Sculptor Robin Peck’s installation Distance, shown at Toronto’s Diaz Contemporary in late fall of 2010, consisted of an array of three-tiered, ziggurat-like forms made by applying lengths of plaster-impregnated burlap tightly—but none too carefully—to cardboard boxes.
Normally, it’s easy enough to tell a mass from a volume, even at a considerable distance. In this case, however, you pretty much had to shift one of the ziggurats with your foot or actually pick one up in order to discover how unexpectedly light and insubstantial each of these hollow objects was. Indeed, it was surprising to find them hollow at all, given the historically tinctured, elemental ur-shape each possessed and so authoritatively inhabited: a shape casting a referential shadow back through Judd, Smithson, Brancusi and, well before that, to the Tower of Babel and other manifestations of proto-architectural structures.
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The New Brunswick–based Peck (who is an associate professor at St. Thomas University), has exhibited widely over the last 30 years, during which time he has enacted consummately controlled sculptural procedures with surprisingly ordinary materials. This legacy was seen in his early use of books as elements of sculptural construction, in his mid-1970s experiments with plaster-coated ziggurats (of which the Distance works are a development), in his sheets of glass, in his famous series of Gypsum Crystals and so on. This history lent the works at Diaz the unforgettable vitality that comes from the virtuoso wielding of compelling differences—a lifetime practice engagingly explored in Peck’s 2004 book Sculpture: A Journey to the Circumference of the Earth.
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The cardboard ziggurats that made up Distance (each of which was also individually titled Distance) varied slightly in exact shape of stacked elements (these were different heights and different widths) and in the colour of the plaster used (some structures were whiter, bluer or yellower than others). Over time, these decisions could have started to look like a tendency to sculptural grace, as if Peck were on his way to furnishing a sort of morphological delectation, the way Cy Twombly had with his plaster constructions of the 1980s and early 1990s.
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But in the end, there was so much irreducible physicality in these what-you-see-is-what-there-is shapes that there was no room left in them for style as confection, as distraction, as blandishment. Peck’s light but resolute ziggurats were tough, chewy little objects, paradoxically nailed into the sculptural present by their own murmuring, echoing historicity. They were as sturdy as fire plugs and, at the same time, they fuelled long, time-tunnel ruminations upon what sculpture is—and even upon what structure is.