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Critical Review of “Random Precision” by DeWitt Cheng

Peninsula Museum of Art Catalog

Albert Dicruttalo Press
Critical review of "Random Precision" exhibition at Peninsula Museum of Art, by DeWitt Cheng
If the human figure was the focus of western art from the Renaissance to the twentieth century, industrialization inaugurated a machine aesthetic a century ago that sought and found order, beauty, and meaning in the interplay of geometric forms—Cezanne’s famous trinity of cone, cylinder and sphere. Modernity’s embrace of Euclidean forms is nicely expressed in the career of Fernand Léger, who, as a soldier in the Great War, discerned beauty in the glint of light on polished cannon barrels, and afterward made paintings that garnered him the playful moniker of Tubist. Art historian Werner Haftmann:

His wartime experience deepened his human vision and changed his conception of things. He served in an engineering unit, where he came into close contact with men who were at home in the world of technology— workers, mechanics, engineers. He admired their matter-of-factness in dealing with machines, the precision and directness of their movements, their efficiency, and their optimistic view of the machine as a wonderful extension of man’s strength and power. This was the source of his optimistic and heroic conception of the machine world and its special kind of realism. He felt that as an artist his task was to discover forms of expression appropriate to modern life. The shining, precise, abstract beauty of the machine provided a visual point of departure. He understood that the mechanical thing possessed a representative value as the truest creation of modern civilization, and that the images derived from it could become evocative emblems of the modern industrial world…. In Léger’s view the objet moderne was the legitimate personnage principal of modern painting.

Not all artists, of course, were then or are now so sanguine about technology—and human rationality. K.G.Pontus Hulten in a foreword to the Museum of Modern Art’s massive 1968 show, The Machine as Seen at the End of the Mechanical Age, laid out the full panoply of artists’ attitudes, “from deepest pessimism and despair [Expressionism, Dada, Surrealism] to devotion and even idolatry [Constructivism, Post-Painterly Abstraction, Minimalism],” quoting Charlie Chaplin’s humanist plea climaxing The Great Dictator, as relevant today as in 1940: “Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery we need humanity…” (True, but it does seem, however, these days, does it not, that we feel too much and think far too little, and that the fault lies in us?)

The elegant, witty sculptures of Albert Dicruttalo would seem, judging from the geometric precision of their form, products of traditional bronze and steel craftsmanship and computer design, to belong to the technophile camp. Impeccably crafted, and polished to patinas that would have delighted Léger, these works, with their complicated interplays of convex and concave, of eccentric, elliptical rings and grooves, suggest bearings or joints, details of larger machines or systems; they’re mysterious, beautiful artifacts of unknown purpose. Dicruttalo, on the evolution of his work:

I’ve always responded to the combination of geometric and organic forms and the human form provided the inspiration for much of my work in late 90’s. The figures were always juxtaposed with stark geometry. I tried to approach it in a very formal manner; using sections of the human anatomy combined with fabricated geometry creating two juxtapositions: organic/geometric, cast/fabricated. Eventually, I moved back toward non-representational sculpture, focused purely on form. I came across a “Living Rock Plant” (Lithops) at a nursery and became fascinated by its amazing geometry. Intersecting spherical sections immediately became major elements in my visual vocabulary.

He found, like the early abstractionists, that a nonfigurative approach could still embrace human concerns psychologically and poetically, rather than literally. What sets Dicruttalo’s works apart from obdurately mute, uninflected Donald Judd cubes, say, or Carl Andre metal tiles, are their beauty and complexity: they hold the eye and mind in a way that austere, rigid geometry does not. (The Minimalists with their dry sensibilities: latter day versions of Léger’s poilu comrades in the trenches?) In fact, from a pure mechanical engineering point of view, they’re irrational, as impossible as the endless stairways of M.C. Escher: connect these pieces to some hypothetical larger apparatus and it flies apart, like Jean Tinguely’s 1960 self-destructive work, Homage to New York, or the malfunctioning worker-feeding machine in Chaplin’s 1936 comedy, Modern Times. Never and Always resembles pipe couplings, but impossible ones. A similar work, Deus Ex Machina, may refer slyly not only to the divine interventions of Greek tragedies, but also to the artist’s creative process, seeking resolution (or epiphany) from the conflict and confusion of emotions and materials. Drifter conjoins spherical elements that suggest the splitting of cells, or the multiplication of fish/amphibian eggs, but the artist contradicts that reading, or, rather enriches it, with precise right-angle cuts into the hemispheres: Pol Bury and Brancusi meet PacMan.

Dicruttalo finds in machine forms the elements for constructing metaphors about complexity and contradiction, terms from the postmodernist era that inspired a fair amount of contrived but slapdash art, but that still nicely describe the human condition, and, when refined through an open-ended creative process, make for subtly poetic, conflations or couplings of the rational and the irrational. Dicruttalo:

If you [have] some metal, a grinder, torch and welder you [can] create all sorts of stuff, from the absurd to the sublime…. The ideas usually come from forms in nature and mechanisms. Sometimes they develop more abstractly: thinking about the California drought, then water, then water molecules, and finally covalent bonds. How do you make a sculpture about covalent bonds that isn’t literal, but is formal and has emotional punch? The process starts in a few different ways: sketches, working directly, or computer modeling. And then a whole lot of metal work is done to realize the piece.

DeWitt Cheng