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Conceptual Art in Steel and Glass

Costas Varotsosí elegant assemblages show that minimalism has gotten a bum rap.

By Mike Giuliano | Posted 11/15/2000

Costas Varotsos

Greek sculptor Costas Varotsos uses minimal means to achieve elegant ends. Following in the wake of the minimalism of the late 1960s and '70s, this young sculptor combines basic materials in sculptural assemblages constructed with geometry in mind.

If that sounds like an arid and rigid exercise, it isn't. The results are beautifully nuanced. They serve as reminders that minimalism itself sometimes has gotten a bum rap. A cube-shaped metal box by the late sculptor Donald Judd, for instance, is more than just the formalist rigor of its design. Such a sculpture occupies space in a way that transforms our perception of the space itself; also, the play of light across the sculpture can make a surface such as brushed aluminum glisten in a way that will warm any modernist's supposedly cold heart.

For a comparable example in Varotsos' current exhibit at the C. Grimaldis Gal- lery, have a look at--and through--his "Labyrinth," which was completed this year. This floor-mounted piece is a series of glass-sided boxes placed within similar boxes. It occupies enough floor space that you can take a little walk around it, and its walls are high enough that people of average height aren't quite tall enough to look down into it. What you'll find yourself doing is considering it from every side, realizing all the while that its total transparency means you won't find any inner secrets by moving around it. Instead, you'll look into and through it and see not only the piece but the surrounding gallery walls and, through the gallery's front window, North Charles Street. Gallery lighting and sunlight hit the glass walls-within-walls in an ever-varying manner, produce a labyrinthine effect despite the walls' transparency.

Although Varotsos does create all-glass pieces, he most often uses glass and steel together. In one untitled sculpture by the artist, a wall-mounted steel sheet makes for a solid, very dark backdrop for the glass assemblage lying flat against its upper half. The effect in this particular sculpture is as much painterly as sculptural: Glass slats of varying width are so tightly lined up in the top panel as to resemble vertical brush strokes through which we can see a dark steel underlayer. In addition, the exposed steel "field" on the bottom half of this sculpture has been painted with black acrylic paint using horizontal brush strokes. You're always aware of the contrasting materials and orientations, but equally aware of how neatly they're been worked into the same overall composition.

Equally well-balanced is another untitled wall-mounted sculpture, in which a similar steel-panel backdrop supports two large steel rings whose lower halves support horizontal stacks of thin sheets of glass. The side-by-side symmetry of these rings provides the kind of balance that makes you smile at such a well-ordered world; the glass' pale greenish tinge makes it seem as if you're looking at calm seas through portholes.

Varotsos is known for creating environmental installations--large sculptures placed in natural or built environments, including public gathering places. Though the pieces in the C. Grimaldis show are all small enough to fit in a gallery, some pieces, especially those in his "Untitled (Horizon)" series, evoke the great outdoors. They prompt landscape and seascape associations, exploiting the evocative possibilities of steel and glass placed vertically and horizontally. The portholelike circles in the above-mentioned sculpture are a welcome reminder that the world has more than straight lines in it. For another riff on the curve concept, have a look at 1997's "Untitled (Spiral)"; steel rims support glass spokes, spiraling across the gallery floor in such a metaphorically fecund manner that you may find yourself thinking about everything from a prosaic wagon wheel to a spiral nebula.

Just as this spiral-shaped sculpture offers worldly and otherworldly associations without becoming too literal-minded about them, Varotsos has other pieces that stop short of outright representation. In 1992's steel-and-blown-glass "Drops," a wall-mounted grid of 20 identically sized steel plates has waterlike glass drops splashed across most of its flat surfaces. The drops are mostly too large to be tears and too small to resemble puddles. In the end, they remind you of other things, while remaining something all their own.

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