Walking out of the elevators into the second floor entryway of the Autodesk Gallery, you are greeted with a suspended propeller engine, small and sleek with long metallic blades that will never fly. It hovers over an image of its digital precursor, the AutoCAD plans where the engine was born, as a 3D computer rendering, exact in every detail. This is Autodesk, the maker of some of the most powerful tools on the market where 2D and 3D design projects take shape, and their gallery is a must-see for anyone interested in design and technology.
My visit was for the opening of a new solo show by Bruce Beasley, an abstract expressionist sculptor making his first foray into 3D printing as a sculptural medium. The show is a collection of sculptures in marble-esque white plastic, each one a group of four-inch squares dragged in extruding ribbons through space. The ribbons weave around, knotting, and even intermixing as they pass through one another.
The pieces are simple and even lovely to look at, but are so reminiscent of something you might see in the entryway of a corporate office tower they feel out of place in a gallery packed with high-tech explorations of 3D printing and computer rendering. Next to feats of futuristic architecture and eye catching lace-like covers for prosthetics, Beasley's sculptures sit like the tail end of Modernism imported into the digital world, proving that, 'Oh look, abstract sculptures can be made with 3D printers too.'
As the artist expressed at the opening, 3D printing is cracking open the field of sculpture, providing the same opportunities that manuscripts and symphonies have had in the past. These artworks exist as information files capable of being sent long distances and recreated in the mind of the reader or the rehearsal hall of a far off orchestra. And while these new potentials are embodied by the work, it is also caught in the trap of glittering newness offered up by the 3D printer. As many attendants and even the artist himself said at the opening: 'Isn't the computer amazing? It lets you make anything.'
The limitations of any medium imbue its final products with a common aesthetic and physical vocabulary. The material limitations of metal and wood, with their breaking points or ductile strength may offer easier to understand limitations, but the computer-assisted design environment and the 3D printer have their own unique size, material, and method idiosyncrasies which contribute to what you can and cannot make with them. Even Autodesk, designer of the software, intentionally or not imbues AutoCAD and everything made with it with certain aesthetics, functionalities, and commonalities.
Beasley's famous talent for drawing his materials to the brink of their physical ability and leaving them on the edge, a visualization of struggle, is completely lost in these works. Instead he retreats to the tyranny of the imagineable polygon; take a square, move it around, extrude the path.
Even though the show fails to stand up to its own claims, with both the wall text and program essay's assurances that this new work is courageous, inventive and even controversial, Autodesk still has the right idea. There are exciting prospects ahead for this space if they continue to bring in artists to play with and push their technology beyond the use cases of design applications. Here's hoping an artist-in-residence program or future collaborations result from this pairing.
The exhibition is on display through February 7, 2014 at the Autodesk Gallery. For more information visit autodesk.com.