Looking, touching: Coffin’s sculptures a rare treat
The Birmingham News
Sunday, March 30, 1997
By James R. Nelson
A work of art worthy of the name always evokes a response from the viewer.
As I walked around the lower sculpture garden at the Birmingham Museum, I saw parents and children actively enjoying Coffin’s works, looking and touching the pieces as if visiting an antediluvian petting zoo, discovering pleasure in strange forms that responded to their curiosity.Leviathan and humorous do not seem compatible terms, and yet these huge kinetic sculptures amuse adults and delight children by their size and movement. But beyond this “fun” response, one sees the beauty of form, the nicely crafted and fitted parts, the power of mass and the movement of these sculptures. “Finnibar,” a reference to a mythical tethered bull, places a cast iron segment and a welded pipe piece on rocking bars affixed to separate, large boulders. The cast increment, a compact Y-shaped piece, has a large spring under one of its angles. The other piece, made of large pipe welded into joints, uses the expanded, asymmetric Y, structured to suggest a pair of tremendous horns. A tension cable connects and holds them in place. By pushing or pulling on either piece, the two parts move in a slow, lumbering manner, much as an ox straining at a rope. A gargantuan gesture to passive/active observation, “Bouncing Bench” takes on the aspect of a tubular pillow seat. Parallel bars supported by a single, thick rod protrude from a massive rock. Slipped onto a transverse rod and supported half-way down their length by a double-coil spring, the bars are attached to a large pipe welded into a somewhat free form, undulating shape. By pressing down, the pipe bounces like a lumbering porch swing.The largest, most complex and delightful piece is “Antelumpen,” a title based on the herd movements of antelopes. Mounting three tall streetlight poles on pivots, Coffin then has fabricated elongated, double-pronged caps that suggest the horned heads of antelope. Secured into a seven-ton boulder, a large working wheel operates the cables strung to each pole, enabling the viewer to manipulate the poles into a rising and falling motion not unlike those funny little “perpetual motion” birds that dip their beaks in water. The monumental scale insures an undulating, stately motion.Painted in strong shades of yellow, blue-green, maroon and black, the work takes on the spirit of a carousel. The viewer will find it hard to resist turning the large wheel controlling the antelope-like triumvirate.
No longer rare but still uncommon is the invitation to touch a work of art. Coffin believes in that kind of hands-on interaction as part of experiencing a work, and it works.
To bring large-scale sculpture for a temporary museum exhibition is possible only with the cooperation of many resources and the imaginative support of those who understand the unique impact of three-dimensional, and, in this case, kinetic design.
To experience such immense works, the spectator usually would have to travel to the work. That we have the opportunity to view the mammoth creations of Zachary Coffin at the Birmingham Museum is rare good fortune for everyone interested, or just curious, about one direction in contemporary sculpture. (More of Coffin’s work is on display at 2309 First Ave. North through Saturday.)
In this instance, a local company, Wade Sand & Gravel, has provided the means for Coffin, as artist-in-residence, to create these marvelous, witty and provocative works. Everyone should be grateful for the time, work and support that has enabled Zachary Coffin to realize these gigantean and engaging works.
James R. Nelson is the visual arts critic for The Birmingham News.