If there are definitive moments for looking at contemporary art then, for me, the work of Murray Favro ranks highest among them. For more than 40 years, Favro’s work has consistently challenged the boundaries of object and imagination, whether in magically illusive sculptural projections such as Country Road or Synthetic Lake, the visual and audio dissonance of his long-running series of guitar sculptures (which he often puts to use as a founding member of the Nihilist Spasm Band), the subtle narrative punch of set pieces like Snow on Steps and Tracks, or the faux presence of his meticulously rendered sculptural facades in Sabre Jet, 55% Size or SD40 Diesel Engine. Yet despite their high-concept impact, his mechanisms are often built using the most basic of hand tools—drill, saws, planes and hammers—a process that gives Favro’s work a refreshing blue-collar edge and that provokes a further dimension of awe regarding his detailed mastery of material invention and fabrication.
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Favro’s latest exhibition “lathe, lawn-mower, tools, tracks & vise,” currently on view at Christopher Cutts Gallery, plays on these elements of meaning and manufacture, bringing together a selection of new and recent works in what amounts to a workshop of carefully crafted conceptualism. The show’s centrepiece work, Lathe, is both a sculpture and a functioning machine that Favro constructed over the last two years. As with any machine or kinetic sculpture, it’s an impressive object if only for the hard logic of its syncopated components. Complemented by a series of photographs that pair individual parts with Favro’s notated design sketches, one gets a good sense for the precise measures involved, and also that Favro’s interests in making the work perhaps lie not so much in the finished “art” as in the puzzle-like exploration of designing and constructing a basic industrial device from scratch. In a text that accompanies the exhibition, Favro writes, “This project at times seemed to be a visual essay. Or research affirming the importance of finding out how something could have been arrived at…Making these objects is a dynamic involvement in a dynamic subject. When I stand back now and look at it I see that I have a new way of building things, a sort of language.” In essence, it’s an approach that rests at the antithesis of mass production. This overriding notion of a maker’s curiosity equally applies to other new sculptures in the show, Lawn-Mower and the framed object-simulacrum works Shavers and Potato Peeler.
Older works in the exhibition carry this same attention to the dynamics of material detail, but sway more intentionally into metaphorical territory. Favro’s Tools, from 1998, offers a kind of critique of “tools of the trade” with its hanging display of a hand-made saw, hammer, plane and hand drill topped by a wood-and-metal replica of an AK-47 assault rifle. In 2001’s Tracks, a companion piece to Favro’s full-sized train-engine sculpture, SD40 Diesel Engine, a segment of railway tracks carved from wood sit on a photograph of gravel. Material contrasts aside, this is an icon of the industrial age (and of Favro’s hometown, London, which was a centre of train-engine assembly) isolated in a limbo of halted progress, the projection of its uncertain course left to the imagination of the viewer.
Vice, from 1999, brings the workmanlike feel and the conceptual complexity of all of the works in exhibition full circle. Here, Favro has reproduced a life-sized blacksmith’s vise in wood, a nod to lost histories that, like Lathe, takes the form of an essential tool of industry. Yet looking at these sculptures recontextualized in the gallery space, one can’t avoid thoughts of the charged art histories of object-subject relationships that date back to Duchamp. Favro is clever but he’s no trickster. In their finished state, these sculptures may gather meaning from debate about representation. But the real power in Favro’s works is a consideration of the hands-on discoveries embedded in their making. The fact that these objects then become something more is just a bonus. (21 Morrow Ave, Toronto ON)