might. In “Steel Dancing,” “Half Pipe,” and “Balanced Harmony,” the angular shards of metal look as if they could snag and injure the unwary. But in “Held,” the dark, larger part cradles the smaller, luminous one and provides the perspective it needs to see and reflect its entire environment. In it, Dan Toone arguably leaves behind the challenges of working with physical materials and finds an image that transcends distance, and time, and allows one of us to speak directly and intuitively to us all.
Dan Toone, Phillips Gallery, Salt Lake City, through July 15
Images courtesy of the author