Steely Gaze

The Tucson Museum of Art presents three generations of sculpture in 'Iron Maidens.'

Three generations of women artists, three perspectives using steel as an art medium: This is the concept for the current exhibition at the Tucson Museum of Art. Bella Feldman, Mary Bates-Neubauer and Kim L. Cridler, the artists featured in Iron Maidens: Cast Metal and Welded Steel Sculpture, first came to prominence in the 1970s, '80s and '90s, respectively. Although the two older artists' work has changed over time, this 21st-century exhibition, curated by Julie Sasse, TMA's curator of contemporary art, presents three very different visions of where steel as a medium can lead.

Metalworking is not a gentlewoman's drawing-room art nor is it for the faint of heart. It's a grueling business that requires fireproof clothes and masks to deal with molten metal and scorching fire. As Sasse points out in her catalog essay, even though these three artists don't identify themselves as "feminist artists" or even specifically as "women artists," they are part of an ongoing tradition of women usurping what is still largely a male domain. Despite labeling or lack of labeling, Feldman's and Bates-Neubauer's works include sculptures about women's bodies, a classic subject for feminist art.

The freshest work is by Cridler, an emerging artist at age 33. Two of her four works are based on the classical form of the vase, but she has stretched the vase form to human scale and then stripped its surface down to a skeletal steel grid. In "Pair," Cridler transforms floral decoration into three-dimensional plaster irises that gleam with a wax glaze and pop out from the grid. In this piece and other steel sculptures, Cridler uses something natural to temper the coldness of the metal rods so that the sculptures are neither industrial nor decorative.

That something is clearest in "Foil." Cridler creates a giant birdbath using the same grid technique. Here the bars of the grid are softened with a wax lining. Decorative panels are placed behind and beneath the birdbath. Only after a moment does the lovely bird pattern resolve into a design of birds strung up by their feet like the spoils of the hunt. "Foil" is not a pretty birdbath and garden trellis writ large, but a subtle reminder that death exists everywhere in nature, even in the beautiful, manicured worlds where we would control it. Such an awareness of the omnipresence of death in life is a natural subject for an artist like Cridler, who grew up on a family farm in Michigan.

The selections of Feldman's sculptures come from three bodies of her work, but unfortunately the exhibition labels don't include dates so it's not clear which works come first. Feldman delivers her political commentary with a sense of irony. She created her "War Toys" in response to the Gulf War. These miniature military vehicles on wheels show the ludicrousness of battle. Their steel construction may be impregnable, but their incisors, wings, arrows and balls are not functional. An illustration of how time changes perceptions is that since the inception of the TV show Battlebots, such vehicles could be functional and destructive. Although it's possible to enjoy the irony and construction of Feldman's "War Toys," it is now hard to step back in time and truly appreciate their impact.

Feldman's "Flasks of Fiction Series" uses 12-inch, blown-glass forms that suggest large perfume bottles bound by steel harnesses. The black bottle of "Flasks of Fiction Series: Thorn" is shaped like an upside-down heart and topped by a steel thorn. The heart curves out like buttocks that are strapped by a patterned thong and girdle. As a woman viewer said, "It's almost nasty," which is to say the work suggests bondage and sexual violence. Yet the thorn and the steel that enclose the breakable heart also can be read as weapon and armor (knife and vest) to protect a fragile heart.

Feldman's third body of work appeals to the junk-heap scavenger in 21st-century Americans. She has taken the rusted leftovers of industrial America and reused them, but Feldman hasn't recycled them in the conventional sense. She has attached them to the museum's ceiling and walls with straps or with cables and pulleys in such a way that it seems they might fall. Is American traditional industry a rusted, antiquated system ready to come crashing down?

Bates-Neubauer's sculptures are large, often bulbous forms that resemble rock formations in mottled colors with a patina. They refer to Modernism in terms of their form, but in the 1990s Bates-Neubauer began using new technology to create her work. Now she digitally scans her drawings and then enlarges them. Casting her steel forms directly from the computer program has added texture to the surface of her pieces.

Some of Bates-Neubauer's forms are suggestive of female sexuality. For example, "Verta," which means vertebrae, has an extended opening that suggests a vagina. A large rock-like form with a bronze patina and hole in the center is titled "You Saved Me," and like most of these sculptures, it is essentially about form, color and surface. While her artwork's aesthetic and her professional execution will find its admirers, the modernist simplicity in Bates-Neubauer's work does not appeal to me.

Bates-Neubauer's work is a reminder of what an eclectic place the art world is now, especially outside of New York. Eclecticism has been a great boon to artists. In the heyday of Modernism, artists who were not doing abstract work had a hard time getting their artwork exhibited. Vases, construction remnants and rocks--even if they are all transformed by steel--show enough of a spread to suggest that the art world is embracing some diversity, and at least a few women artists are part of it.