in Frieze | 04 MAR 97
Featured in
Issue 33

The Evil That Men Do

Keith Edmier

in Frieze | 04 MAR 97

Steadfastly resonant and eclectic in practice, 30 year-old sculptor Keith Edmier's métier is the monument. While his references are at first glance typical of an American artist of his generation, on further inspection they are revealed as simply the raw material of a fundamental story. Edmier, like Brancusi, Richard Serra, Donald Judd and lately Leonardo Drew, is interested in the experience of heroism and its attendant cults, hero worship and iconoclasm.

Any artist who engages this story - which sounds pompously Homeric, but is in fact pervasive - finds himself automatically in a double-bind: How to depict heroic deeds without either lauding them (thereby subsuming his own art) or transforming himself, outwardly, into a surrogate hero (which looks arrogant and immediately substitutes biography for art). Edmier's solution, like Drew's, is to render himself subservient to his vision, a strategy that demands personal effacement or the selection of subjects so grand that the process of their depiction leaves him in the shadows.

Edmier's small-scale monument to Evel Knievel exemplifies the artist's skill at negotiating this tricky problem. Knievel stands astride the Snake River Canyon, his Presley smile frozen in the corner of his mouth, a large Harley-Davidson eagle perched at his feet, and the whole affair rising from a base modelled after a Roman fountain. In its diminutive over-the-topness, the sculpture's emphasis was firmly placed on the subject's indomitable personality. Fallen almost completely from glory, Knievel nevertheless remains that swaggering yahoo who in September 1974 strapped himself into a rocket and tried to blast himself across the Snake River Canyon in Southern Idaho; had one of his Skycycle's parachutes not opened prematurely, as the contraption sped from the ramp, he might have made it. The sneer on his face says, 'It was that fucking parachute, I'm still the man'.

Knievel Agonistes? Hardly. Edmier is savvy enough to divine from Knievel's monumental failure the requisite drops of humility. Let's face it: it is preposterously daring - and fundamentally stupid - to call a rocket with wheels a 'motorcycle', light the fuse, and try to blast yourself across a minor wonder of nature. If he had pulled it off, Knievel would merit at least some sort of monument. Even if he had crashed in ignominious flames and wound up a cinder, a legend would have arisen, like some kind of warped Harley-Davidson Phoenix. The spectacularly beautiful idea of what Knievel lost animates Edmier's intervention, uniting this possible sideline obsession over a humiliated subcultural figure with the artist's broader, formal concerns. If - and it's a huge if - Knievel's Skycycle had squirted from its ramp, arched gracefully across the canyon, and clattered to a halt on the other side, parachute billowing, it would have been a hell of a gorgeous thing amid the white trash kitsched-out hoopla that had colonised the desert. It would have been something to tell the grandchildren, even if they wound up viewing in Knievel - rightly - a tragicomic Elvis imitator who had substituted ramps and thrills for hips and swooning.

The way Edmier tells it, the Knievel sculpture is less about the end and more about the means. Getting to the stage where it was possible for him to make a cast required that Edmier schedule a visit with the now aged but still opportunistic Knievel. The meet took place in a Florida bar, ostensibly as a precursor to the artist's photo session with Knievel, in which the greying daredevil posed, fully costumed in stars-and-stripes biker leathers with his Harley, his helmet, and the crushed Skycycle in the background. By Edmier's account a loopy conversation took place, the eventual result of which was a decision to develop a large-scale bronze Knievel monument after casting a smaller version, which could be cheaply reproduced and merchandised to Knievel's army of fans. What evidently clinched the deal was Edmier's presentation to Knievel of a blurry snapshot, taken by the artist when he was a kid, of an Evel Knievel doll and toy cycle in the middle of a staged jump.

Of course, going into business with a 70s subcultural icon has placed Edmier in the centre ring of a minor carnival which threatened to highjack his own early 1997 exhibition at the University of Southern Florida Contemporary Art Museum in Tampa. On the basis on a bronze sculpture barely a foot tall, Knievel and his entourage wheeled in their travelling road show, complete with the rocket from the Skycycle, and commandeered the museum's parking lot, attracting the attention of ABC television's Wide World of Sports along with a hoard of autograph seekers. Edmier seemed slightly dazed by the whole experience, finding himself unexpectedly the facilitator of a retro happening that could place him as the guru of a wildly downmarket footnote to the current 70s revival.

Fortunately, Edmier's previous work invalidates such a glib assessment of his art. Siren, (1995), for instance, looks back to the artist's childhood, but in a rather different way. A heavily stylised tornado siren from the Midwestern cornfields is remade with a cartoonish malevolence, offering a formal resolution for a scary memory Edmier couldn't get out of his head. What the siren guards against, evidently, is an unnecessary pomposity, and excessive articulation of ego: you know it has something to do with where this guy hails from, but its monumental loveliness - and the fact that it's fake, sculpted from functionless materials that would be shredded by even a tykish twister - displaces the ravenous biographical imperative. Siren is a monument not to Edmier, but to Edmier's memory. Claes Oldenburg achieved a similar evasion with his large-scale, exaggeratedly soft sculptures, but the joke was easier to get: don't talk about my big ideas, laugh at how idiotically improbable they are. Edmier's art, by contrast, initiates chuckles, then stifles them, forestalling the tyranny of wit that often befalls work employing humour as a spur. It does this not with fright or explicit threat, but with an emphatic beauty that comes whistling down to seize the unprepared.