Steven Montgomery at O.K. Harris

By Jonathan Goodman
Art in America, September 2004

Part of the pleasure on seeing Steven Montgomery's ceramic sculptures comes from knowing that they are not what they seem. A tour de force of simulation, the works can also convey the impression that they are relics of an act of destruction. In his earlier work, Montgomery created what look like facsimiles of engine parts-designs that are remarkable for their trompe l'oeil effects, in which hard machine forms are expressed in a malleable, organic material: clay posing as metal. In his show of recent works, made in 2003-2004, truncated forms clearly convey a sense of decay and disintegration. Their fascination stems from their harshly realized imagery of entropy, in which rust and broken forms dominate.
Some 108 inches tall, the two parts that constitute Re- Entrance #2 (2004) suggest a double door made of rotting steel, overwhelmed by rust and material fatigue. The door is gridded into panels, and the larger half contains a slotted window, beneath which is a red button. The sculpture's fake corrosion serves as a not-so-subtle metaphor for the decomposition not only of buildings but also of society in the beginning of the 21st century. As Montgomery comments in an artist's statement, "It is my intention to use machines and their various components to describe impermanence, vulnerability, damage, the transformative property of material and the illusion of industrial strength." The viewer understands that the artist is constructing an allegory of postindustrial decline, an "immediate environment and a direct observation of a contemporary pulse," Re-Entrance #2 not only speaks to clay's remarkable ability to imitate other materials, but also reinforces our sad recognition that the built world around us is ultimately vulnerable.

Yellow Hazard (2004), smaller than Re-Entrance #2 at 31 by 70 inches, places the black and yellow stripes of a hazard sign in the middle of a composition suggesting a decayed and rusting iron fašade weakened by time. The trappings of its demise are impressively rendered; the surface seemingly scarred and scuffed by the passage of years. Montgomery proposes a kind of vanitas, in which even our supposedly strongest materials bear the evidence of impermanence. To the artist's credit, he does not complicate the delivery of his point with sentiment, preferring simply to give us his vision as it is.