Jennifer Pastor’s The Perfect Ride (2003) is a curiously insubstantial array of objects, consisting of three distinct parts. The first is a cut-away model of the inner workings of a human ear; the second is an off-kilter, fibreglass and metal replica of the Hoover Dam; the third is a short looping animation of a bucking bull and rider, rendered in simple lasso-like lines and projected on one wall. Each piece is curiously disconnected from the next. As models and motion studies they seem disembodied, redolent of some missing original and drained of their sculptural individuality. In tone they may be closest to certain sculptures of Robert Smithson, whose objects were similarly insubstantial, imbued with an expansive, catholic sense of curiosity regarding natural systems.
Pastor’s three ‘instances’ are rendered with a spare exactitude, but there’s no lushness to this perfection. The ear is cast in polyurethane and supported by a thin, arcing metal stand. The maquette of the dam is mounted at a raking angle and constructed in cross-section, although Pastor has removed the hill on its western flank and drained the artificial Lake Mead to offer a clearer view of the dam’s internal structures. The natural elements are rendered in thick, translucent plastic, the man-made structures in gunship metal, giving the whole the look of a massive orthodontic tool or a dental prosthesis built on a geological scale. The animation is similarly stark: fluid lines on a white field depicting a wild bull trying to dislodge the faceless cowboy, who clings on for dear life. Here too the work is drained of affect: there’s no sweat or colour, no smell of rope or tang of horseshit.
The Perfect Ride is at once dry and slippery, having the look of science and the feel of art. (Or perhaps the look of art but the feel of science.) Pastor, writing last year in Artforum, called its execution ‘modest’, but the word isn’t quite right; it doesn’t convey the installation’s antiseptic character or its difficulty. The show gives viewers synthetic surfaces to slip around, clear plastic to see through and almost nothing to hold on to. As a result, I reacted to this concatenation of objects with sensuous uncertainty, an almost-curiosity. (Dimmed lighting gave a vaguely cinematic, oddly sexy effect to the encounter.)
Elements and forms in one component are frequently echoed in the others. The steer’s horn, for example, reappears at the bottom of the otherwise accurate ear model, while the shrug of the Arizona hillside recalls the animal’s convulsive crest. What also recurs in each instance is a particular sort of choreographed motion based on (and here we can rely on Pastor’s own stated intentions) the concept of the ‘armature’ – the moving part in an electromagnetic device that creates electrical energy by spinning. This rotating movement appears in the revolving turbines of the great dam; in the spiral coils of the cochlea, the fluid-filled organ in the inner ear that maintains equilibrium and allows for balanced motion; and in the impossibly ‘perfect ride’ of the raging bull as it perpetually tries to cast off its rider. Each example addresses humanity’s fragile control over nature’s wildest forces: the raging beast, the rushing river, gravity itself.
There is also the visibly controlled and diagrammatic character of the installation, which insists in each case on the fragmentary or aesthetic character of its conception. The life-size projection of the bull is rendered with minimal grace, confined to a projected square and a single colour; the dam is miniatuized, and the ear’s minute anatomy magnified. What suspends these moments in constellation is Pastor’s curious riff on gravity, energy, scale and potential. These are the elemental concerns of any sculptor, but Pastor’s work extends the possibilities of what that rubric ought to include. There is a quiet, furious busyness to Pastor’s art, signifying a playful yet precise mind at work. The observer, faced with the final form of the work, is obliged to engage that mind, to follow its processes backwards and reconstruct the scheme in which all of these things once fitted. Her work induces a kind of vertigo in the viewer, who becomes the armature of its objects, the thinking and observing centre that holds it all together.