Any 22-year retrospective could be called How Did I Get Here? But in the case of Cris Bruch, the title has an added resonance, because it's the first question his sculptures pose when you look at them.
The critic Peter Schjeldahl has written that modern sculpture, divorced from the historic functions of architectural decoration or memorial, must make such an impression from the start that it circumvents potentially fatal basic questions such as "What is that? Why is it there? When will it go away?"
Bruch's work circumvents the circumventing, and it's not easy to explain how he does it. His sculptures are labor-intensive. The skill distracts you from the uselessness and queerness of the objects. Then suddenly, the distraction is over, and you start to deal with the objects: what they resemble, their scale, their color, the way they can't be photographed.
And by justifying themselves up front—in addition to the other layers of experience these sculptures offer—they acknowledge Bruch's fundamental discomfort with art for art's sake.
Whatever else Bruch has done in his lifetime as an artist, he has allowed his own ambivalence about modern philosophies of aesthetics to be a part of his work, to be built in, to speak out. In this way and others, he shows he's been deeply influenced by feminism, not just when he uses shapes typically associated with femaleness (Perfect Landscape is a doughnut whose hole appears to have some gravitational pull; Strangeland is like a smattering of nipples on the wall), but more importantly in a devotion to process, socialist politics, and collective concerns. Without making a single overt reference to the history or lives of women (except perhaps the shopping carts), this broad, excellent survey organized by Lawrimore Project may be the most feminist exhibition in Seattle this year, a way for Northwesterners to consider some of the legacies posited in recent New York and L.A. feminist art exhibitions like Wack! (which comes to the Vancouver Art Gallery in late 2008), Identity Theft, and Global Feminisms.
When Bruch told me he was influenced by Carolee Schneeman's performance pulling a scroll from her vagina while reading from it in 1975, I almost couldn't believe I didn't think of it myself, considering a work like Sketchbook (2007). Sketchbook is drawings and notes on plywood that Bruch made for the show, cut up and pieced back together in what looks like an oversized pencil shaving curving back on itself and resting lightly on a work desk like a tangled-up cloud.
In 1975, Bruch was 18 and about to enroll as an art student at the University of Kansas. Later, he earned master's degrees in video, performance, and sculpture at the University of Wisconsin. In 1985, he made the first and most iconic of his sculptures: Attention Shoppers. It's a shopping cart sheathed in black steel, held together by rivets, full of references to formalist modernist sculpture but delivering a hard smack of social commentary about death and consumerism. What you can't tell about it at first sight is that it rolls on its wheels, and has a wok with a steel ball bearing rolling around inside it making noise. The thing is commanding (it also has S&M overtones). It's also funny, like 93 Pieces, a hammered shopping cart lying on the floor shattered, which he made that same year. They became part of a series of carts Bruch got a good deal of attention for in the late 1980s, some of which he pushed around outdoors after he got to Seattle in 1987 and began living in the derelict zone of Pioneer Square.
At that time, he made rubbings of the surfaces in the neighborhood. Like any found-object artist with a conscience, he'd use whatever was around him in his art—but he also set rules for himself, observing a rigid process that is paralleled in the later precisionist objects. He'd walk a single block and take rubbings as he went, but he wouldn't allow himself to erase, to turn back, or to start over. Each rubbing was a performance.
Bruch burned out on social sculpture eventually, for various reasons, including its inability to help the indigent people who were often its subjects. He turned toward a more formal style whose fine finish is not a fetish but a running commentary on the relationship between labor and art. (Which is riffed on in a loose video work, too, a shot of Bruch sleeping on the work table in his studio to the idling sound of his motorcycle, in a new work called Idle.)
For What Do You Want to Talk About? (2000), Bruch cast a blown-up inner tube in plaster in two halves, like a sliced bagel, then made wood shapes from the casts. One of the halves is done with airtight fine woodworking, the other with haphazardly laid strips of wood riddled by cartoonish holes. They're an odd couple, made with completely different priorities. That's what you want to talk about.
Part of Bruch's magic is that even though he's cerebral, his work doesn't go cold. Not everything he makes connects. I'm still not sure about Mutterhulse (2007), a sculpture whose shiny, shingled surface and Day-Glo-blue base seems to detract from the strangeness of its skirted-mother shape; and the garbage-can lids bearing messages in the title work, How Did I Get Here? (2001); and Cleave (2006), the sinkable canoe on the wall. But most of the works do connect, and don't give themselves up right away. This is the Seattle premiere of Pilgrim (2004), for instance, but it was shown in Portland last year at Elizabeth Leach Gallery, and its optical oscillations still leave me marveling, even though their mechanism—coiled paper—is simple as can be. Part of the power in that object is that it loves being looked at.
Most of all, every work in the show gives the impression of a nimble, skeptical, self-conscious, and cunningly funny mind, from the lowercase letter "n" made for a crowded art fair and bristling against its highbrow title, Only Connect, to the single work that's not for sale. It's called Public Art = Private Humiliation, and on it Bruch dramatizes his performance anxiety by writing, in cursive, "I must sit here until I come up with a good idea to make for the art museum." He's keeping that one, to remind himself that making art isn't punishment. But it is work. And pleasure. It's all there.