March 10th - April 22nd, 2016
Aaron Salamon, Power + Beauty, Installation view, 2016.
by David Dyck
Aaron Salamon’s motivation to begin carving stones came from “a need to recover from a personal loss. Physically hammering away with a chisel distracts the body while relaxing the mind, like meditation”. 1 Through these countless hammer blows, these emotions are transformed into physical form. The product yielded by this process is also relevant here. The relative permanence of a rock carving means that these art pieces might still be in this world eons from now. Creating something that will conceivably last tens of thousands of years highlights the ephemerality of our own short lives.
This next phase in Salamon’s artistic practice sees him looking outward to his world, trying to make sense of it through his carving: “With Power and Beauty I wanted to enjoy the entire process. I wanted to be happy. The forms were chosen from old memories—the awe of the curvy Corvette, and also what suited the stone—a simple, voluptuous tornado to grace the curves of alabaster both hard and soft.”2 We might ask: what do the words power and beauty mean here? The field of aesthetics is concerned with our perception through our senses; this leads to a study of beauty. A lot of thinking and writing have been done on the subject, enough that we should be able to agree on one thing: ‘beauty’ is subjective. Written another way: beauty is in the eye of the beholder. ‘Power’ is an equally broad term, perhaps more easily understood as control. In Salmon’s work, as in our world, this spans control over nature, outward appearance, other countries, space, and, finally, material. Salamon’s sculptures call attention to his perception of power and beauty. The creation of these pieces might be read as a way to seek control and find splendor, to create something solid to hang onto while enduring the uncertainties of life.
Stone carving comes with uncertainty of its own at each stage of the process. This begins with the selection of the stone, which is done with the desired properties of the finished sculpture in mind. To help choose, water is applied to raw stones to reveal their inner veins and patterns, but the interior is still up to the imagination. Through all of this looking and imagining, the form of the sculpture is determined. Sometimes the rock is selected to allow an intended form to be carved, other times the shape of the rock in its as-found state suggests a form for a finished piece. For example, the form of a rock with a fin-shaped protrusion suggested the form for Shark.
Aaron Salamon, Tornado, Storm Cloud Alabaster, 11½” x 11½” x 17”, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
This is a mix of intentionality and circumstance and must be adjusted during the process of carving to accommodate the inevitable and unanticipated breakages that occur. Salamon’s initial intention for his piece Shark was for it to have been a Marlin jumping out of water. However, upon working into the stone, Salamon discovered that is was cracking quite easily. Even more precarious, it contained a large crack through its centre, necessitating a change in course, which yielded the shark fin in its final form seen in this exhibition. Things happen relatively quickly at this stage of the carving. The form is roughed-out using power tools: diamond discs mounted to angle grinders, hammers and various chisels, along with the requisite safety equipment. These tools remove rock at a fast pace but they leave a rough finish, and are more forceful and uncontrollable than the subsequent finishing stages.
Salamon has allowed us a glimpse into his thought process here with Horse, a work in process, which has an undecided fate. An unfortunate hammer strike sheared off a large portion of the intended head, and it is shown here in its partially finished, broken state. We are left to imagine what this will become.
Once the basic form is established, focus is placed on the surface of the work. Files and rifflers (a type of tool used for carving concave curves) are used to refine the form. Progressively smoother surface finishes are achieved through the use of finer grits of sandpaper to bring the entire surface of the sculpture up to the desired finish. The final shine comes from the application of a polish that is then buffed out. For Salamon, this finishing process “is like tossing a yo-yo. One moment you're thrilled because the grey stone starts to shine and show its colours and later you're frustrated because you have to go two steps back to remove the now apparent scratches”. 3 Old Vette is the most obvious instance of the struggle to produce a flawless surface. This piece has been polished down a number of times. A unique property of the black chlorite stone that it is made from is the contrast between its almost-white rough-cut surface and its deep black polished surface, even a small scratch will show up in bright white.
Aaron Salamon, Old Vette, Black Chlorite, 10” x 14¼” x 5”, 2016. Image courtesy of the artist.
While carving and polishing is happening, concerns of how the finished piece will physically support itself must be sorted out. Some pieces are carved to hold themselves in balance, as in Young Woman with Pony Tail. Others, like Fighter Jet are given bases or support structures to present them as intended. Fighter Jet’s steel base was made in a steel fabrication shop, and alludes to the materials and processes used to build machines, as well as the flight path of a fighter jet.
For this exhibition, the works are situated on top of plinths and encased in glass. This presentation strategy is a nod to traditional sculptural display, and performs in miniature the same function as the large plinths used to display historical heroic monuments. Antique sculptures, also often carved rock, functioned to celebrate their subject, commonly a victorious leader in all his glory.
In this respect, the works in Power + Beauty evoke ancient statuary. However, they are brought into our time, signifying contemporary icons. They are all on the same scale so they are given a sense of equality, none more powerful than the other. Perhaps this is an allusion to the scale shift that happens on the television screen, where everything fits inside the frame, no matter its actual size. Real experience is not present here; rather a reflection of a media-simulated experience is offered.
These sculptures, though relatively small, have many hours invested in their creation. They can be understood as meditations on the subjects they portray. Salamon sees the world through the lens of an engineer.4 The commonplace engineering axiom ‘form follows function’ informs this mindset. Thus, Salamon’s subjects are appreciated for how their form has evolved to match a given function. Often this means that these objects depart from the mathematically defined parameters of engineering, taking on a more complex organic form.
Aaron Salamon, Fighter Jet, Ontario Soapstone, Steel, 7” x 9” x 22”, 2016.Image courtesy of the artist.
Inside every engineer is the kid who got excited about understanding the mechanics of the world of objects. Looking to youth as a time when world-views take hold and formations are solidified, Salamon, like most adults, sees the world largely as his adolescent self did. Power + Beauty is a re-presentation of a familiar narrative. It reveres machines that blow things up, alpha predators that devour their prey and weather formations that obliterate trailer parks. It aspires to drive the hottest car, to get the girl.
This work is a product of its time and place, seen against this backdrop is the product of privilege. The winning side is shown here, the ideal form in action… not its destructive aftermath. These are symbols for and celebrations of the workings of power. They are presented as universals here, and in many ways they are. The fear and respect accorded a war machine is the same, only inverted, depending on if you happen to find yourself in the cockpit or on the ground. Power and powerlessness are two sides of the same coin.
The question is: what is it to make these representations, symbolic of power and beauty? Is it an ultimate extension of power to tame these things? In the end it must not be. Even though a stone sculpture could conceivably last twenty thousand years, it, like us, is still subject to nature. Everything must pass. Ultimately the material still holds power in this relationship. We may be able to carve it but we can’t really change its ultimate fate.
1. Aaron Salamon: Artist’s statement
4. Aaron Salamon: Artist Biography