BUFFALO, N.Y. — A voluminous sculpture of about 60 tangled, aluminum boats has been turning heads skyward since construction started on June 6 at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery.
Planted on a lawn in the middle of a looped driveway off Elmwood Avenue, the web of mostly canoes rises like a tree, with watercraft bursting like silver branches atop a stainless steel armature.
On the afternoon of June 10, a warm and partly cloudy Friday, passersby paused to watch as workmen climbed between the metal boughs of the colossal creation.
Motorists slowed. A bicyclist shouted something about whether the installation came with instructions. A small girl told her guardian, “it’s just a bunch of canoes,” to which the adult replied, “Anything can be artwork if you put together.”
Along those lines, a debate had ensued the day before among strangers riding the No. 32 bus, which stops across the street at Buffalo State College. The questions at hand: Is this thing art, and if so, is it beautiful?
The sculpture, by Southern Californian Nancy Rubins, is most certainly art. For three decades, Rubins has been joining televisions, mattresses, airplane parts and other objects into awesome, mushrooming constructs.
Other nautical works by Rubins include “Big Edge,” a firework-like bloom of some 200 vessels that she erected in Las Vegas in 2009, and “Big Pleasure Point,” a playful conglomeration of rowboats, kayaks, canoes, sailboats, surfboards, windsurf boards and more that she exhibited in New York City during the summer of 2006.
The Vegas and New York displays—built, respectively on the grounds of the multi-hotel CityCenter resort and the Lincoln Center for the Performing Arts—exploded with color.
The Albright-Knox assemblage, in contrast, is a more subdued silver, endowing the three-dimensional collage of boats with an industrial feel that seems more in line with Buffalo’s history as a steel and factory town.
Rubins, however, says she has no agenda when it comes to what viewers should take away from her work. As she told the Las Vegas Sun in 2009, “I’m not really a message artist. That’s not my job. My job is to make it so people can bring to it whatever they have got going, for the viewer to have their own interpretation.”
Outside the Albright-Knox on June 10, Rubins—dressed all in black except for a yellow hard hat and a smear of bright, cerise lipstick—declined an interview, saying she wanted to concentrate on completing her sculpture. But in response to a short list of questions that Albright-Knox curator Heather Pesanti asked the artist on behalf of Artvoice, Rubins was clear about her philosophy when it comes to art.
“She felt very adamant about saying that she does not want to tell people what her work means, or what they ‘should’ get out of it,” Pesanti said in an email. “Each person should interpret it for themselves, in their own manner, and that’s what art is about. Not being told what something means.”
Whatever observers think of it, Rubins’ piece at the Albright-Knox is an iconic addition to the gallery—and to Buffalo. The jumble of boats rises a few stories tall, with a maze of stainless steel cables trussing all the vessels together.
The sculpture, not yet titled as of Monday, replaces a more muted, diamond-shaped work by minimalist Antoni Milkowski that will find a home elsewhere on the Albright-Knox campus.
The change is in line with efforts to revive the gallery’s grounds with new art, including Do Ho Suh’s “Karma,” a tower of crouching human figures stacked atop one another, and a work in progress by Andy Goldsworthy that is planned to consist of a glacial boulder from which a mist will rise.
“Part of our director Louis Grachos’ mission is to reenvision the grounds as a place not just for modernist art, but contemporary art,” Pesanti said. “A lot of the sculpture on the grounds haven’t been changed [in decades]…Just like the inside of the gallery, we have old and new. We wanted that outside.”
Rubins and her out-of-town crew finished stringing the final boat to her sculpture on last week, but work has continued on final touches such as lighting and landscaping.
Pesanti said the artist does not know precisely how many vessels are in the assemblage. Between 55 and 60—all canoes, with the exception of maybe a couple of rowboats—is a best guess.
Rubins uses watercraft in her art because she likes their aesthetics, their elegant shape. As she related in an interview with the New York Times in 2006, “The boats are much more agile and mobile than I thought. They behave beautifully in the air.”
At the Albright-Knox, in her signature style, Rubins has made many of her creative decisions about composition on the spot; she has previously compared her process to arranging flowers (but with boats, of course).
Her sculpture in Buffalo—engineered to withstand conditions from wind to blizzards—is not necessarily delicate. But the canopy of vessels has a certain grace. Many of the boats look as if they’ve been caught in mid-motion, twisting or flying on some invisible wave. The canoes, all used, bear the dents and scrapes of a carefree life on the river.
It is possible to see any number of emotions in Rubins’ bouquet of nautical treasures. Aloft, the boats are heavy but exquisite, gritty but light as air. Tied together, they seem explosive, yet somehow playful, too.
What it all means is up to the viewer to decide.
Rubins’ sculpture will be officially unveiled June 30 at a signature fundraising event. For information, visit the Albright-Knox online. A version of this story also appeared in Artvoice, Buffalo’s newsweekly.