BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 09 SEP 99
Featured in
Issue 48

Steven Brower

BY Gregory Williams in Reviews | 09 SEP 99

For his new installation, Utility (1999), Steven Brower once again presented an image of the artist as eternal tinkerer, but this time raised the stakes of his project by striving for higher levels of mechanical sophistication. The work explored the gallery as a physical structure, shedding light on both its general utilitarian role in the art world and its affinities with the municipal services of the public sector. Brower became engineer, superintendent and repairman of his own exhibition, while the gallery staff worked as his labourers - for the duration of the show they were required to punch in each day on a time clock.

Such a degree of authorial control might indicate a certain anxiety about the outcome of one's creative efforts. However, the heavy presence Brower maintained in the gallery was more about coming to terms with the complex set of options currently available in the visual arts. While his work looks back to a notion of the artist as inventor and consummate craftsman - in the sense of, say, Jan van Eyck or Leonardo da Vinci - it also takes into account the shifts in artistic practice over the last 30 years that challenge the audience's passive acceptance of a totalising, masterful approach. Both believer and sceptic, Brower combines skilled object-making with forceful questioning of the mechanisms of art presentation.

The side of Brower that appears to come quite naturally (and possibly provides him with the greatest pleasure), is that of designer and fabricator of clever gadgets. As a practising model-builder, he is capable of making precise, well-constructed representations of everything from observatories to the moon. In Utility, these more painstaking creations interact with mass-produced, regulation-size appliances - for example, a standard water fountain, the gallery toilet or the kitchen sink. All these diverse parts are interlinked via copper tubing and wires that transport water and electricity from one site to the next. A sort of domino system is put into effect: the toilet flushes and fills the reservoir of another toilet tank, feeding water to a plant through a model dam, the gates of which are raised by the ringing of the telephone.

Brower understands our need to give in occasionally to a delight inspired by attention to detail, or find comfort in the traditional conception of the artist as 'master of his medium'. He even set aside a space in the gallery, complete with a messy table covered in tools and smudged documents, in which he could be found during opening hours, making minor improve-ments and repairing leaky pipes. Who could resist this image of the artist in his workshop?

But Brower is too self-conscious to fully commit to a straight-faced programme exploring the joys of manual dexterity. His short explanatory texts in the catalogue give brief histories of the inventions, developments and individuals associated with the technologies referenced in the show. These observations often proceed in several directions at once, taking on the tone of a junior-high school science teacher who knows a little bit about a lot of things and is more than happy to pass on his wisdom. Eventually, however, Brower negates all of the preceding information, admitting that it is purely fictional - disavowing his own lecture before exiting the classroom. Yet what might seem to be a predicament is actually a smart position for the artist to take: he manages to demonstrate an awareness of competing historical models while trying to elaborate his own world view.