Man of steel
Published 4:51 pm, Sunday, June 12, 2016
NEW CANAAN — Last week at the corner of Elm and Park streets, three men and a woman — visitors to New Canaan — were maneuvering three massive objects out of a box truck.
The deliverers dragged the mysterious objects — each resting on its own wooden pallet and swathed in protective bubble wrap and blankets — to the truck’s lift gate. The team lowered the unwieldy cargo, piece by heavy piece, to the ground before gingerly wheeling each away on a pallet jack.
The delivery workers made quick work of the first package. The second and largest package — said to weigh about 500 pounds — visibly produced a good deal more sweat on several brows here on a particularly warm June day. The third piece seemed less problematic, except for a near collision with the narrow door frame of the storefront where the cargo was being deposited.
On busy Elm Street, meanwhile, more and more eyes were being drawn to the truck. Some people merely looked up, a bit puzzled, from their phones.
Finally, one keen-eyed teenager — walking with a pack of friends — authoritatively declared, “That’s art!”
The objects in question were, in fact, the steel sculptures of artist John Clement, whose work will be shown with paintings by Matthew Heller in an exhibition titled “Turns of Phrase” that is set to run through July 9 at Heather Gaudio Fine Art.
Helped by two professional movers, the sculptor and his assistant transported the monumental works from his Queens, N.Y., studio.
Clement has short, tousled red hair and a freckled, gray stubbled face he adorns with dark-framed glasses. His sinewy arms and athletic physique seem to be the legacy of an earlier phase of his life, when he played Division I lacrosse at the University of Pennsylvania in the 1990s.
The gallery is an unusual setting for Clement’s creations, some of which are as high as 25 feet and as heavy as 10,000 pounds. More typically, the boldly colored curvilinear forms made of steel pipes are situated on promenades, in parks, or in other large public spaces.
For the present exhibition, Clement aimed smaller and lighter.
“The show for Heather was created specifically for this gallery,” explained the sculptor, who was seated on a window-ledge in the exhibition space, before the works were unwrapped.
According to Clement, the better part of his most colossally scaled work was completed 15 to 20 years ago, when he was just beginning to sculpt. Preoccupied with sports in his youth, Clement skipped traditional art training. His earliest artistic endeavors were in the field of cartooning.
It wasn’t until a professor took an interest in Clement, who was then employed at the School of Visual Arts in New York where he handed out supplies to students, that he was exposed to the unique aesthetic possibilities of sculpture.
The professor, who also happened to be a former college lacrosse player, asked Clement if he’d like to work in steel and taught the fledgling artist how to weld. Shortly thereafter, Clement landed apprenticeships in the sculpting studios of art world icons Mark di Suvero and John Henry, both of whom became early inspirations.
“Their work is very angular. I was drawn to that, but I also wanted to get away from it because I felt like every piece I was making was just an homage to them,” Clement said, still seated on the ledge, but now watching nervously out of the corner of his eye as his team used knives to free the sculptures from their coverings.
“Growing up, I spent a lot of time on the water. I played a lot of sports and listened to a lot of music. It just seemed like the fluid motions of ellipses and circles were a much more natural way of creating than the more angular style.”
Clement said he strives for brevity in his work, aiming to create “quick, 30-second sketches of a figure,” adding, “I want my pieces to be light and have a lot of movement without imposing on their viewers.”
Clement seemed relieved when the moving truck pulled away at last, leaving his work undamaged — and utterly magnificent in its temporary Connecticut home.
“When they’re finished, these things takes on their own form,” the artist mused with palpable satisfaction. “Seeing them here in the gallery, it’s a totally different animal."