Bryan Volta works hard to undermine the body. His primary tool for getting the job done is a hydraulic breaker attachment, the type construction crews use to quickly demolish large stretches of concrete. Volta’s life-size model, unlike the version available from Caterpillar, is entirely plastic, from the extended shaft back to the industrial-scale bolts. Also, spectacularly, it is covered in chicken feet. The resin-based obtrusions flail out in all directions, curled and splayed.
Volta’s tool is absurd but not funny. It references the most comically inclined animal and twisted shaming rituals—instead of being feathered it has been “footed”—but judging by the black stain that covers the breaker’s first third, it hasn’t lost any of its efficacy, despite the mystery of its utilization.
The obvious partner for the breaker is a slumping oil drum, though the point of entry that allowed for the stain remains invisible. Volta has recast the drum as art by firing it in a kiln, a process that has roughened its surface into a damaged patina. Like the “footing,” this is another semi-comic conversion with an understated connection to potential violence. The breaker speaks to a ritual of non-normative shaming, the drum to the chance of a pressure-fueled explosion.
One of Volta’s recurrent strategies is to invert the traditional value structure of materials. Underneath the breaker is a metal plinth; the centerpiece, the tool itself, is plastic; the chicken feet, sprouting on all sides, are resin. The flower-like adornments, composed of the “lowest” material, assume the highest honorific placement. The tool has been decorated, stained, and alienated from its industrial significance. Volta approaches the drum with a similar process, shifting it from a sign of commodity to an art object—a standard contemporary critique—and, more notably, changing it from weighty to comical. The works obtain an indeterminate status between industrial and art objects, between power and slapstick.
This indeterminacy also applies to the gender implications of the works. Alongside the breaker’s obvious masculine, phallic nature, the drum acquires a feminine, yonic status (circular, tied to liquid, impenetrably mysterious). Volta’s interventions destabilize the imagined ideals of the gender binary without, quite literally, diminishing their ability to perform. They may not look as expected, but they very much get the job done.
It’s probably more accurate to say “a” job rather than “the” job, considering the destruction of the objects’ symbolic statuses. In a summarizing gesture towards mocking the notion of a classical artistic ideal, Volta has also created a mangled hand. This is a cast of his own hand that has been altered, recast, and altered again. This is another clear destabilization, a challenge to sculptures of bodily ideals, and to the notion of perfect bodies as a whole. It’s also a challenge to the stereotype of the Artist, filled with pretensions of masterful control. The works themselves will triumph in the end, intentions be what they may. It’s a lesson worth remembering that stretches back to the story of Pygmalion.
Humor in art isn’t easy, especially humor that resists one-liner reductionism. Volta’s enigmatic constructions exist in a similar category with Salvador Dali’s Lobster Phone, restoring immediacy to the banal by taking advantage of our unexamined assumptions. The true job of these objects is to break up how we move through the world.
This essay was first published in the ArtSlant Prize 2015 Catalogue, on the occasion of the ArtSlant Prize Shortlist exhibition at Aqua Art Miami, from December 2–6, 2015. Bryan Volta is the ArtSlant Prize 2015 Student winner.
(Image at top: Bryan Volta, Haptic Contingency, 2015. Plastic, wood, resin, steel, paint, 36” x 30” x 68”. All images: Courtesy of the artist and ArtSlant)